Picture this: a white substance that is capable of changing the way you feel, think, and behave. Did you picture heroin, cocaine, or pharmaceutical drugs? The substance I speak of is much more common than these drugs. It’s so common, in fact, that it can be found in every pantry and fridge in America.
Perhaps you think that the comparison between sugar and street drugs is a mere exaggeration, and you wouldn’t be alone. There was relatively little research on the addictiveness of sugar up until the 1970s. Sugar may have escaped public scrutiny due to its lack of immediate effects. While overconsumption of alcohol produces noticeable immediate effects such as slurred speech and flushed skin, sugar consumption usually goes unnoticed. It is only later that the long-term effects are felt. These effects can include an increased risk for obesity, heart attack, stroke, and the development of diabetes.
So how exactly do we know that sugar can be addictive? A study in the journal Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews found that “in some circumstances, intermittent access to sugar can lead to behavior and neurochemical changes that resemble the effects of a substance of abuse.” The researchers came to this conclusion by analyzing four key components of addiction: bingeing, withdrawal, craving, and sensitization. Sugar releases opioids and dopamine, causing the brain to react in much the same way as it would to certain drugs.
So if sugar really can act like a drug, why is it that some people don’t like sugary foods? Some people are particularly prone to developing a sugar addiction. Just as some people can try cocaine once or twice and never use it again, many people can savor a sugary treat every once in awhile without experiencing signs of addiction. For people who do become addicted to sugar, it is cheaper and more readily available than any street drug.
So how do we curb our addiction? It all starts with the way we teach our children about sugar. Most children consume hours of food-related advertising every week. Much of this advertising centers around sugary treats and breakfast cereals. Children are taught from a young age to crave sugar, and most parents don’t have sufficient knowledge of proper nutrition. By educating ourselves and our children about the effects of sugar on the body, we can take control of our health and prevent health issues related to the consumption of sugar.