Daily Archives: January 30, 2017

Sugar Addiction: Neuroscience Knows it is Real

Karen Thomson calls herself a recovering addict of sugar but her own struggles with addiction didn’t start with sugar. As an inpatient in a rehabilitation program treating alcohol and cocaine addiction, Thomson discovered that her behavioural addiction to illegal substances started with her sugar intake at a young age.

“My first memory of using sugar to soothe myself, to make myself feel better … was when I was four-years-old and there was a big trauma in my family at that time,” Thomson tells The Current’s Anna Maria Tremonti. She remembers her dad at the time coming home at night with a Coca-Cola and a chocolate representing safety and security to Thomson.


Brain activity of people addicted to sugar matches that of people addicted to other substances, says neuroscientist Nicole Avena. (rpavich/flickr cc)

“From that time I started associating the sugary product with these feelings of love and comfort.”

Thomson now practices abstinence from sugar as she does from alcohol and drugs.

“Very often as with other addiction there’s an underlying trauma that hasn’t been dealt with. And that’s why they’re addicted to an external substance,” says Thomson, also the author of  Sugar Free: 8 Weeks to Freedom from Sugar and Carb Addiction. Thomson has used her experience to establish the HELP clinic in Cape Town, South Africa, to help others kick the sugar habit.

Related: Evidence for Sugar Addiction

Neuroscientist Nicole Avena, who specializes in diet and addiction, tells Tremonti that research going back 15 years shows how the brain reacts when a person consumes an excessive amount of sugar.

“There’s activation in areas of the brain that are similar to what you see with an addiction to a drug abuse.”

It also means sugar withdrawal can have similar symptoms to nicotine or morphine withdrawal such as irritability, tremors and shakes.

Avena says addiction treatment follows different approaches that work for different people but suggests using a harm reduction model: cutting out the problematic food can help control intake over time and slowly reduce it.

“Often this is done many times with cases of alcohol misuse and … get to the point where they are regaining control of their behavior and then are slowly able to reintroduce it — with a lot of self-checking along the way to make sure that they’re not having those old habits creep back into play.”

Listen to the full conversation including author of The Hunger Fix, Dr. Pamela Peeke.

This segment was produced by The Current’s Sujata Berry and Sam Colbert.


More on Effects of Sugar

by Sarene Kloren 

It’s no longer a secret that the vast majority of us are blissfully unaware sugar addicts. Modern conveniences in consumables are great at making life easier in the short term, but what about the long-term implications?

A report published in 2009 shows food addiction is plausible as “brain pathways that evolved to respond to natural rewards are also activated by addictive drugs. Sugar releases opioids and dopamine and, thus, might be expected to have addictive potential”.

A further report published in 2013 indicates that sugar is as, if not more, desirable than addictive drugs such as cocaine. This research aims to prove that “sugar and sweetness can induce reward and craving that are comparable in magnitude to those induced by addictive drugs”.

With these two findings it’s hard to believe that, as parents, we are still largely oblivious to the long-term, damaging effects of over consuming sugar-dense foods and beverages.

So a sugar tax may be introduced, which will certainly help moderate and potentially reduce the average consumption of free sugars (sugar added to food and drink, as well as sugar found naturally in honey, syrups, fruit juices and fruit juice concentrates). But it will take a deeper understanding of what we consume to avoid the top health issues South Africans currently face – obesity, diabetes and heart conditions – all resulting largely from sugar-dense diets and little to no exercise.

According to a statement released by the World Health Organisation (WHO) “adults and children need to reduce their daily intake of free sugars to less than 10 percent of their total energy intake. A further reduction to below five percent or roughly 25 grams (6 teaspoons) a day would provide additional health benefits”.

So what is a safe recommended daily allowance for sugar? Although we all lead different lifestyles and have varying metabolic requirements, the UK’s Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition (SACN) have suggested the following:

* Children aged 4 to 6 should have no more than 19g or five teaspoons of free sugars a day.

* Children aged 7 to 10 should have no more than 24g or six teaspoons of free sugars a day.

* Children aged 11 years and upwards, as well as adults, should have no more than 30g or seven teaspoons of free sugar a day.

To illustrate what this means, take a look at some of the popular beverages our children love, and their approximate sugar contents:

* 250ml iced tea = 19g or four teaspoons of free sugar.

* 250ml flavoured drinking yoghurt = 26.8 g or five and a half teaspoons of free sugar.

* 330ml cola = 35g or seven teaspoons of free sugar.

* 330ml ginger beer = 37g or six and a half teaspoons of free sugar.

Overcoming an addiction is by no means an easy feat and the same holds true for sugar dependency. Almost all modern convenience consumables contain added free sugar, especially children’s favourites such as cereals, beverages, fast foods and treats.

So how do we reduce the excess sugars from our diets?

1 Become aware. Understand that food is medicine and always try to ensure that all consumables remain as close as possible to their natural state. If sweetening is required, look at healthier options such as fresh fruit or vegetables.

2 Read labels carefully. Not all free or added sugars are labelled as sugars. For example: agave nectar, corn sweetener, dextrose, honey, corn syrup, sucrose, fructose, glucose and molasses.

3 Limit sugar added beverages, cited as being responsible for the majority of added sugar in US diets. Try naturally flavouring water or using a SodaStream to make fun, healthier drink options. Their syrups also comprise one third of the sugar compared to regular sodas.

4 Reduce your family’s super sweet sugar tolerance with a moderated sugar and bolstered wholefood diet. Over time, consumables high in sugar will start tasting too sweet as your tolerance returns to its normal, natural state.

5 Bake instead of buying treats. Homemade treats will no doubt contain less added and highly synthetic sweeteners, and you have the ability to further reduce the sugar content with natural sweeteners like fruits or vegetables. One favourite cupcake recipe calls for swopping out a large portion of the sugar for a glass of white wine. The alcohol cooks out and makes a delicious, moist cupcake.

The key to all healthy living is moderation and a balanced diet. This is not to say indulgent foods high in fat and/or sugar can’t be enjoyed. They can, but just not daily.