Sugar, You're Going Down Swinging
Let me describe to you what I now understand to be a true addiction. It is this moment where every fiber in my body seems to be screaming for one particular thing. They typically come out of no where and the food I crave is typically something I didn’t even eat often before I started this whole process. For example, the other morning I’m at work and have recently finished the second half of my breakfast. So, theoretically I’m all set and shouldn’t need to eat anything again for roughly two hours. I’m standing, waiting for a client, when suddenly what almost feels like an electric current takes over my body, accompanied by a slight buzz in my head, and the sensation of little pins and needles pricking all over my body. In these moments it is actually sometimes hard to pinpoint what specific food item my body is screaming at me for, however, this morning I am pretty sure it was a peanut butter cookie. I can’t tell you the last time I ate a peanut butter cookie or even thought about one, but I swear at this moment I could smell them coming out of the oven. I have never experienced a strong need for a particular food, that resisting it results in what seems like physical pain.
The worst part of this craving is how they make me extremely edgy. I quickly lose all ability to deal with any other type of situation. I can’t think, problem solve or even carry on a meaningful conversation. All my mental energy is instantly consumed by resisting the current craving.
This experience is one that I wrote about two years ago during my first figure competition prep. Until that time in my life I had eaten anything I wanted, when I wanted. I did not gain weight easily, so I was not overly cautious with my food intake. If I felt good about how I looked, what else mattered? Here is what I understand, that I didn’t back when I was writing about those intense, life-altering cravings. Sugar is addictive and affects our brains the same as drugs, alcohol, and tobacco.
According to an article written for Nature magazine in 2012, “Sugar also has a clear potential for abuse. Like tobacco and alcohol, it acts on the brain to encourage subsequent intake. There are numerous studies examining the dependence-producing properties of sugar in humans. Specifically sugar dampens the suppression of the hormone ghrelin, which signals hunger to the brain. It also interferes with normal transport and signaling of the hormone leptin, which helps to produce the feeling of satiety. And it reduces dopamine signaling in the brain reward centre, thereby decreasing the pleasure derived from the food and compelling the individual to consume more.” (Lustig et al).
Another article I found called Food and Addiction, the Dopamine Made Me Do it, compared food addiction to a cocaine addiction. A study they mentioned found that both sugary foods and drugs result in very similar brain activity.
“Animal studies have helped us understand this addictive cycle of anticipation and reward. When rats are given free access to a mix of the typical hyperpalatable foods available to humans—chocolate, cheesecake, bacon, sausage and other fat and processed products—the rat’s brain structure changes the same way it would if cocaine were ingested. Yale University researchers used functional MRI (fMRI) studies to prove that both lean and obese women who demonstrate addictive behavior around food show the same pattern of neural activity as a chronic drug abuser: very high levels of anticipation of their drug of choice—in this case, a chocolate milk shake—but very low levels of satisfaction after consumption” (Peeke).
In that same article by Peeke, another study is mentioned. This study used lab rats to determine the intensity of food addictions. At one point they mention that rats would “voluntarily walk across an electrified plate and endure painful shocks in order to get their junk food hit.” Later, they looked at the effects on the rats when the sugary foods were taken away. “Lab rats will quickly develop a tolerance for sugar, eagerly quadrupling their daily sugar consumption in 1 week. If the sugar’s taken away, the hunger for their fix is relentless and leads to withdrawal symptoms. They’ll start fighting with other rats, shaking and getting angry. Once the rats become addicted to sugar, they are far more eager to gobble up amphetamines, alcohol and cocaine in huge quantities—and they become almost instantly addicted to those substances as well. When given the choice between sugar, cocaine and alcohol, those cross-addicted rats will always choose—you guessed it—sugar” (Peeke).
The more information I read the more I realize the craving I described at the beginning of this article was my own version of a sugar withdrawal. I am a sugar addict and I didn’t even know it. I didn’t grow up consuming things outside of a societal norm. However, that is the biggest problem with sugar. It is hidden inside everything. “In recent years sugar has been added to nearly all processed foods, limiting consumer choice…people are consuming an average of more than 500 calories per day from added sugar alone.” (Lustiget al).
So, what is the big deal? If I am going to be addicted to something, at least it’s sugar right? I mean for the most part its low fat and just meaningless calories. How much can it really hurt? Wrong! Those thoughts have been imbedded in our minds for ages. They were part of the “low fat” diet trend. I remember my mom, when I was a child, eating jelly beans and twizzlers as her “snacks” because they were marketed as “fat free”. Its not even my mom’s fault. According to Gary Taubes, the Sugar Association spent millions of dollars in the 70s and 80s, and still today, to convince us that sugar isn’t really that bad for us. Taubes and Cristin Kearns Couzens wrote an article called Big Sugar’s Sweet Little Lies. It’s about how the industry kept scientist from asking: Does sugar kill? It was published in Mother Jones’ November/December 2012 issue. It discusses how any time there has been suspicion about the toxicity of sugar or how research started to prove how dangerous it truly is, the Sugar Industry has found ways to shut down the research or make light of the suspicion.
So what now? Sugar is hiding in almost all of our foods, it’s addictive, has been proven to have significant negative effects on our health, and no one is doing anything about it. According to the Toxic Truth about Sugar, regulation on sugar consumption is being fought for, but what does that look like? What would be effective? How do you deal with an issue so large? Those answers have not been found yet and even if they are, it will be a massive political battle in order for our societal norm to actually change.
We are not doomed, though. You can still make changes, for you. I recently watched a very interesting documentary on Netflix titled "Hungry for Change". It strongly suggested approaching our diet from a more natural stand point. Back before processed foods were the norm at the super market, people lived longer, they had less diseases and the obesity issue was far less significant. The documentary suggest this is because they lived off of foods intended for us by nature. Foods full of nutrients, vitamins and minerals. Not foods processed in labs and full of chemicals and added sugars. They ate foods that satisfied the needs of their bodies. Today, we are stuffing ourselves with empty calories and wondering why we’re always hungry.
Next time you're in the super market, spend more time in the produce section and significantly less time in the cereal and snack aisles. Resist those sugary cravings, even when you think you might rip your hair out. Feed your body what it is truly starving for. Then do me this favor, don’t just try it for a day or a week and then quit because its a hassle and you don’t notice a significant difference. Give yourself a month, allow your body to heal from the onslaught of sugar it is used to dealing with. Allow yourself to truly benefit from the nutrients in the new foods you’re eating instead. Then you
decide if sugar is a comforting best friend or an evil sneaky drug.
Lustig, Robert H., Schmidt, Laura A. & Brindis, Claire D. “The Toxic Truth About Sugar”. Nature, 2 February. 2012, Vol 482. “https://www.dietdoctor.com/the-toxic-truth-about-sugar". Accessed 10 Jan. 2017.
Peeke, Pamela, MD, MPH, FACP. “Food and Addiction; The Dopamine Made Me Do It.” IDEA Fit Fitness Journal, Vol 9, Issue 10. 20 Sep. 2012, "http://www.ideafit.com/fitness-library/the-dopamine-made-me-do-it." Accessed 10, Jan. 2017.
Taubes, Gary & Cousins, Cristin Kearns. “Big Sugar’s Sweet Little Lies: How the industry kept scientist from asking: Does sugar kill?” Mother Jones. November/December 2012 Issue. "http://www.motherjones.com/environment/2012/10/sugar-industry-lies-campaign." Accessed 10 Jan. 2017