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Why Sugar is so Addictive

By Apurva Pophali

Let’s face it - sugar is everywhere. It’s in most of the things we eat and in a lot of the things we drink. It’s difficult to eat packaged goods without consuming added sugar. When scientists from the University of North Carolina individually looked at all the products in an American grocery store, they found that over 68% of them contained added sugars. A lot of these sugars are hidden in foods that aren’t obviously sweet, like sauces, soups and even meat products. As food labs continue finding new ways to enhance flavors, they often circle back to adding more chemicals or adding more sugars, because food corporations and science agree on one key thing: sugar is addictive.

The body loves sugar - it’s one of the simplest forms of carbohydrates, and it breaks down very easily, giving the body an instant boost of energy. This is the opposite of what complex carbohydrates, like bread, fruits, and vegetables do: they take more time to break down, giving the body a slow and sustained source of energy. Since simple sugars can be used up really quickly, the body utilizes them first, resulting in a sugar crash soon after eating something sweet, which again creates a craving for more sugar.

Evolutionarily, the human desire for sugar makes a lot of sense. Sugar and fructose were very important in the hunting-gathering days of the human past, since they stored fat, and thus were very important to survival. Sugar gave our ancestors a much needed burst of energy that allowed them to be more efficient at their strenuous daily tasks. During a global cooling period about 15 million years ago, there was a scarcity of food that caused humans to become more reliant on sugar, which helped them survive at the time. However, the era we live in now is very different: we no longer have to hunt or gather our food daily, and other than some exercise, there isn’t a lot of strenuous activity that would burn the sugars we consume. However, the body’s sensitivity to sugar has stayed the same, and due to evolutionary impulses, we still crave sugar as much as our ancestors did. The abundance of sugar makes this a lot more dangerous, since it easily gets stored as excess fat in the body, leading to future health problems, like diabetes, high blood pressure, increased cholesterol levels, and obesity.

Like drugs, sugar hacks the brain; because of this, many scientists compare sugar to a drug. It’s as addictive as cocaine, and although the side effects aren’t as bad, the addiction can be. Since sugar was necessary for ancestral survival, the brain created a reward system, releasing dopamine every time sugar was consumed, thus signaling that it was a beneficial action, and should be repeated. When foods high in sugar and fat are consumed, the brain releases huge surges of dopamine that further encourage the brain to consume more sugar and fat, creating a vicious cycle that is hard to break out of.

It’s important to keep track of the amount of sugar one consumes, making sure that it stays below the recommended 6-9 teaspoons a day (that’s only 24-36 grams!). Natural sugars are typically okay to consume due to their added benefits, but it’s important to steer clear from artificial sugars as much as possible, since they don’t provide any health benefits. Sugar is addictive because the body has adapted to rewarding us for sugar consumption - an adaptation that was necessary for the survival of our ancestors, but isn’t as helpful today. Due to the abundance of sugar in the world around us, it’s really easy to become addicted to it, but it’s good to remember that evolution hasn’t caught up to the modern world just yet, and until then, we need to be vigilant about what we consume so that we can stay happy and healthy.


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