With obesity a widespread public health problem in the United States, it may not be surprising to know that the average American consumes roughly 22 teaspoons of sugar every day. In addition to being a key ingredient in sweets like cake, pastries, cookies, doughnuts, and candy, sugar can be found in a wide range of grocery items, from spaghetti sauce and cereal to canned soup. In fact, some experts believe that 80 percent of our food choices contain some form of sugar. With such high consumption, it's easy to understand why people get addicted to sugar.
The Brain on Sugar
During periods of low energy or stress, certain people feel a compulsion to eat sweets. While satisfying the craving may seem like an emotional choice, the impulse actually has physical roots. Research shows that sugar lights up the same areas of the brain that are activated by drugs and alcohol. Tasting sugar raises levels of the "feel-good" chemicals dopamine and serotonin in the brain and strengthens the desire for more sugar.
The Body on Sugar
Eating sugar also has an effect on the body. When people eat sweets, the sugar consumed turns quickly into glucose in the bloodstream. The body responds by transporting the glucose into the cells for energy, which triggers an overflow of insulin into the system. Too much insulin causes the blood sugar to drop suddenly, leaving people feeling drained, shaky, and craving more sugar.
A study on lab rats at Princeton University found that those on high-sugar diets showed brain changes similar to rats accustomed to narcotics or nicotine. They also demonstrated cravings and relapses that indicated addiction, and when the rats were deprived of sugar they exhibited anxiety similar to that of withdrawal.
Beware of Starchy Foods
While some people may not have a sweet tooth, they still may be addicted to sugar. Starchy foods contain carbohydrates that break down quickly into simple sugars in the body. A few examples include foods made with white flour like bread, bagels, crackers, and pasta; white potato products like French fries and potato chips; or white rice.
Strategies for Reducing Sugar Consumption
According to the American Heart Association, women should consume no more than six teaspoons of sugar daily, and men should limit daily sugar to nine teaspoons. People who feel they are addicted to sugar can reduce consumption by following a few strategies:
- Replace desserts with a piece of whole fruit or a bowl of fresh berries.
- Snack on foods high in protein like hardboiled eggs to curb sugar cravings. Protein digests slowly and keeps people feeling full longer.
- Get energy from high fiber foods like 100 percent whole-grain toast with peanut butter or a bowl of oatmeal. These complex carbohydrates provide energy slowly instead of spiking blood sugar.