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Scientists are debating whether sugar addiction can be compared to dependency on caffeine, nicotine, alcohol or drugs. People who consider themselves “sugar addicts” report that they experience intense cravings for sweet foods, develop an increasing tolerance for sweetness, and suffer from withdrawal symptoms such as irritability and fatigue after they have gone without sugar for several hours.
Scientific studies suggest that foods high in sugar, fat and certain carbohydrates are especially likely to stimulate the brain in ways that can become addictive. The consumption of sugar-rich foods or drinks triggers the release in some brains of endorphins, natural hormones that block pain and create a sense of well-being. Sugar activates the same areas of the brain as drugs like cocaine. Sweet foods also affect the production of stress hormones in ways likely to provide temporary relief from feelings of anxiety.
These studies suggest that, at least for some people, overcoming the desire for sweet foods requires more than just will power and that genetics make some people more inclined to sugar addiction.
Emotional and physical factors also contribute to overconsumption of sugar. Children are often rewarded with sweet treats, creating a lifelong association between sugar and positive experiences. Cakes, candy, chocolate and desserts are associated with celebrations and holidays, and with luxury and self-pampering. Many people eat sweets when they are under stress, or eat them as comfort foods. When you feel sleepy or fatigued, it is tempting to eat something sweet for energy.
When you overload on sweet foods, the excess sugar may alter the parts of the brain that control how much you eat and cause you to eat larger quantities. Sweet foods often combine sugar with fats and other high-calorie ingredients. Starchy foods like bagels, chips, waffles, french fries, white bread and pasta also feed a sugar addiction because the body breaks them down into simple sugars that make your blood sugar surge. Sugar contributes to obesity because the body stores excess calories as fat.
Sugary foods surround us at home, at the office, in the supermarket and in restaurants. It is more convenient to grab a cookie when you are hungry than to prepare a meal or a healthy snack. Even supposedly health foods like breakfast cereals, yogurt, granola bars and dried fruit have sugar added to them.
To overcome an addiction to sweet foods, you have to make conscious choices to avoid sugar. Here are some tips for controlling the sugar in your life:
+ Replace packaged and processed foods with fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and proteins.
+ Read the labels on packaged foods. Ingredients are always listed with the main ingredients first.
Stay away from foods that list any form of sugar among the first few ingredients, or contain more than four total grams of sugar per serving.
+ Drink water or unsweetened teas instead of sodas and sports drinks, and eat fruit instead of drinking fruit juice. Fruit juice contains high concentrations of sugar, and does not give you the fiber and other nutrients that you get from a piece of fruit.
+ Cut down the sugar you sprinkle on your cereal or stir into coffee or tea. As you gradually reduce the amount of sugar you use, you will find you no longer want your food to taste as sweet.
+ Eat small meals or snacks several times a day to keep your blood sugar balanced.
+ Save candy, cookies and cake for special occasions and do not keep them in your pantry.
Recently, many sugar-free products have appeared in the grocery store. Artificial sweeteners are not the answer because they do not change your eating habits. Many sugar-free products are high in fats and carbohydrates to compensate. Artificial sweetener in your coffee or tea may cause you to crave more sugar.
Whenever you are tempted, remind yourself that too much sugar can harm your body and cause you to gain weight. Soon you will find you no longer enjoy foods that are too sweet.
Dr. Carlene Wilson is a board-certified internist and pediatrician in private practice in Crystal River. Call her at 352-563-5070 or visit www.IMPWellnessCenter.com.