Sugar addiction: Similar to drug abuse?

April 14, 2016 Providence Health Team

Sugar addiction should be treated as a form of drug abuse, a new study suggests. Scientists at Queensland University of Technology (QUT) in Australia say their research shows that high sugar consumption increases dopamine levels in a way similar to addictive drugs.

Led by Professor Selena Bartlett, a neuroscientist, the researchers’ findings indicate that people who consume large amounts of sugar eventually need to increase their consumption even more to reach the same reward levels in the brain and avoid mild states of depression. The researchers also found in another study that chronic exposure to sucrose can cause eating disorders and behavioral changes in people.

1.9 billion adults overweight

The World Health Organization reported in 2014 that obesity had more than doubled since 1980. That translates into 1.9 billion adults who are overweight and more than 600 million who are obese.

A major factor contributing to this epidemic is sugar consumption. The Australian scientists found that sugar elevates dopamine in a way similar to many drugs and substances that are abused, including tobacco, cocaine and morphine.

Dopamine controls the brain's reward and pleasure centers. With long-term consumption of sugar, dopamine levels decline. That means that people must consume even more sugar to push dopamine levels back up and experience the same levels of pleasure.

Curb sugar cravings with nicotine drugs?

The QUT team, whose study was published in the journal PLoS ONE, found that in addition to gaining weight, test animals that consume large amounts of sugar and binge on food into adulthood may also face neurological and psychiatric problems that affect mood and motivation. Another finding: FDA-approved drugs such as varenicline, a prescription medicine for nicotine addiction, also can fight sugar cravings.

Professor Bartlett said that while further studies are needed, her team’s findings suggest that such medication could provide a novel treatment strategy to fight obesity.

Sugar and the U.S. diet

In the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, the U.S. government says that on average, added sugars account for almost 270 calories, or more than 13 percent, of the calories we consume each day. Consumption as a percentage of calories is particularly high among children, adolescents and young adults.

Natural sugars, such as those found in raisins, fresh fruit and milk, are not considered added sugars.

The major source of added sugar in the typical American diet is beverages, including soft drinks, juice, sweetened coffee and tea, energy drinks, alcoholic beverages and flavored water. In fact, beverages account for 47 percent of all added sugars consumed by Americans.

The other major source of added sugars is snacks and sweets. These include grain-based desserts such as cakes, pies, cookies, brownies, doughnuts and pastries; frozen and dairy desserts such as ice cream; puddings; candy; refined sugar; jams; syrups; and sweet toppings.

Together, these foods and drinks account for more than 75 percent of U.S. consumption of added sugars.

Sugar intake recommendations

The government recommends that we limit added sugars in our diets to no more than 10 percent of our daily calories. Translated, that means about 12 teaspoons of sugar a day. 

Here are some common foods and their sugar content:

  • Snickers bar: 6.75 teaspoons of sugar
  • Can of Coca-Cola: 8.25 teaspoons of sugar
  • Bowl of Raisin Bran: 7.75 teaspoons of sugar
  • Donut: 3.5 teaspoons of sugar

Teaching children about good nutrition and exercise is the best way to help them grow up healthy and happy, and reduce their chances of becoming overweight or obese.

We recommend that you talk with your health care provider if you have questions about improving your diet or choosing the right foods to reduce your sugar consumption. You can find a Providence provider here.

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