By Nonie DeLong, ROHP, CNP
This week’s column features the eighth of the top ten nutrition questions I get asked.
Is Sugar Really Addicting?
We know from rat studies that sugar is more addictive than even cocaine. I wrote about the addictive nature of sugar at length here. An inability to stop consuming sugar is not a self control deficit. As such, we really need to stop shaming people who can’t seem to kick it without professional help. In fact, cutting out the shame or guilt we may feel consuming it can help us start to address the problem instead of getting caught up in an emotional response that only feeds the addiction.
Sugar is like most addictive substances: the more we get the more we want. Food companies know this and add sugar to almost all processed foods for this very reason: to sell more. In fact, they measure exactly how much sugar, salt, and fat it takes to make you crave the food the most; it’s called the bliss point. So food is created to make us addicted to it! To better understand this and what the impact of sugar is on the body, there is a great documentary called The Secrets of Sugar that’s a must see!
Which Sugars Are Bad?
Often people think raw sugar or honey or agave or organic sugar are healthier choices because they are more ‘whole’ foods. Many nutrition gurus teach that whole foods are superior in terms of their nutrient profile – and so they are. However, this isn’t the whole story with sugar. The reason sugar is so bad for us is not just because it lacks nutrients or because it amounts to empty calories. It’s not just because it’s processed. The reason sugar is so detrimental to our health and is linked so closely to addiction is complex. Let’s look at it more closely.
Sugar damages our metabolism:
Even those sugars listed above drives insulin resistance. Any sugar that spikes blood sugar levels signals insulin and insulin is like a trigger happy gunman loose in the bloodstream. We are only now starting to discover the wide range of woes it is responsible for. Peruse the more than 2,500 scholarly articles that come up under a Google Scholar search for insulin related disease processes.
Sugar damages our brains:
In this Fifth Estate documentary on sugar, researchers expose how a diet high in sugar for just a few weeks causes brain damage in healthy rats and diabetes markers in healthy humans. Researchers are now calling Alzheimer’s type 3 diabetes. Studies link it closely to a high glycemic (sugar) diet.
Sugar lowers our pain threshold:
“Abnormal insulin signaling and blood sugar dys-regulation (even in the absence of detectable diabetes) may even explain a portion of people suffering with chronic pain. Studies have shown that increased blood sugar leads to a reduced threshold for experiencing pain. This means that body tissues can become hyper sensitized. But, such sensitization can even occur with transient elevations of blood sugar and a fasting level that is still normal. Elevated insulin, by itself, even in the absence of abnormalities on any other testing, has also been shown to reduce pain thresholds.” (Full article and references) Lowered pain threshold means that people may need prescription painkillers more. Enter oxycodone dependence.
Sugar drives inflammation:
Inflammatory processes in the body have to do with a healthy gut biome. The gut biome is not healthy in the presence of an abundance of sugars and starches (the body turns them into sugars). When the gut biome is not balanced we crave sugars and starches to feed the ‘bad’ gut bacteria (a yeast called candida). When this happens it becomes very difficult to function and make rational decisions about sugars/ carbs. The result is a body full of inflammation and pains, fatigue, depression, mental health issues and anxiety. These often become chronic and then prescriptions are written for you guessed it: anti anxiety or pain pills. Benzo and oxy.
Excess sugar consumption can lead to deficiencies
Because sugar is so habit forming we can start to over consume it. We need more and more to feel the dopamine rush from it. This is when it becomes an addiction. At this point, we reach for it more than nutrient dense foods, and it can lead to deficiencies, since it requires so many nutrients to process metabolically, but gives no nutrients back.
Excess sugar creates a need for more sugar
Say what? Think about it and you’ll see it’s true. When we have consumed nutrient deficient sugars in excess for too long our bodies are not metabolically flexible. They can’t remember how to get energy from anything but glucose (sugar) and so we crave it horribly or feel like we have no energy at all. The only way to feel energized immediately is to consume much more sugar. Over time though, the sugar high is followed by an increasingly immediate slump or need to sleep. My nephew calls it the rice coma, since excess rice will bring it on! If you’ve ever experienced this you know how impossible it is to escape from this cycle once it’s begun.
So how do you break the addiction?
Unfortunately, the only way to get out of the cycle of sugar/ carb addiction is to increase metabolic flexibility through training your body to use fat for energy (a ketogenic diet), and regular fasting in the absence of any glucose long enough to enter a ketogenic state. These help the body ‘remember’ how to burn fat for fuel so that the body can create energy without needing more sugar. We then are released from feeling that horrible lack of willpower around sweets.
While using a ketogenic diet to overcome a sugar addiction is safe, it’s best done with professional guidance. Why? Because keto diets are really misunderstood. I have read copious amounts of bad keto information online. I think it would be very hard to get momentum without knowledgeable guidance. Many keto diets rely heavily on processed and inflammatory foods as staples. I feel if I make a diet change, I want it to optimize my health, not just help me lose weight or stop cravings. Ideal body weight is a side effect of good health, not the end goal. What good is it to lose weight and increase inflammation and pain in the body? That’s not what anybody wants when they make the effort to change their diet!
I offer a “Crash Course Keto” program for clients wishing to understand and undertake a ketogenic diet in 30 days. It’s a dollar a day and comes with a list of sugar substitutes that are safe as well as a list of keto friendly sweet recipes so there is no need for cheat days. It also comes with printable downloads and online support for any questions. To learn more readers can send me an email and I’ll send all the information.
If clients want to investigate a keto diet for improving type 2 diabetes my recommendation is to go to dietdoctor.com. There is no more informative and trustworthy site and it contains info to help you on each step of the journey, with user support forums.
I hope this is helpful. As always, if you have your own nutrition related question, send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. If you’d like to read more articles like this, you can find me at askthenutritionist.substack.com.