Some people claim to be chocoholics. We all know a southerner or two who couldn’t survive without glasses of “sweet tea,” and it’s not the tea that is addictive.
Your craving for sugar is more complex than the normal glucose-insulin balancing act. It goes beyond the need for an energy boost when we complain we have “low blood sugar.”
In defense of chocoholics, they may have a point. Sweets don’t cause addiction in the manner of crack cocaine or opioids. We don’t ache, shiver, and feel a bone-crushing fatigue, thank goodness. But the brain knows…
Sugar may actually change your brain chemistry. An experiment conducted in Germany on Göttingen minipigs went beneath the skull to see what happened to these animals when they regularly enjoyed sweets.
As anyone who knows anything about training animals is well aware, animals can be conditioned to anticipate treats. Mice run to push levers to dispense food, Pavlov’s dogs started salivating on cue, and dogs that were rewarded for following the “sit” command often sit voluntarily hoping to make good things happen.
The difference in the German experiment was that researchers did PET scans of the piglets' brains to see what happened there in the presence of sugar.
After 12 days of giving some of the pigs sugar, the researchers saw changes in the pigs’ brains. The pigs were allowed to have sucrose for one hour per day. At the outset, their dopamine and opioid systems were highly activated. Sugar made them happy.
After 12 days of intermittent daily sugar binges, however, the dopamine receptors in the brain that were activated at the beginning became less active. The pattern is the same one observed with addictive drugs.
It should also be noted, that the pigs registered a 13% gain in body weight during the experiment.
Calories are fuel. In nature, it’s a struggle to keep a body going. And so, we are built to love sugar for the power it provides. We are even, it seems, built to become addicted to it.
Unfortunately, gaining pounds does not decrease our taste for sweets. If anything, being sleepy, tired, or feeling sluggish from being overweight makes the sugar urge more powerful. The only known cure for the condition is a sugar fast—where you have to endure several highly annoying days with zero sugar to turn off the crazy urge.
A sugar fast may be saintly. Your friends may all admire you. But we have to admit it’s no fun to start. It may be the one best way to get on the path to lower weight and better eating habits though… because, as the pigs can tell you, sugar is addictive.
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