There is no doubt in my mind that sugar is addictive. Many leading researchers are likening the effects of sugar consumption to that of narcotics such as cocaine! Sound a little extreme? Both sugar and cocaine cause an influx of dopamine in our blood stream, the more refined the sugar the greater the influx too. So if we consider that the average Brit is consuming their bodyweight in sugar every year, with no nutritional benefit whatsoever, there has to be something pretty extreme going on there.
The problem we have is twofold, sugar is addictive as well as being very calorific. It’s not just the calories, but also the way in which the calories are metabolised and used by the body. Fat has more calories per gram compared to sugar, but the body takes a little longer to break fat down into energy (via a complex process called beta-oxidation). Consequently refined sugar in the form of sodas, sweets, table sugar or energy drinks are absorbed almost instantly, often leading to a surplus to requirements that is almost always stored as fat.
We know that sugar AND calories are a problem when it comes to weight gain and related comorbidities such as heart disease, diabetes and high blood pressure. But what is it that is causing us to eat more and more food? Well, a recent study in world renowned journal Nature believes it to be our innate need for CALORIES, and not just the sugar addiction that is plaguing the world.
What our brains prefer
Thank goodness our brain is capable of overriding at least some of the damaging addictive tendencies all too many of us have these days. The researchers from Yale University found that when pressed, the brain will preferentially activate the side of the brain that craves nutrients (calories) rather than sugar.
Our brains have two main reward centres called the ventral striatum (VS) and the dorsal striatum (DS), the VS releases dopamine in response to sugar, whereas the DS responds to nutrients.
Ivan de Araujo, one of the studies researchers said:
“It turns out the brain actually has two segregated sets of neurons to process sweetness and energy signals. If the brain is given the choice between pleasant taste and no energy, or unpleasant taste and energy, the brain picks energy”.
This provides real insight into our eating behaviours. The obvious problem here, which explains why sugar can be so damaging and addictive is that sugar delivers both!
A 10g serving of pure table sugar will provide around 35 calories, plus it’s sweet…not a good combo. Yes 35 calories doesn’t seem that much, but you can start to see the problem when you consider we regularly consume 10 teaspoons of sugar in an average can of coke.
In order for us to truly capitalise on this apparent breakthrough, we would need ways to downregulate the VS reward centre that responds to sugar. Our brain knows that we need nutrients and calories to survive, the problem is we can begin to override the positive signals with the need for sugar. A problem that needs rectifying sooner rather than later!
Tellez, L, A., Han, W., Zhang, W. et al. (2016). Separate circuitries encode the hedonic and nutritional values of sugar. Nature. In Press. Doi:10.1038/nn.4224