A startling study published in 2007 in the non-profit journal PLOS One rocked the food industry and people’s attitudes toward their eating habits when it reported that in mice, sugar was more addictive to them than cocaine.
This led to a range of new studies seeking to confirm or refute the findings. Fast forward to the present day, and the evidence is growing that sugar does indeed have addictive properties.
Researchers are not yet certain of the mechanisms behind sugar addiction, but they have a couple of significant hints as to why it is possible. Some of them are physical and some are mental.
From the moment we are young, we are introduced to sweet foods such as applesauce and baby foods that are made with fruit and starchy-sweet vegetables like carrots. The tongue, however, seems to be relatively primitive and can’t handle the intense sweetness of modern foods, which are loaded with sugar, sugar substitutes and artificial sweeteners. The more it gets, the more it craves. If you think about your food cravings, do they start in the stomach, or in your mouth?
Another physical reason for sugar addiction is that eating sweet things releases the feel-good chemical dopamine, giving you a ‘buzz’ in mood, pain levels and energy levels. This significant chemical change in the brain leads to a desire for continuing ‘happiness’, which means more sugar.
Studies have shown that the cravings produce a feedback loop in the brain. It sees the sugar as a reward, and strives to get more. The more it gets, the more it wants the reward.
Over time this leads to the brain being remodeled and re-wired to the point of addiction and poor impulse control. In addition, this can have a significant effect on mood and brain chemistry, which could be one of the reasons why a high-carb, high sugar diet is associated strongly with Alzheimer’s disease.
Artificial sweeteners have an impact on the sugar cravings in the brain as well. They have been used for decades under the assumption they were better for us than sugar, but research shows that they have a similar impact on sugar cravings and also affect blood sugar.
Some of them are especially dangerous because they change into harmful chemicals once they are digested. For example, aspartame has been linked to ‘holes in the brain’ in laboratory animals and methanol poisoning, which affects the brain, in humans.
Sweet tastes therefore seem to be very addictive no matter what the sources. If you’ve been struggling to curb your craving, it might be time to cut all desserts and pre-packaged foods from your diet.