Is Sugar Addictive, or Do People Just Act Like it is?

When we ponder how best to improve our diets and related, lifestyle choices, curbing our sweet tooth is usually considered. But is it a choice? Or might it require something like a 12-step plan and 24-hour hotlines?

We first tend to look at “cutting down” on our sugar intake. Yet with addictive substances ranging from tobacco to alcohol to cocaine, we know that cutting down won’t cut it.

Sugar has long been considered a nutrient – a carbohydrate – that our bodies can use to maintain good health – including good mental health. It’s also a reward for hard work or good deeds and helps get you through misery and sadness.

It excites the region of the brain known as the “reward center” – just like nicotine, cocaine and alcohol. But of course, no one immediately dies or gets sick due to an overdose.

In human history, a comparison can be drawn with cocoa leaves, which are mildly stimulating when chewed but powerfully addictive when refined into cocaine and snorted (even more so when taken directly into the lungs as crack cocaine). Over centuries, sugar also has been refined from its original forms, concentrating is effects, heightening its “rush.”

It seems sugar consumption isn’t followed by withdrawal symptoms, even of a minor sort. But as some nutritionists have noted, maybe that’s because we tend never to stop consuming sugar. It’s in so many things we routinely eat, especially processed foods and even “healthy alternatives,” branded as such because fats, gluten and other scorned substances are removed.

Candy bars minus fat can turn into “health food bars.” Yogurt sans fat can be “heart healthy.” In such products, fat often is replaced by sugar, sometimes disguised by a synonym such as fructose. It’s as if our palates must be compensated.

Sweets taste good. So do so many foods that have sugar as an ingredient. Sugar’s potential harm – obesity, diabetes, heart disease, hypertension and more – can result over decades … or not. Thus, we are loath to “just say no” and suddenly stop consuming sugar entirely.

(Adapted from a Jan. 5, 2017, story on The Guardian website.)