The Science Behind: Sugar Addiction
Like any rational human being, I love Oreos. They’re delicious, remind me of my childhood, and are filled with sugar — but they may also be frighteningly addictive. In a study at Connecticut College, researchers compared results from two experiments with rat mazes. In one, Oreos and rice cakes were placed on different sides of a maze. Once they were released, the rats spent more time on the side with the Oreos. In the other experiment, one side offered injections of saline and the other offered injections of cocaine or morphine. The rats spent more time on the side with cocaine or morphine.
When these two experiments were compared, researchers found that rats spent similar amounts of time with the Oreos and cocaine or morphine. Later, the researchers analyzed the expression of c-Fos — a protein that marks neuronal activation in the brain’s pleasure center — and found that Oreos activated significantly more neurons than cocaine or morphine. However, these results are criticized since the study was published without peer-review; the Oreos and cocaine or morphine weren’t compared directly, and rats are not the same as humans. But this study does bring attention to a critical issue: sugar addiction.
To keep the human race going, some behaviors are natural rewards, such as eating high-energy foods, sleeping, and, to some, social interaction. Natural rewards make you feel good, so, of course, you do whatever brought about this natural reward again and again. One natural reward is sugar because it can help layer fat and store energy. Hundreds of years ago, this wasn’t a problem and even helped humans survive. However, today, we have access to too much sugar, which is leading to addiction and health issues.
In response to a rewarding event, like eating a sugary cupcake, the neurotransmitter dopamine is released by neurons in your mesolimbic dopamine system — the brain system in charge of rewards — to signal to your brain’s reward system, the nucleus accumbens. This process leads to you feeling pleasure and wanting more.
When a massive amount of dopamine is released repeatedly, like from eating sugary cupcakes every day, your mesolimbic dopamine system feels a bit attacked. To prevent itself from being overstimulated, it adapts. Now, the same amount of sugar will evoke less pleasure. To get the same hit, you need more, so you increase the amount of sugar in your food. And it feels so good. As this continues, your tolerance and cravings for sugar grow and grow, creating a sugar addiction.
There are no benefits to eating too much sugar, but consuming less sugar can help with weight loss, improve sleep and moods, reduce acne, and make less sweet foods sweeter. However, limiting sugar intake can be very difficult. Sugar withdrawal causes severe cravings, and sugar is everywhere. Since it is the perfect ingredient to hook consumers to a food, added sugar can be found in about 75 percent of packaged foods in the US, which doesn’t really help when you’re trying to eat less of it.
Possible fixes for our toxic relationship with sugar are to make foods with added sugar more expensive and to regulate foods with high levels of added sugar. If you want quick, personal solutions, decrease your consumption of processed foods, read labels carefully, and make your own meals.
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Gaines Lewis, Jordan. “What happens to your brain when you give up sugar.” CNN, Turner Broadcasting System, 2 Mar. 2017, www.cnn.com/2017/03/02/health/sugar-brain-diet-partner/index.html. Accessed 23 Aug. 2017.
“How Sugar Hijacks Your Brain And Makes You Addicted.” Healthline, www.healthline.com/nutrition/how-sugar-makes-you-addicted#section1. Accessed 23 Aug. 2017.
McCormack, Simon. “Oreos More Addictive Than Cocaine? Study Shows Cookies Might Produce More Pleasure Than Coke In Rats.” Huffington Post, Oath, 18 Oct. 2013, www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/10/17/oreos-more-addictive-than-cocaine_n_4118194.html. Accessed 23 Aug. 2017.
Reichelt, Amy. “Fact or fiction — is sugar addictive?” The Conversation, 22 Feb. 2017, theconversation.com/fact-or-fiction-is-sugar-addictive-73340. Accessed 23 Aug. 2017.
Schaefer, Anna, and Kareem Yasin. “Experts Agree: Sugar Might Be as Addictive as Cocaine.” Healthline, 10 Oct. 2016, www.healthline.com/health/food-nutrition/experts-is-sugar-addictive-drug. Accessed 23 Aug. 2017.
— Isabella S., Pennsylvania