We’ve all been there… that piece of cake in the fridge that won’t stop calling our name… that chocolate in the office kitchen that’s begging you to have one more square…
Whether you’re a self-confessed “sweet tooth” or only suffer the occasional slip up, it seems that sugary foods can have a pretty powerful effect on our thoughts, actions and eating habits. That begs the questions… is sugar addictive?
First, let’s get our definition of addiction right.
In medicine, the term addiction is mainly used to describe a situation where someone’s brain chemistry has been altered such that it compels them to repeat a harmful behaviour or activity.
Even when negative side effects kick in, addicts usually can't stop doing the thing they’re addicted to without help, experiencing inevitable cravings, tolerance issues and withdrawal symptoms.
Obviously, this is much more serious that when we casually say we’re addicted to buying shoes or the latest Netflix show! Thing is, there is an increasing body of research to suggest the sweet stuff could be truly addictive, because of the physical effects eating it has on our brains.
Sugar activates our reward system
When we eat high sugar foods, our brain’s reward system lights up like a Christmas tree. It instantly releases opioids and dopamine, feel good chemicals that essentially tell us to do whatever it is we’re doing again.
Back in cave man days, this reward system was programmed to activate when we did things that secured our continued existence – things like having sex, interacting socially and, yep, eating tasty, high energy foods.
Unfortunately, our cave man brains haven’t quite caught up with the overwhelmingly large amount of high energy (read: sugary) foods we now have at our fingertips. This hyper-availability makes it so easy to overindulge and send the system into overdrive.
Because sugar is so readily available these days, when we eat it we’re constantly reinforcing those brain pathways that tell us that more sugar equals more good, despite what we know to be true of too much sweet stuff (check this blog post out!)
As we eat more sweet, the brain becomes hardwired to crave sugar, building up a tolerance much like it would a drug – meaning you need more and more to get the same buzz.
And if you’ve ever tried to cut back on sugar, you might have discovered just how tough it can be.
Sweet tooths have reported everything from headaches and shakes to irritability, low mood and brain fog when lowering their sugar intake.
The withdrawal symptoms are thought to be factors of individual sensitivity as well as our dopamine system readjusting to a sugar-free life. That is, our brain chemistry is being altered… ringing any bells?
When you drill down, it’s all too easy to see we can see how that innocent sweet tooth might lead us down the path to a number of problems disturbingly similar to that of true addiction.
In fact, some scientists go so far as to suggest sugar might be as addictive as cocaine! While the science is still being nutted out, are you willing to risk it?