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Sugar High: Linking Sugar and Addictive Behavior

Research shows that sugar has a devastating effect on more than just your midsection... it plays tricks on your brain, too. Fix your need for a fix.

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Is Sugar Killing You?

Despite your dedication to sculpting a toned and healthy body, you may feel powerless in the presence of anything buried in a fluffy mountain of icing. If so, you’re not alone. Sugar consumption in the U.S. has increased by 19 percent since 1970. Americans consume 30 teaspoons of added sugar per day, despite the American Heart Association’s recommendation of no more than six teaspoons per day for women.

And yet, study after study shows that our penchant for sweets is slowly killing us. A 2012 report published in the journal Global Public Health found that populations that consume the largest amounts of high-fructose corn syrup – the most prevalent kind of added sugar – have 20-percent higher rates of type 2 diabetes than those that eat the least. “Sugar is the major source of calories in the diet today, and it’s associated, directly and indirectly, with a slew of health risks because it promotes obesity,” says study author Michael Goran, PhD, professor of preventive medicine, physiology and biophysics at the Keck School of Medicine at the University of Southern California. “It increases the risk of high cholesterol, excess triglycerides and cardiovascular disease.”

Despite your best efforts to whittle your waist in the gym, consuming too much sugar can make belly bulge inescapable. Fructose, a simple sugar that is naturally found in fruit and is added to foods and beverages as a sweetener, is metabolized almost entirely in the liver, says Goran. “When you consume more fructose than your body needs or can handle, it gets converted into fat and stored in and around the liver, which sets the stage for abdominal fat,” he explains. Research shows that excess belly fat can increase your risk of heart disease and type 2 diabetes. Worse still, a 10-year study published in The New England Journal of Medicine found that for every two-inch increase in waist circumference, women have a 13-percent greater risk of dying.

Your Brain on Sugar

All that sugar isn’t just impacting your health, however. It’s messing with your brain, too. If you’ve ever felt like your desire for sweets was akin to an addict’s craving for drugs, your hunch wasn’t far off. In a groundbreaking 2011 study, researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to scan participants’ brains in response to either seeing or drinking a chocolate milkshake.

What they found: the changes that occurred in anticipation of the drink and while consuming it were very similar to what’s observed in the brains of people who are addicted to drugs and alcohol.

Much like the cravings for other addictive substances, “a food craving begins with a cue,” says Nicole Avena, PhD, a neuroscientist at the University of Florida in Gainesville. “When we talk about cravings, we’re really talking about memories of things we’ve previously learned. Before ever tasting a substance, its packaging, a menu or a restaurant logo are meaningless. However, once they have been paired with the good taste and reward of food, these things can become cues.” A cue can also come in the form of a smell – like the scent of freshly baked cookies – or emotions like stress or boredom. “Your brain pairs the cue with the food and, over time, a cue becomes the thing that elicits the craving,” Avena adds.

See AlsoSugar Shock

Next, your hormones come into play, says Ashley Gearhardt, PhD, assistant professor of clinical psychiatry at the University of Michigan. The cue triggers parts of the brain associated with pleasure, which in turn release dopamine, a hormone associated with feelings of motivation and desire. Furthermore, dopamine drives us to repeat feel-good behaviors, so once you’ve given into your craving, you may already be reaching for another brownie before you’ve even wiped the crumbs of the first one from your face. This makes it more likely that you’ll crave the food again down the road.

Perhaps the most troubling similarity between addictive substances: recent research has shown that you may build up a tolerance to the effects of sugar over time. “The milkshake study found that people who experienced the most addictive eating behaviors exhibited less activation in the reward regions of the brain that would help them stop eating,” says Gearhardt. “If a sugary food doesn’t give you as much pleasure, or reward, as you expect to get from it, you may continue eating more in an attempt to achieve that level of satisfaction,” she explains. In other words, the more sugar you eat, the more of it you require to satisfy that “fix” – and the harder it becomes to kick the habit.

While the science on sugar addiction is still new, researchers have identified several things you can do to break the cravings cycle.

While the science on sugar addiction is still new, researchers have identified several things you can do to break the cravings cycle. Help keep your health and waistline intact with these tips.

  1. Visualize the risks. A study published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America found that, during the onset of a craving, picturing the negative consequences of eating something unhealthy (for example, thinking about weight gain or type 2 diabetes while going to town on a cookie) activates parts of the brain’s prefrontal cortex, which is associated with inhibition and makes you less likely to succumb to cravings. Take this process one step further by imagining how the consequences would actually make you look, feel and behave. Picture the extra weight on your frame, for example, or the way you would react to receiving a type 2 diabetes diagnosis at the doctor’s office.
  2. Think about your goals. Keep a list on your smartphone or create a Pinterest board with images that represent your goals, such as looking and feeling great on vacation. Then, when a craving strikes, turn to your notes or reference your board to keep your health goals in check.
  3. Eat every three to four hours. According to brain scans, high-calorie food appears more rewarding when you’re hungry, reports a not yet published study from Imperial College London. “When you’re hungry, you become even more sensitive to cues in your environment, especially junk food, and they set off a greater rush of dopamine than when you’re satiated,” explains Ashley Gearhardt, PhD, assistant professor of clinical psychiatry at the University of Michigan. Check in with your hunger throughout the day. If level one is starving and 10 is overly full, never drop below a three, she adds.
  4. Be more mindful. “If you tend to overeat certain foods, get into the habit of writing down how you feel before and after you eat those foods,” advises Nicole Avena, PhD, a neuroscientist at the University of Florida. Not only will this help you to notice patterns – for example, you tend to raid the candy jar whenever you feel inadequate at work – it can also derail the cue-eat connection. According to Avena, the greater the time between the cue and the reinforcer, or reward (like that tasty treat you’re craving), the weaker the connection becomes. So while you might give into your sweet craving today, when you get into the habit of pausing and journaling before you eat, that cue will have less power over you down the road.
  5. Create a healthier environment. Alter your home and workspace to get rid of cues that spark sugar cravings. Take it even further than simply tossing out any junk food. For instance, perhaps a song on your playlist calls to mind a bad breakup, and you suddenly find yourself elbow-deep in caramel popcorn – delete the song. You may not be able to control the environment outside, but you’re in charge of the cues in your personal spaces.
  6. Identify good-for-you distractions. The next time you’re tempted to give into a craving, hit the gym instead for a healthy, feel-good rush. You can also use the information in your journal to identify those times when distractions can save you from sugar, says Gearhardt. For example, if boredom or loneliness set you up for sugar cravings, be proactive with a list of things you can do during those occasions besides eating. Call a friend or family member to catch up; adopt a hobby, like photography or learning to cook healthy foods. When you address the emotions or behaviors with activities besides eating, eventually, they’ll cease to trigger cravings.
  7. Score six to eight hours of sleep per night. “Just like when you’re hungry, your brain is more reactive to cues in the environment when you’re sleep deprived,” says Gearhardt. One reason: a lack of sleep increases hunger hormones that drive you to seek out high-calorie grub.
  8. Surf the craving. “In general, cravings only occur for no more than 20 to 30 minutes,” says Gearhardt. Instead of trying to avoid the sensation of a craving, mindfully notice the physical and mental sensations you feel. Is your heart speeding up? Do you feel a little anxious? Are you obsessing about a certain sweet? “At first, the craving may get worse, but remind yourself that it will eventually go down, then watch the craving decrease,” she advises. Picture the rise, peak and decline like a wave in the ocean, with you along for the ride, surfing it. With some practice, you’ll learn how to avoid giving into the craving when it strikes, so your food urges no longer control your behavior.