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Dietitians Dish: Sugar can become an addiction

By By Stephanie Markman, RD, LD
May 28, 2013 at 12:28 a.m.


Sugar addiction may sound a little extra extreme; however, when we consume sugar, dopamine and opioids are released in the brain promoting pleasure and stimulating the part of the brain responsible for motivation, novelty and reward, according to Psychology Today.

These same feel-good brain hormones are also stimulated with heroin and nicotine intake. As our sugar consumption continues, the dopamine receptors become less sensitive, and we require more sugar to achieve the same level of pleasure. Thus, sugar becomes an addiction.

On the less-addictive side, blood sugar or blood glucose levels drop in the body and send out signals to the brain to seek glucose, which is found in carbohydrates.

Sugar and simple carbohydrates are digested the quickest into glucose, which is why we often have a tendency to choose these foods first. This includes table sugar, chips, sweet treats, soda, crackers, products with white flour, yogurt, fruit, fruit juices and chocolate to name a few.

Sugar is also disguised under other names such as: honey, fructose, maltose, sucrose, dextrose, cane sugar, agave nectar, brown rice syrup, brown sugar, high-fructose corn syrup, raw sugar, turbinado, evaporated cane juice, malt syrup and molasses. If any of these are listed in the ingredients on a food label you know you are consuming sugar.

Keep in mind the first ingredient listed is the one that weighs the most. Therefore, make sure one of these forms of sugar is not one of the first few ingredients, especially since many foods such as salad dressings, ketchup and baked beans contain unexpected amounts of sugar.

It is more important to focus on the ingredients rather than the grams of sugar on the food label. This is because sugar on the food label includes natural and added sugars: sucrose (white table sugar), dextrose, fructose, lactose, corn syrup, honey and high fructose. With the USDA's definition of sugar, a glass of milk or banana could be considered high in sugar; however, we know that these are both healthy choices.

To help you stay away from sugar and its dependent effects, make sure you keep your blood sugar under control. You can do this by not skipping meals and making sure you get some form of carbohydrate at every meal and snack in combination with protein and/or fat.

Also, be sure you stay away from sugar-substitutes as they may trigger cravings for the real thing.

Research has found that people who get 7-8 hours of sleep each night have fewer cravings and a healthier body weight, so rest up. If you consume sugar on a daily basis, keep in mind you may feel more irritable and less energetic when you start cutting down your intake.

However, cutting out sugar has major benefits. One, you will not be dependent on something for a mood and energy enhancer. Two, you will likely cut out hundreds of calories from you diet resulting in weight loss, as the average American consumes 156 pounds of sugar a year.

In addition, excess sugar intake has been shown to increase the risk of developing breast and colon cancer, raise your LDL-cholesterol (bad cholesterol) and increase plaque deposits in arteries.

An appropriate amount of sugar consumed each day is 15-25 grams/1,000 calories. For the average American this is equal to a 150-calorie, sweet treat such as one cookie, half of a cup of ice cream or half of a large candy bar.

Just remember when you sit down for that sweet treat, the pleasure only lasts a few moments, but when you choose a healthier option, the benefits will last a lifetime.

Stephanie Markman is a registered and licensed dietitian DeTar Healthcare Systems. Send questions or comments to dietitians@vicad.com.

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