Death By Sweet: The Devil in Sugar Addiction

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Sugar is a highly addictive substance. Many people are addicted to the stuff and probably don’t realize it. It’s in many of the foods and drinks we consume. It’s contributing to the obesity and diabetes epidemics. It’s literally hurting us and yet, we continue to use it. We have a sugar addiction problem and we don’t want to stop. In the past few years, people have been searching for answers to fix the problem. Some have called for the removal of vending machines from schools (or replacing sugary snacks and beverages with “healthy” alternatives). Others want to ban or tax sugary items. Very few tackle the sugar addiction problem as a point of personal responsibility.

And why not tackle our seeming dependence on sugar, whether it’s in from sugar cane, beet, or corn, as an addiction problem? Is it too difficult? Is it easier to regulate individual products? Or is it a matter of admitting we have a dependence problem that isn’t too dissimilar than that of heroin dependence? Nobody wants to admit they have a problem, but when the country is suffering health problems left and right, and it’s only getting worse, admitting it might be the only thing we can do.

Sure, replacing sugary, high calorie products in vending machines with more nutritional items a good step, but it isn’t going to solve any problems in the long run. Firstly, what qualifies as nutritional? Chocolate milk? Orange juice? Packaged apple slices? Perhaps. They’re still loaded with sugar and do have more nutritional value, but the culture of sugar still needs to be addressed. For one, when given the choice between a candy bar and an apple, what is a child more likely to choose? Again, it comes down to realizing that there is a problem. A child knows the candy bar tastes good. Their brain reacts to the candy bar and the apple in very different ways. Essentially, the candy bar will deliver a more satisfying, pleasurable, and rewarding experience. That experience will last a much shorter time than if he consumed the apple, but it’s much stronger, if not overpowering for a developing brain, and because of this a sugar addiction is formed, one that can last a lifetime.

Now, is this addiction truly comparable to that of a heroin or opioid addiction? Some clinical research says yes. Takashi Yamamoto at Osaka University found that are registered by the brain the same way morphine and heroin are registered and a similar reaction occurs and dopamine is released. Others make the comparison to cocaine addiction. Further research on rats have shown the development of dependence, with traits of dependence observed from the release of dopamine in the brain to withdrawal symptoms occurring when the sugar is removed.

So, given our understanding of how sugar is affecting us—which is still an incomplete picture—what can we do? It’s not easy, but the answer is to eat and drink less of it. How to go about that is even more difficult to answer. People experience sugar cravings and withdrawals. If a person has been consuming sugar all their life, simply stopping isn’t likely going to happen, but over time, reducing sugar intake is an achievable and realistic goal that can have nothing but positive effects on individual health. The first step, again, however, is admitting you have a sugar addiction problem.