Sugar Addiction: Real or Imagined

Sugar addiction is a term we hear often, and a concept very familiar to those who have embraced a low-carb way of eating. But it remains a controversial and misunderstood concept. On the one side are those who have experienced the cravings and binges associated with sweets and who stand firm in their conviction that they are “addicted” to carbs. These folks also tell us that by embracing a low-carb way of life they have been able to break the chains of sugar addiction that bound them to a life of bingeing, overeating, mood disorders, cravings and unwanted weight gain. ‘Sugar addicts out there should know that it’s not their fault that tasty, sugary or so-called ‘palatable’ foods can trigger biochemical cravings for more”, said Connie Bennett, author of “Sugar Shock!”

On the other hand, however, there are some hard nosed scientists who claim that sugar addiction has never been “proven”; they question whether sugar dependency can actually be demonstrated in the same sense as a dependency on hard drugs like cocaine, or even substances like nicotine and alcohol.

So what’s the real truth?

The idea that sugar addiction is indeed a real and demonstrable phenomenon got a boost recently when scientists at Princeton University were able to demonstrate sugar addiction in rats (1). They withheld food from the rats for about four hours after waking (the equivalent of missing breakfast) and then fed the rats’ regular food plus sugar water on the side. Over time, the rats quickly began running to the sugar water, “bingeing” on it, often consuming all of it within the first hour. When the sugar water was finally withdrawn, the animals exhibited the classic signs of withdrawal: teeth chattering and shaking. And when the sugar was withheld, the scientists noted changes in the animals’ brain chemistry.

The term sugar addiction was first made popular by Kathleen DesMaisons, PhD, an expert in the psychology of addiction. She defined it as a measurable phenomenon caused by activation of the brain’s own opiod receptors. Other research has confirmed that sugar can act as a painkiller, and that sugar’s effects can be blocked by the same drugs that block the action of morphine.

Regardless of whether or not there is such a thing as “sugar addiction” (and we think there is), we can all agree that people differ widely in their response to carbohydrates. We know that some people seem to do fine with grains, for example, while others get tired and foggy. Blood sugar and insulin response to the same food can vary widely from person to person. And the experience of thousands of people who report feeling so much better after “kicking sugar” shouldn’t be discounted simply because there isn’t yet a final scientific verdict on the use of the term “sugar addiction” when it comes to eating sugar.

For now it’s fair to say that- at least for some people- the response to sugar shares a number of characteristics with the more classic forms of addiction. “The implication (of our research)”, says neuroscientist and sugar researcher Bart Hoebel, PhD, of Princeton University, “is that some animals- and some people- can become overly dependent on sweet food.”

“The good news is that you can use some effective tactics and strategies to squash your sugar cravings”, says Bennett. If you suspect that you are “carb-sensitive”, or “sugar-dependent”, give the Atkins program a try. Thousands of people have found that the Atkins low-sugar approach to eating- with it’s higher levels of protein, fat, fiber and antioxidants- is just what the doctor ordered when it comes to treating the cravings, mood swings and weight gain that so many of us would clearly describe as “sugar addiction”. “You don’t”, says Bennett, “have to take orders from a cookie!”

1) “Evidence for sugar addiction: Behavioral and neurochemical effects of intermittent, excessive sugar intake” Nicole M. Avena, Pedro Rada, and Bartley G. Hoebel

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