We’ve all heard it said that somebody has a ‘sweet tooth.’ We may even have heard it about ourselves! Many of the foods that we enjoy most in life – ice cream, chocolate, candy – contain sugar. In some cases, it’s more sugar than our bodies would ideally like to be processing. But is it possible that we could actually become addicted to sugar, and if so, could you be a sugar addict yourself?
You may think that the idea of being a sugar addict is absurd. We tend to think of addicts as people who are hooked on drugs, alcohol or gambling; habits that can destroy lives if they get out of control. Sugar is legal to purchase and present in so many of our foods that we think of it as being mostly harmless. We know we should avoid eating too much of it because it’s bad for our teeth, but as far as most of us are concerned, that’s as harmful as a sweet tooth can get.
Put that thought to one side for a moment, and consider all the ways you might ingest sugar on a daily basis. Do you have a lump of sugar in your tea or coffee? Do you drink sodas throughout the day? Do you use mayonnaise when you’re making food? How many takeaways do you eat in an average week? All of those are ways that we consume sugar without really thinking about it. And that’s before we even start talking about adding sugar to breakfast cereals, which often contain too much already.
Sugar stimulates dopamine
Happiness is a chemical process. When we do things that make us feel good, it’s because the act we’re performing releases a chemical in the brain called dopamine. Dopamine is our brain’s reward system; it releases it when we do something pleasurable. Like all chemicals though, dopamine can become addictive.
This is primarily how drink and drugs become addictive; they either trigger the release of dopamine, or they mimic its effects. To a lesser extent, the same is true of gambling. There is nothing wrong with enjoying the occasional drink or playing slot games, so long as you’re in control of the habit rather than the other way round. The occasional drink can make you more sociable. Playing slot games is excellent entertainment for a lot of people, and skilled play can bring rewards in terms of cash winnings. In the same way, a little sugar rewards you by boosting energy levels and maintaining the appearance of your skin by releasing glycolic acids. It’s only when a habit becomes excessive that it can be damaging.
Without getting too deep into the science, activities that release dopamine rewards become addictive because they make you want to feel the same way again. Whether it’s social interaction, great tasting food, a spin of the reels or an extra drink, we’re genetically predisposed to wanting a little bit more.
Signs you could be addicted to sugar
Now we’ve established that becoming addicted to sugar is possible, how do you know whether you’re at risk yourself, or even whether you’re addicted already? There are some telltale signs, and we’ll list them for you.
Do you always have a sweet course after a meal? It’s not uncommon to have dessert when you visit a restaurant, or after an evening meal, but do you find yourself consuming something sweet after something savory with every meal of the day? Do you have a cookie, an ice cream or a sugary yogurt after lunch? If so, do you think you could easily do without it? Try it and see how you get on. If you find yourself pining for your missing snack, it may be the sugar that you’re missing.
Do you find yourself eating when you’re not full? Almost everybody is guilty of this to an extent, but are you a regular ‘between meals’ eater? Do you have snacks in the fridge, cupboard or a draw at work that you snack on throughout the day? If so, what kind of snacks are they? If your go-to snack is sweet, you could be feeding yourself regular sugar hits without consciously considering your intake.
Do you use sweet food as a comforter? Nobody is happy all the time, and that’s why ‘comfort eating’ exists. When you’re feeling a little blue, do you find yourself turning to food? If so, this works just like the snacking situation we mentioned above. What kind of food do you find yourself turning to? If the answer is cake, candies or chocolate, the chances are that you’re not only indulging a sugar craving, but you’re using sugar as emotional support. That’s a clear sign of addiction, and a good reason to change your habits.
Do you get headaches if you’ve not eaten something sugary for a while? This is a withdrawal symptom, and happens in every case of addiction when an addict is denied access to whatever they’re addicted to. Your brain has become accustomed to receiving a certain level of its preferred stimulant every day, and these cravings manifest themselves as physical pain. If this sounds familiar, the good news is that the headaches and cravings will pass in a few days. You just have to force yourself to endure them for a while if you want to break free.
If you recognize yourself in any of the above scenarios, don’t panic. There are worse things you could be addicted to than sugar, but it’s never desirable to be reliant on anything to feel good, and we know from a medical point of view that too much sugar can cause diabetes. That means you’d be better off breaking free of the cycle. You don’t have to cut out sugar completely; you just have to reduce your intake to a healthier level.
Drinking water can help, as it reduces cravings. Eating a piece of fruit will often give your body the sugar it wants in a healthier way than consuming artificial sugars, because it comes from a natural product. Even taking a bath or going for a walk can help, as they take your mind off eating. Most importantly, always check the labels on your food.
We don’t want or need to live in a world without sugar, but we could all do with ingesting a little less.