When you open a box of chocolate chip cookies, can you just eat one or two or do you find yourself finishing off the whole box? Do you absolutely have to have a slice of cake after dinner? Do you feel shaky or irritable if it’s been hours since you’ve eaten anything sweet? If any of these things are true, you may have a sugar addition.
Sugar is addictive
When you eat sugar, the reward centers in your brain are activated. Your brain releases the same chemicals that are released when people take addictive drugs. In fact, drug addicts and alcoholics are likely to have a strong preference for sweets. When rats have been allowed to eat large amounts of sugar and are then deprived of it, they develop sugar cravings and binge on sugar when they can have it again.
It’s not just the way your brain reacts to sugar that can keep you wanting more and more. When you eat foods with large amounts of sugar, the levels of glucose (a type of simple sugar) in your blood rise quickly. This also happens when you eat refined starches, like white bread, which break down into sugar very rapidly. Your body likes your blood glucose level to be constant – not too much and not too little. To get your blood glucose level down again, your pancreas produces the hormone insulin, which moves some of your blood glucose to your muscle cells – which use it for energy – and some of it to your liver – which stores it. If your blood glucose becomes low later on, your liver will release this stored glucose back into your bloodstream. Carbohydrates (sugars and starches) aren’t bad for you in themselves; your cells need them for energy. It’s when you have too many carbs that problems occur.
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In some people, eating lots of sugar can cause the pancreas to produce so much insulin that blood glucose starts getting low. This condition is known as reactive hypoglycemia. If you suffer from it, you can experience symptoms such as extreme hunger, sweating, heart palpitations, dizziness, nervousness, panic attacks and confusion within a few hours after sugar consumption. Because your body needs your blood glucose levels to go back up, you crave sugar. To ease your cravings, you reach for the nearest sweet-tasting food, and the cycle starts all over again.
There certainly isn’t a scarcity of available sugar, so why is sugar addiction a problem?
If there is more excess glucose in your bloodstream than your muscle cells and your liver can use, which depends on how active you are, your body converts the extra glucose to fat. If too much fat builds up, you can become obese, which can lead to numerous complications including heart disease, stroke, liver disease and certain types of cancer.
In addition, your muscle and liver cells can become resistant to insulin. This means that when you eat more sugar, your pancreas has to pump out even more insulin to make sure that your cells get enough glucose, and that too much glucose doesn’t build up in your blood. Eventually, the insulin-producing cells in your pancreas may simply be unable to keep up with the increasing demand, and you can develop full-blown diabetes. Insulin resistance is associated with a medical condition called metabolic syndrome. Symptoms include obesity, high blood glucose, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol.
What You Can Do
You can cure your sugar addiction before it’s too late. Here are 5 simple steps you can take.
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- Replace processed snacks with fruits and vegetables.
These contain fiber as well as carbs. Fiber slows down digestion, so your insulin levels don’t rise as quickly. Fiber also makes you feel full, so you won’t become hungry again so quickly. Fruits and vegetables are also good sources of some important vitamins and minerals. Sometimes when you’re hungry, it’s because you’re not getting enough nutrients.
- Combine carbs with protein.
This will also slow down digestion and prevent insulin spikes. For example, you can smear peanut butter over half an apple, or add muesli to sugar-free Greek yogurt.
- Eat fruit; don’t drink fruit juice.
The sugar in fruit juice is very concentrated and is digested quickly. Real fruit has fiber, so the sugar is digested more slowly.
- Avoid processed foods.
Manufacturers often add sugar to processed foods to make us think it tastes better. They do this to all kinds of foods; not just sodas, candy and dessert. Processed soups, sauces, salad dressings, cold cuts and sausages can contain large amounts of sugar. In fact, if you eat processed foods most of the time, you probably don’t even notice that these foods are sweeter than the natural versions.
- Avoid foods labeled “low-fat”.
Fat gives food flavor. When processed food manufacturers take the fat out of food, they add sugar to give it flavor. So while the labels on these foods make you think they will help you lose weight, ironically, all that extra sugar can make you fatter.
- Don’t eat more frequently.
Many diet “experts” say you can solve the problem of reactive hypoglycemia by eating every few hours. However, while this can keep hypoglycemia symptoms at bay, eating constantly means that your blood glucose is always high, and your pancreas is always working hard to produce insulin. Remember that as long as you’re healthy, if your blood glucose starts to become low, your liver will pump glucose back into your bloodstream. If your hypoglycemia symptoms are severe – for example, if you feel faint after going for three or four hours without eating – see a doctor.
Metabolic Syndrome (Mayo Clinic)
Sugar-dependent rats show enhanced responding for sugar after abstinence: Evidence of a sugar deprivation effect (Physiology and Behavior)
Sweet Preference, Sugar Addiction and the Familial History of Alcohol Dependence: Shared Neural Pathways and Genes (Journal of Psychoactive Drugs)