Why is Sugar so Addictive?

a happy attractive woman eating ice cream

Why is Sugar so Addictive?

Most of us have an innate attraction to sweets. Ice cream, cookies, cake, soda, candy, chocolate, (chocolate again), make up a classic kryptonite to humanity. 

We all know the craving is there. We know it is persistent, we know that it rarely goes away. But what we may not know is why that craving exists in the first place.

Glucose is one of the most vital molecules to the sustenance of life. It provides the fuel that allows our cells to function, specifically neurons, which are responsible for sending signals from the brain across the body, essentially allowing for all forms of bodily functions, including physical movement. 

Me typing this, the same as you reading it, involves thousands of neurons firing at instantaneous rates. Because neurons are unable to store glucose themselves, in order to function, they need a relatively constant glucose supply in the bloodstream. 

With an inadequate supply, they cannot function.

Because of this ancient relationship between glucose and neurons, some scientists believe that our sweet-tooth is a derivation of natural survival instincts. 

They believe that humans tend to enjoy the taste of those foods that contain molecules necessary for life, including salt, fat, and sugar.

Strangely enough, the taste alone of sugar actually serves as a brain-stimulant. Participants in a study who swirled sugar-water in their mouth, without swallowing it, performed better on mental tests than those who did not.

Starts at an Early Age

Our relationship with sugar, and one of the reasons it can become so dangerous, is that our cravings for sweet food begin at birth. 

Washington University conducted a study that concluded that newborn babies have a distinct preference for sweet foods, and further, that children, more so than adults, prefer sweeter tasting food, something that is not entirely surprising.

The reason for this newborn sweet-tooth’ is likely due to evolution. In times when the hunt to find food meant life or death, those with a predisposition to foods higher in calories and glucose very simply had a higher chance of survival. 

The problem now is that we live in a society vastly different, and far more complex than our ancestors. 

Food of all sorts, including sugar, both refined and unrefined, are readily and easily available to everyone, a fact that bears a strong relationship to the obesity epidemic that has been sweeping the nation for years now.

Doctors are now suggesting that parents keep sugary foods away from their newborn babies, to try and curb their sugar-cravings early on. Failure to do this may end up inflicting harm later on in your child’s life.

Sugar as a Mood Booster

The reason sugar is so easy to consume in such large quantities is that sugar consumption causes a release of serotonin into the bloodstream. 

Serotonin is a happy’ hormone, which is why cake at a birthday party is so appealing, or a Twix bar as a reward for an hour of studying is so attractive. 

We center celebrations and rewards, and really any happy occasion, around consumption of sugary foods, to help boost our mood. 

And, when we’re sad, we turn to those foods, some people taking a pint of ice cream to the couch after a breakup to try and feel better. And biologically, that method will work. 

But the problem with using sugar as a mood booster, is that sudden high blood sugar levels lead to a sudden influx of insulin, which causes a ‘sugar crash’.

The result is exhaustion and fatigue, and probably more than a little irritation. Eating more sugar after a crash will temporarily lift the crash. 

That happens due to its release of serotonin, which presents the beginnings of a very dangerous cycle of binge-eating, an eating pattern that, if left uncontrolled, can lead to obesity and diabetes, which can in turn cause a multitude of life-threatening health problems and diseases.

Additional Dangers of Sugar

An added danger of sugar is that our bodies cannot recognize the different types of sugar. There is glucose, which is the natural form of the molecule, but there is also fructose, which is often found in plants.

A study conducted by Yale University concluded that, while glucose consumption repressed the part of our brain that makes us want to eat, fructose consumption did not. 

Further, the study found that glucose consumption came with a greater feeling of satisfaction than fructose consumption. 

This makes overeating an even more real risk. If faced with foods sweetened by fructose, your body will simply not know how much is too much, as the normal biological reactions to sugar consumption will not occur.

Another issue is the advent of processed foods, which are oftentimes full of hidden sugar. Many of these processed foods are sweetened with sucrose, which contains 50% fructose.

I already mentioned that our bodies cannot recognize the different forms of sugar. But more than that, our bodies cannot recognize the source; if sugar intake results from the natural sugars found in fruit, milk, or honey, or if sugar intake results from the sugar processed from cane or beet.

When we consume sugar, regardless of the type, and regardless of where it came from, our bodies break it down into glucose and fructose in the liver. Then, they are converted into glycogen or fat for storage, or are kept as glucose and released into the bloodstream, for use as cellular energy.

How Much is Okay?

Sugar is not bad. Sugar is a necessary part of life. The area where problems can occur is in quantity of sugar.

In terms of how much really is too much, experts suggest about 25 grams per day for women, and 38 grams per day for men. This number is a rough estimate, and will vary based upon size and daily activity; someone who exercises often will need to consume more sugar, regardless of their gender.

These numbers come from the suggestion that added sugars should not make up more than 10% of your daily energy intake, regardless of if your source of sugar is coming from a can of Pepsi or an apple.

The point is that sugar is okay in small, controlled quantities. But that doesn’t mean you should ignore that sugar poses a legitimate danger, and overconsumption of sugar can be lethal. 

So, just be careful at the grocery store. 

Pay attention to what you eat. 

And try your best to train your body against added sugars. 

I know that takes immense willpower. But it is definitely a worthwhile venture.

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Article by:

Daniel DeMoss

I’m a personal trainer based in Denver (Matrix Gym) and a true fitness nerd. If I’m not training clients or working out at my home gym, I’m probably skiing, cycling or hiking with my dog Rufus.