Most of us have experienced addiction at some point in our lives but some dependences are harder to recognise than others. Throughout my childhood, junk foods like crisps, chocolates and fizzy drinks made up a worrying portion of my diet. It was only in my mid-teens that I became conscious of what I was consuming and the repercussions it could have on my health. Recently I have realized that what I once disregarded as a sweet tooth was an addiction to be taken seriously.
I will discuss, in my opinion, what the reason for our sugar obsession is and where it came from. So, as humans we have evolved to crave certain things that help us survive and reproduce – continuing the existence of our species. These include procreation and social interaction as well as the need to consume calories. However, I feel like these days we turn to sugary, non-nutritious foods to satisfy our innate desire for calories which can be backed up through theory (Spector, 2014).
So, what happens in our bodies that leads to a dependency on sugar? When we indulge in sugary snacks and foods our levels of serotonin increase which has an important role in regulating pain and mood and has an overall calming effect.
However, dopamine may be the main culprit that leads to sugar addiction. Dopamine produces strong sensations of pleasure in the reward centre of the brain and its levels increase when we ingest sugar. Constant and over release of dopamine causes a deficiency in dopamine receptors as the body tries to compensate for over stimulation. This leads to something called tolerance where we need increasingly greater doses of a substance to achieve the same ‘high’. This also leads to withdrawal symptoms when we try to cut sugar out of our diet as our bodies struggle to cope with the drop in dopamine levels (Curtis, 2013). Are you still with me?
A study by Dr Serge Ahmed, a scientist with the University of Bordeaux in France, found that when given the choice between sweetened water and cocaine, the vast majority (94%) of rats preferred sweetness over the highly addictive drug. This is a fascinating study and a lesson that the addictive powers of refined sugar are not to be underestimated. Dr Serge concluded: “When society finally discovers that refined sugar is just another white powder, along with pure cocaine, it will change its mind and attitude toward refined food addiction,” (Bennett, 2011).
Whether it is the rise of the obesity epidemic or the increase in prevalence of life threatening diseases such as diabetes and heart disease, we can see that the impact of sugar on our world is very real. Yet our obsession with sweetness is made to seem trivial in comparison with more ‘worrying’ addictions to substances such as nicotine, drugs and alcohol. I believe that all of these substances have the potential to cause harm but simply recognising an addiction is the most important step in breaking the cycle.