If you just can’t keep your fingers out of the leftover Halloween candy, no matter how hard you try, there is evidence to suggest you might actually be addicted to sugar. A recent study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition suggests that, in fact, higher sugar, higher glycemic foods can be addictive.
David Ludwig, author of Ending the Food Fight, and his colleagues at Harvard, in a very sophisticated study, showed that foods with more sugar, including foods that raise blood sugar even more than table sugar such as white flour, white potatoes and refined starch have what is called a high glycemic index. These sweet foods trigger a special region in the brain called the nucleus accumbensthat is known to be “ground zero” for conventional addiction, such as gambling or drug abuse.
Almost 70 percent of Americans are overweight and one in two Americans has pre-diabetes or type 2 diabetes. It appears that it may not be gluttony or lack of willpower but instead, a biological addiction.
This study took on the difficult task of proving the biology of sugar addiction. 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 brought the men 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 absolutely 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 accumbenslit up like a Christmas tree. This pattern occurred in every single participant and was statistically significant.
The 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.
Sugar is the core ingredient used by the food industry to mask the poor flavor of the bad ingredients (processed flour and chemicals). Sugar consumption has increased from 10 pounds per person in 1800 to 140 pounds per person per year today. Each year, the average American also consumes 133 pounds of white or wheat flour, which raises blood sugar more than table sugar (sucrose).
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:
- You consume certain foods even if you are not hungry because of cravings.
- You worry about cutting down on certain foods.
- You feel sluggish or fatigued from overeating.
- 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.
- You need more and more of the foods you crave to experience any pleasure or reduce negative emotions.
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