Overcoming A Sugar Addiction – Part 1

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Do you have a sugar addiction? I realize “addiction” is a strong word in the clinical sense of its definition. Psychologists are still studying to determine if food addiction or sugar addiction qualifies for clinical diagnosis.

However, for a person prone to sugar binges, withdrawal, craving and relapse, they will tell you that sugar addiction is real. They will tell you that sugar acts like a drug on their brain. Their inhibitory control centers do not work properly and their reward centers are malfunctioning.

What is addiction?

Addiction can be substance-related or non-substance related.

A substance-related addiction is referred to as a drug addiction or substance-use disorder. Some addictive drugs include nicotine, alcohol, cannabis, opioids, and cocaine. Caffeine may get added to the list, as it is still a substance under review.

A non-substance-related addiction is referred to as a behavioural addiction. An example of this is gambling disorder. Other addictive behaviours could be video gaming, mobile phone use, social networking, shopping, pornography, and anger, to name a few.

Is sugar a drug?

In the study of obesity, it is interesting to consider whether food addiction falls under the substance (drug) category or the behaviour category. One could argue that overeating is a behaviour. However, it is the substance people are consuming that is triggering the overeating. People don’t binge eat broccoli. They binge eat chocolate cake: Highly-processed, unnatural, highly palatable, highly refined, high-sugar, high-fat foods. “Sugar” can include simple carbohydrates and starch like white bread or bagels, which our body quickly turns into sugar.

Some say sugar is like a mood altering drug. People self-medicate with sugar to temporarily boost their mood and energy. You may become conditioned to need something sweet to feel complete or satisfied.

Brain changes

Addiction happens because of chemical changes that occur in the reward and motivation centers of the brain. The substance or behaviour triggers the dopamine system in the brain. This links pleasure to memory and affects future decision-making behaviour. Continued substance use leads to fewer dopamine receptors. The brain can become dependent on the flood of dopamine which can lead to craving more of the substance, loss of control and risky decision-making. Some scientists refer to this as “remodeling the brain motivation circuits”, “dysfunctional patterns of reward-related neural activation” and “addiction-relevant patterns of brain activity”.

Stimulating the reward circuitry does not guarantee addiction. But some substances that act this way have the potential to be addictive.

Brain imaging studies show that high-fat, high-sugar foods activate the reward circuitry and may alter the reward system akin to addictive substances.

It is not surprising that food should trigger pleasure in our brain. After all, we need food to live. God designed us to desire food for our sustenance. However, natural food does not have the addictive potential that unnatural food has. When we eat God-given food, our hunger and satiety hormones will work to indicate when we need food and when we are full. Have you ever felt satisfied with healthy food, but still had a craving for something sweet? My guess is that is the dopamine talking. Addictive foods are highly processed with sugar and fat. They are manufactured to give the brain a “hit” in ways that natural food does not.

Behavioural symptoms of addictive disorders

Because of the chemical changes that occur in the brain, a person with an addictive disorder exhibits specific patterns of behaviour such as a loss of control regarding use of the substance and continued use despite knowing the substance is harmful. Here is a list of behaviours that could be associated with a sugar addiction:

  1. Lack of control – Consuming more than originally intended.
  2. Desire to limit use – Wanting to cut back but being unable to do so.
  3. Time spent – A considerable amount of time spent thinking about or acquiring the desired food.
  4. Cravings – An intense desire or urge for highly palatable food.
  5. Worsening situations – Continued use despite known negative consequences such as diabetes and obesity.
  6. Tolerance – A need for larger amounts of the substance to achieve desired effects, a sugar “high”.
  7. Withdrawal – Side effects may include a sugar “low”.

It is also important to consider the emotional triggers that can lead a person to turn to food for their “feel-good-hit of dopamine” as a strategy for coping.

Emotional Eating

Oprah Winfrey said, “My drug of choice is food. I use food for the same reasons an addict uses drugs: to comfort, to soothe, to ease stress.

Whether the terminology is addiction, use, abuse, dependence, disorder, impulsive, or compulsive… I think it boils down to having a healthy or unhealthy relationship with food.

Food is complicated. On the one hand, it does give us pleasure and we need it to live. On the other hand, too much or too little can be unhealthy. And using it for emotional purposes, like coping with stress or boredom can be unhealthy.

The fact is, although the effects of sugar may be addictive, sugar itself is neutral. A properly functioning body is designed to process and metabolize sugars, as it does with alcohol. But as with alcohol, over-consumption of the substance can lead not only to changes in the brain, but also to very real physical consequences in the body.

The problem with sugar addiction

In a similar way that long-term alcohol dependence damages the liver, consuming a lot of sugar over time also has long term effects.

In a normally functioning system, you digest food and the blood stream picks up sugar (glucose). The body does not want to have a lot of glucose floating around in the blood, so the pancreas produces the hormone insulin. Insulin takes the glucose from the blood and delivers it to the cells in muscles and the liver. Excess glucose gets stored as fat. As insulin does its job to lower blood glucose levels, the body senses that insulin levels are now low. Now the liver can release some of its stored glucose back into the blood and blood sugar levels remain stable. This is called  glycogenolysis. This is so you always have energy available, even if you haven’t eaten in a while.

Generally, you should not eat more carbohydrate (sugar) at a time than what you need because the excess will be stored as fat. For our hunters in times long ago, storing excess glucose as fat was not a bad thing because they needed to live off of that fat for a while. However, if we are constantly replenishing our sugar levels, that belly fat is only going to increase. Over time, it will become more and more difficult to lose that weight, and here is why:

Insulin Resistance

The problem with consuming a lot of sugar occurs when the body starts to become insulin resistant.

Resistance is a natural effect of repeated exposure. Here are some examples of resistance:

  • Viruses cause viral resistance. People develop resistance to viruses by being exposed to a small amount of the virus, as in a vaccine.
  • Antibiotics cause antibiotic resistance. Continued doses of antibiotics make them less effective as we become more resistant to them.
  • Drugs cause drug resistance. This is also known as tolerance. We become tolerant to alcohol, nicotine, caffeine, narcotics, marijuana. When there is prolonged and excessive exposure to drugs, the body decreases the number of receptors for it, requiring a larger “dose” to get the same “hit”.

In much the same way, persistently high insulin levels leads to the body becoming resistant to insulin. Where insulin functions as the key that opens the door to the cells to let the glucose into the cell, the key now only partially opens the door, and you need more keys to fully open the door. The normal amount of insulin becomes less effective at escorting glucose out of the blood and into the cells. When the body senses that blood glucose levels are still too high, it signals to the pancreas to produce even more insulin. It is a vicious circle: higher insulin levels increase insulin resistance. The greater the resistance, the higher the levels.

The problem with insulin resistance

  1. Withdrawal. Initially, the pancreas may go into overdrive, and the oversupply of insulin may lower blood glucose levels. This may result in feelings of withdrawal (a sugar “low”).
  2. Diabetes. Eventually, the pancreas may go on strike and stop producing insulin. Blood glucose levels will rise and medication may be required to bring them down. This may be the start of diabetes or metabolic syndrome.
  3. Inability to lose weight. Having chronically high insulin levels can make fat loss much more difficult, even if the diet changes. It answers the question, “Why can’t I lose weight?”. The body only burns fat when insulin levels are low. Chronically high insulin levels signals to the body that there is plenty of blood glucose available and it can hang on to its fat stores.

Improving Insulin Sensitivity

The goal is to improve insulin sensitivity. For weight loss, insulin levels need to drop between meals and glycogen stores need to be depleted in order for the body to agree to release glucose by burning fat for energy. You can do this by restricting carbohydrates (sugars) and intermittent fasting. To improve insulin sensitivity, you need to give the body a break from food. For most people, this is the fasting period from supper until break-fast (breaking the fast). You can also eliminate snacks to give the body a break from food from breakfast until lunch, and then from lunch until supper. Be patient, as your body finds a new normal.

In Part 2 of Overcoming A Sugar Addiction, we will discuss additional practical tips to re-train your taste buds to enjoy natural foods and keep the body functioning in a healthy, balanced way.

For other weight loss tips see our blog: Weight Loss Without Calorie Counting


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  • A Vienneau

    Wow very well written, as someone who has consumed much more than his share of sugar over the past 30-40 years I can certainly relate to what I have just read ..
    I recognize too much of what you have written ..
    Almost scary yet understandable and helpful ..
    Looking forward to part two ..

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