Call me the last to know, but researchers have been studying sugar addiction for at least 25 years. Who knew? Based on the way it affects me I’d always figured as much, but those with a voice bigger than the researchers (and me) said it wasn’t true; they insisted that addiction only occurred when talking about greater evils and that all the hype about sugar addiction was inflated.
According to the scientists, the short answer to our question is, yes, absolutely. You really can be addicted to sugar. And after going through a ton of their research this week I actually got a little freaked out. It said that a) sugar was an addictive substance, and b) addictive substances transcribe, or rewrite, our genetic codes. Reworking a gene from an outside source is called epigenetics (lit., “outside the genes”), and sugar makes that happen.
Did you get that?
It means that sugar hot-wires our genetic code by fiddling with the genes, primarily the cfos gene, which is both a “boss” gene and one that registers pleasure in our brains. Since it’s a boss, it has the “authority” to override other directives. The directives controlling hunger and fullness in the brain are hormones called orexigenics, and the diet that has regular sugar intake will override them. That leads us to overeating sugary foods, but also everything else we’re eating along with it.
Look at the way sugar addiction fits the overall addictive model, and see what you think:
- There is a craving for the object of the addiction
- There is a loss of control over it
- There is continuing engagement regardless of negative consequences
So that’s why we can’t stay out of the sweets. It’s why we feel sluggish when we need a “fix;” it’s why we’ll argue that it’s not a problem (“I can stop anytime I want”), and, ironically, it’s also why we think that it would be too hard to give it up. These are the arguments of a person battling an addiction whether it’s cocaine or Oreos.
How does this work?
The scientists said, “These findings indicate that chronic consumption of sugar blunts activity of pathways that mediate satiety.” In other words, it puts us in a cycle where we lose track of how full we are so we just keep eating.
Sugar consumption begets sugar consumption then, but we’ve also got emotional triggers to deal with, and emotions are perceptions can feel overwhelming at times: boredom, procrastination, loneliness, guilt, wanting a secret pleasure or reward, comfort in pain or loss, and other myriad reasons. Sugar is a happy but temporary fix. It’s an escape. It’s nice to us, and it always makes us feel good (before the crash).
This is much more than a will-power problem. It’s a true addiction. The guilt we go through after a binge is horrible, and people need to know that the problem is that we’ve been baited and that our food is chemically infused with stuff that makes us want more and more. We just need to follow the money to find the culprit: manufacturers want to get into our wallets.
And don’t you hate being manipulated?
“But sugar is part of our reality, so how much sugar is okay?”
It depends on who you ask. The American Heart Association says that 6 teaspoons a day for a woman is okay, 9 teaspoons for a man, and 3-6 teaspoons for kids. But the trouble is, of course, that sugar always makes us want more, so the average American ends up getting 20 teaspoons per day. Kids get a whopping 15% of their total daily calories from sugar.
Personally, I’m not impressed with the AHA’s guidelines on diet in general. They’re still waving the high carb, low-fat diet flag, and saying that coconut oil is bad for you but margarine is good – even though you can’t wash it off a knife? So excuse me if I’m not excited about their dietary guidelines.
What if I am addicted? What’s the impact of this on my body?
Going by what the scientists said, that addictive substances transcribe over genes, and that sugar is clinically proven to be addictive, let’s look at a sampling of how it affects us. Here are a few findings with translation:
“Epigenetic studies of DNA…and studies of regulatory RNA networks have been informative for elucidating the mechanisms of transcriptional change in the addicted brain.”
Translation: We got our proof about genetic transcription from studying the DNA and RNA networks in the addicted brain.
“Prolonged exposure leads to widespread transcriptional changes of genes involved in diverse cellular functions such as ion transport, chromosome remodeling, stress and immune response, cell adhesion, cell cycle, apoptosis, protein and lipid metabolism, and mitochondrial functions… The impact of drug exposure on transcription is also brain region specific… drug-reward and drug-seeking behavior is strongly altered.”
Effective translation: If we continue the addictive behavior, i.e., keep eating sugar, the result will be widespread genetic code changes that will impact the effectiveness of ions, chromosomes, our ability to handle stress and its impact on our immune system, a cell’s function, cycle, and death, the way we metabolize protein and fat, and all the while it will powerfully push us to keep overeating.
This is important.
You are your genes. You got a starter set from your parents, and now you enhance them or negatively impact them by your diet. This impacts your health in a way that nothing else can.
Responding to the facts
I, for one, am a teetotaler with sugar. The “all things in moderation” approach is a total bomb for me. I can’t handle even small bites of it so I have to stay away from it completely. This has opened up hundreds of conversations with people about why I don’t eat it, and whether or not folks even remember what I’ve said is not the point. I just wish people knew that sugar addiction is real so they could sstop bashing themselves when they fall for its sweet enticement. Most people I know do eat sugar, but that’s not a basis on which I label them as a good person or a bad one. I’ve been addicted to sugar (still am) and I know how hard it is to get off of it. The good news is that yes, it’s totally possible.
We have to remember that when we start talking about food with people it can get testy pretty quick. Food is uniquely personal; it goes into us and becomes part of us so the subject is always loaded with factors larger than the sugar itself. If you decide to get off of it and people notice, let them bring it up. Answer any questions with respect, and make every word count. Sugar addiction is a complex problem and a pat answer isn’t going to help.
How do you get off sugar?
It seems just wrong to stop at this point, but this post is already long, so we’ll have to wait til next week to tackle the solution. Besides, right now, some of us have some serious sugar-free cooking to do.
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We’re stronger together,
Researchers: Albertson et al., 2004; Bannon et al., 2005; Mash et al., 2007; Renthal et al., 2007; Zhou et al., 2011, Ghasemzadeh, Mueller, & Vasudevan, 2009; Hyman & Malenka, 2001; McClung et al., 2005; Schumann & Yaka, 2009