Sugar addiction: Why are we hooked and what can we do about it?

It's often demonised, yet it's widely loved. Sugar gets a lot of publicity. Some people even talk about sugar addiction. We untangle the facts from the fiction.

Sugar addiction: Why are we hooked and what can we do about it?

Long ago, humans were hunter-gatherers. Our ancestors mainly ate fruit and veg, and later meat and cereals. Sugary foods were our main source of energy. This energy was essential for giving us the strength to find more food and therefore survive. 

Nowadays, most of us are far more sedentary, yet we continue to eat sugar because our brains have been programmed to do so! So you're neither alone nor unusual in getting those cravings for sweet treats.

Why are we so hooked on sugar? What are the dangers of this addiction? And what can we do to break the habit? Let's find out together.

What is sugar for?

Before we get onto the matter of addiction, it's important to know why sugar exists. Its existence isn't without reason, and it's something we need in our lives.
Sugar belongs to the carbohydrate family, whose main role is to provide our bodies with the energy they need to function. It's our cells' fuel. Discover our feature on carbs.
For example, glucose allows our muscles to contract, whether it's a marathon runner's calf or your index finger when you click a mouse.
Glucose is also essential for our brains, which consume vast amounts of energy. In fact, while our brains account for just 2% of our weight, they use 60% of the body's glucose when resting!
So you can see that, without this fuel, it's very hard to move, think, focus or simply live. 

There are two main types of sugar: 

Fast sugars: table sugar, fruit, dried fruit.
Slow sugars: mainly cereal products.

Sugar therefore isn't necessarily something that tastes sweet. It's one of our bodies' motors, provided that we eat it with care...

Sugar affects our brains like a drug

When we eat a sugary product, our brains' reward system fires up. Dopamine - the happiness hormone - is secreted by our neurones, which makes us feel good, like we're on cloud nine. Our brains quickly take note of this sensation. And they associate sugar with pleasure.
In reality, this phenomenon is nothing new, but dates back to our childhood. Breast milk is sugary and therefore synonymous with comfort and a mother's love.
Have your parents ever told you to “finish your mains before you're allowed pudding” or even “you did really well at school, here's some money to buy a few sweeties”.
As you can see, sugar becomes our comfort blanket from a young age, and not just a source of energy needed for survival.

Which is why we're so addicted to sugar! And businesses are all too aware of that…

The impacts of sugar on our health

Overconsumption of sugar

As with anything, overindulging won't do you any good. Modern humans eat far too much sugar, not just in naturally sweet products but also in processed foods.
Current sugar consumption greatly outweighs our needs. We're not hunters; we're mainly sedentary. Even if we fit sports activities into our daily routines, that doesn't make up for the 7 hours spent sitting in front of a computer screen, followed by 3 hours staring at our phone or TV screens. Our daily needs have decreased as we've evolved.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) recommends limiting our consumption of added sugar to 25 g (six teaspoons) per day for adults. And for kids, they recommend just 12 g per day.
For comparison, in France, people eat on average around 100 g (24 teaspoons) of added sugar each day.

Tiring out our bodies

The other problem with our sugar addiction is the poor quality of the sugar we consume. Most of the time, we're eating processed, industrial sugar with no nutritional value. We eat foods full of "empty calories" that the body struggles to digest. However, digestion burns more than 70% of our energy. Eating sugar to burn energy can therefore end up being counterproductive.

And the kick in the teeth is that sugar leads to the inflammation that lies behind numerous health problems, including:
digestive and intestinal disorders;
cardiovascular disorders;
respiratory disorders;
a weakened immune system.

But it's not always easy to quit, because sugar is so ingrained in our daily lives.

Sugar is everywhere!

Most poor-quality sugars are found in processed and ultra-processed foods such as:
biscuits and cakes;
drinks (juice and fizzy drinks);
processed savoury products, in sauces, tomato ketchup, soup, etc.
In short, in 80% of processed foods.
Check out our article on hidden sugars.

It's the fact that they're hidden that makes them so addictive. We eat them without even realising, and that means we overindulge.
And the more we eat, the more addicted we become. This is exactly why manufacturers use sugar: to make us want more and more. The agri-food industry maintains this addiction and tricks our brains.

4 tips to limit your sugar addiction

Even if it seems impossible at first, you can count on your brain's plasticity to break the habit! Our brains are always learning and they adapt very quickly to new situations. After just a few days or weeks of controlling your impulses, your brain will be used to eating less sugar and you'll quickly feel the benefits of your lower intake. It's good for both mind and body. 

But how do you actually do it? Here are some things you can try: 

*Stop buying processed foods and switch to so-called "wholefoods";
*Have 70% cocoa dark chocolate instead of a bar of milk chocolate;
*Try out more natural alternatives to highly addictive, refined white sugar;
*Replace your sugary breakfast with a savoury alternative.

For example, Avocado and egg on toast with some fresh fruit. By avoiding sugar at the start of the day, your brain will become less dependent.

So is sugar a friend or an enemy? There's no right answer. Sugar is first and foremost a source of energy, but it's also a reward. Sugar addiction is real and there's a reason for it. You're not the only one to suffer from it! So now that you understand where this addiction comes from, it's time to quit. Where would you like to start? 

Sugar addiction: Why are we hooked and what can we do about it?

alexandra

Naturopath & Yoga Teacher - Diet and Sport Consultant

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