As a result of the recent obesity epidemic in the US, scientists have turned their attention in the past few years to the question of why we crave sugar. The answer has come in part from studies of laboratory animals, and humans, leading to some startling findings.
Early man had tongue receptors that could taste sugar, but the modern trend towards making everything very sweet seems to trigger even more cravings for sweet things, and a desire for greater levels of sweetness. Prior to sugar becoming more widely available in the 17th century, humans consumed an average of 7 pounds of sugar, usually in the form of sweet foods like honey, per year. Now in the US it is about 125 pounds of sugar annually.
Artificial sweeteners have actually make the problem worse, with so-called high-intensity sweeteners (HIS) approved by the FDA, such as aspartame, many times sweeter than natural sugar, which therefore boost the craving.
The brain is also re-wired as a result of sugar consumption, leading to cravings. The mechanism isn’t completely understood, but it appears to be a vicious cycle of craving, reward, greater craving, an even bigger reward needed, and so on. The ‘reward’ aspect is both physiological and psychological.
We are rewarded when we eat sweets because they raise dopamine levels in the brain. We can describe dopamine as a ‘feel-good’ chemical that elevates mood and naturally relieves pain. Therefore, sweet things make us feel good. The ‘sugar high’ from eating sweets is therefore not just blood sugar, but mood as well.
We are also rewarded when we are younger. Our parents reward us with dessert if we eat all our dinner. We are rewarded at our birthdays and holidays with sweet treats. We even reward ourselves with food when we complete a task. If we are stressed, many people often manage that stress with food, drink, or both.
The trouble is that the more sugar you get, the more you want, until you start to crave it in the same way that an addict craves a fix.
If you’ve been struggling with a sweet tooth and cravings for sugary foods, it might be time to try a sugar detox to eliminate all sweet things from your diet for a few days to see if you can curb the cravings. Also try to find other ways to reward yourself that don’t involve food or spending money. Then see how much less stressful and more enjoyable life can be, free of the sugar habit.