Addicted to Sugar?

If you just can’t stay away from the sweet stuff, you might just have an actual sugar addiction.

One in two Americans has pre-diabetes or type 2 diabetes. If you can’t stay away from the sweet stuff, no matter how hard you try, you might just have an actual sugar addiction.

A study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition suggests that, in fact, higher sugar, higher glycemic foods can be addictive. These sweet foods trigger a special region in the brain called the nucleus accumbens that is known to be “ground zero” for conventional addiction, such as gambling or drug abuse.

Researchers employed a randomized, blinded, crossover study using the most stringent research design.  They took 12 overweight or obese men between the ages of 18 and 35 and gave each a low sugar or low glycemic index (37 percent) milkshake, and then, four hours later, they measured the activity of the brain region (nucleus accumbens) that controls addiction.  They also measured blood sugar and hunger.

Days later, they had them back for another milkshake. But this time they switched the milkshakes. They were designed to taste exactly the same and be exactly the same in every way with one exception.  The second milkshake was designed to be high in sugar with a high glycemic index (84 percent).  The shakes had exactly the same amount of calories, protein, fat and carbohydrates.  It was like a trick milkshake.  Subjects didn’t know which milkshake they were getting, and their mouths couldn’t tell the difference, but their brains sure could.

Each participant received a brain scan and blood tests for glucose and insulin after each version of the milkshake.  They were their own control group.  Without exception, they all had the same response.  The high sugar or glycemic index milkshake caused a spike in blood sugar and insulin and an increase in reported hunger and cravings four hours after the shake.  This finding was not surprising and has been shown many times before.

But the breakthrough finding was this: When the high glycemic shake was consumed, the nucleus accumbens lit up like a Christmas tree.  This pattern occurred in every single participant and was statistically significant.

This study had two important findings:

  • The body responds very differently to different calories, even if the protein, fat and carbs (and taste) are exactly the same.
  • Foods that spike blood sugar are biologically addictive.

These results should force a shift in the conversation about obesity in America.  80 percent of processed foods contain added hidden sugar.  The average American consumes 22 teaspoons of sugar a day, mostly hidden, and the average teenage boy has 34 teaspoons a day (more than two 20 ounce sodas).  One serving of Prego tomato sauce has more sugar than a serving of Oreo cookies.  Sweetened yogurts can have more sugar than a can of soda.

According to a validated food questionnaire from Yale’s Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity, here are five clues that you might be addicted to sugar:

  1. You consume certain foods even if you are not hungry because of cravings.
  2. You worry about cutting down on certain foods.
  3. You feel sluggish or fatigued from overeating.
  4. You have health or social problems (affecting school or work) because of food issues and yet keep eating the way you do despite negative consequences.
  5. You need more and more of the foods you crave to experience any pleasure or reduce negative emotions.

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