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Sugar Addiction: When Your Sweet Tooth Takes Control of You

Sugar Addiction:  Sweet Tooth Sabotage

Who doesn’t like a sweet treat once in a while?  You know fresh-baked doughnuts that a coworker brought into the office.  Or a slice of homemade apple pie that your mom made to celebrate a special achievement.  Many of us have even sneakily tapped into our children’s stash of Halloween or Easter candy on occasion too.  However, giving in to a sweet tooth one too many times can lead to a sugar addiction and sabotage your efforts toward healthy living.  Let’s look at why this happens and what we can do to prevent it from occurring.

sugarLeon Ephraim / Unsplash.com

The Dopamine Problem

Dopamine is a neurotransmitter, a chemical released by nerve cells in the body that send signals to other cells.  It has many valuable functions and often helps the body function optimally.  Recent research has shown that certain things, such as highly addictive drugs cause elevated levels of dopamine in the body.  These high levels cause a person to feel an increased degree of pleasure.  Pleasurable feelings stimulate reward-motivated behavior.  For example, because someone enjoyed the feeling they received from doing something, they naturally want to repeat it and keep the rewards coming.

The problem is that more is not always better and addictions can wreak havoc in our lives.  Addictions take over and start to control our decision-making processes.  When faced with a choice of what you want to do tonight, the addict wants more of whatever made them feel good regardless of the cost.  Forget about being productive or having a positive impact on the world, the addict just wants to feel good fast through drugs, gambling, impulse shopping, or whatever produces a reward.

So what does all this have to do with sugar?  The latest research is showing that sugar consumption also causes spikes in our dopamine levels.  It stimulates the same pleasure centers in us that highly addictive drugs such as cocaine, methamphetamine and ecstasy do.  So, one doughnut won’t do the trick.  The strong temptation will be there to eat one doughnut after another until the whole box is gone.  The temptation will be there to eat the whole half-gallon of ice cream, not just one small scoop or the entire bag of candy, not just a handful.

My Personal Experience with Sugar Addiction

I have personally experienced the luring nature of sugar and have given in one too many times.  The most classic example is purchasing an eight pack of breakfast pastries “as a treat” for the family.  The four of us each had one pastry and then everyone left the house for work or school except me.  I was left home alone with the four uneaten pastries.  Before too long, I ate my second pastry to complete my well-balanced breakfast.  That left three uneaten pastries and they looked really good!  My thoughts started to change and I convinced myself that “if you snooze you lose.”  My three family members could have eaten both of their pastries also and then they would all be gone.  Since they left them here, they were legitimately up for grabs.  So I ate my third, then fourth, and eventually my fifth pastry.

I’m not even five feet tall and I ate five pastries for breakfast and felt no shame or guilt at all.  I just kept thinking about how good they tasted and how I wanted another.  If there were more left in the box, I probably would have continued eating until I popped!  Now, don’t jump to the conclusion that I lack willpower.  In an 18-month period, I lost 50 pounds and successfully moved from the obese category to being in a normal weight range.  That took willpower, persistence, and consistent behavior.  I didn’t lack willpower, but I still ate practically the whole box of pastries.

Finding the Solution

Knowing that sugar causes spikes in our dopamine levels which stimulate us to feel-good is good information.  But, the real question is how can we avoid falling into the sugar trap, gaining weight, and suffering a long list of health problems that can follow?  Below are the three best things that we can do.  Although they are easy to understand, it is important to decide your plan in advance or you’re asking for trouble!

  1. Avoid the Trap.
    You are now armed with the knowledge that sugar can be just as addictive as cocaine or meth.  You have no more excuses!  The absolute best way to avoid eating sugar is to avoid buying it, picking it up, or convincing yourself that everyone deserves a treat.  This is hard; I’m not going to lie.  But you hold the power.  You can choose fresh fruit instead of fruit flavored candy.  You can choose yogurt instead of milkshakes made with ice cream and chocolate syrup.  Keep as little sugar laden snacks, cereal, and foods in the house or office as possible.
  2. Water Flushes.
    If you find that you have given in and overdone it on the sugar (birthday, holiday or special celebrations are tough); the only thing you can really do is to flush it out.  That is easy enough to do.  Cut yourself off from the sugar source as quickly as possible and then starting drinking plain water.  In about a day or so, you should be back to an acceptable level.
  3. Limit the Possibilities.
    We’re not very likely to eat perfectly at all times, we’re more likely to slip up every once in a while.  Additionally, when something becomes completely off-limits, the temptation to want it only becomes more intense.  To handle this, it’s fine to give yourself permission to indulge, just limit the indulgence.  For example, allow yourself to eat a gourmet cupcake or piece of cake at a wedding.  But don’t agree to take home leftover desserts from the church potluck dinner.

Discussion Questions

  1. Are you someone who has or is close to having a true sugar addiction?
  2. What changes can you make to prevent yourself from falling into the sugar trap?

References

Avena, N. M., Rada, P., & Hoebel, B. G. (2008). Evidence for sugar addiction: Behavioral and neurochemical effects of intermittent, excessive sugar intake. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews, 32(1), 20-39. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.neubiorev.2007.04.019

Davis, C. (2013). From passive overeating to food addiction: A spectrum of compulsion and severity,” ISRN Obesity.  doi:10.1155/2013/435027

Perkins, W. (2016). The role of dopamine and sugar cravings.

Rada, P., Avena, N. M., & Hoebel, B. G. (2005). Daily bingeing on sugar repeatedly releases dopamine in the accumbens shell. Neuroscience, 134(3), 737-744. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.neuroscience.2005.04.043

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