There are many scientists that would classify sugar as a drug. When you learn about how your body responds to sugar intake, you may start to realize that may be true.
Have you ever had such an intense craving for sugar that you said something like “I have to have my fix,” or “I’m addicted to these cookies,”? Often people talk about sugary sweets as if they were a drug, for a good reason! Sugar has addictive properties.
In this post, you’ll learn what is happening in the body when you eat a sweet. This information is beneficial for understanding cravings and eating patterns. It will also help you find ways to take back control and cut down on sweets as a part of your healthy lifestyle.
What Is Sugar, Exactly?
“Sugar” actually refers to several different molecules which come in various formations. There are two basic categories for sugar: single and double.
Within these categories, there are even more sub-categories. The body processes molecules depending on their structure, so each kind of sugar has a particular pathway in the body. We’ll cover the important ones here.
Single Sugars (Monosaccharides)
There are two major kinds of monosaccharides, glucose, and fructose, and they are each processed differently in the body.
The first type of single sugar we’ll go over is glucose. Many carbs (like bread) contain the simple sugar glucose. Glucose can be processed in the brain and muscles. When doctors refer to “blood sugar” they are talking about glucose levels. Glucose causes the body to release insulin. It also causes the release of leptin, also known as the “satiety hormone.”
The second type of single sugar is fructose. A common example of a food group that contains fructose is fruit. This type of sugar can only be processed in the liver.
Double Sugars (Disaccharides)
There are three different kinds of disaccharides: sucrose, lactose, and maltose. We’ll focus on sucrose.
Cane sugar (like the kind you find in a sugar bowl, on the countertop) is sucrose.
It is made up of glucose and fructose. For the body to use this type of sugar as energy, an enzyme must first break it down. Next, the body will use the glucose and fructose in separate ways, but at the same time. When this happens, the glucose is used for energy first, and often the fructose is converted to fat for storage.
Sugar, Addiction and the Brain
So, why does all of that matter? It is important because when you read “sugar” on the nutrition label, it could be talking about single sugars or double sugars. What the body does with the sugar you eat depends on what type of sugar it is, as well as how much of it you consume.
Even though the body has an intense, pleasurable reaction to eating foods with sugar, that is not necessarily a bad thing. The body needs a certain amount of glucose to function.
People with low glucose levels can become irritable, dizzy, nauseated, or unconscious. When the body reacts with a sense of pleasure, it can be seen as a response from the body, saying “well done, I needed that desperately to stay alive.”
The problem comes in when the intake of sugar exceeds (sometimes by a great deal) what the body needs to function well. The pleasurable reaction to the sugar intake then becomes disproportionate to the needs of the body.
Sugars trigger the release of two neurotransmitters in the brain: serotonin and dopamine. If you reach for sugary treats for a quick fix of these happy hormones, the body might be taking in many calories that it doesn’t need.
When a person feels unhappy, they might look to sugar for a way to raise their serotonin and dopamine levels, when in fact they need something else entirely. Scientists have referred to this phenomenon as “eating for dopamine,” and have found that it can be linked to obesity.
The amount that you eat and the way that you feel has a lot to do with the type of sugar that you are consuming. Glucose, the single sugar that you would find in a bagel, will make the body feel full at lower levels than fructose, for example. You could take in the same amount of sugar in grams from a bagel and an apple, but only feel full after the bagel.
Is Sugar A Drug?
To recap, we’ve covered the fact that different types of sugars create various types of reactions. That is key when it comes to thinking about the addictive qualities of sugar. Behavior is only considered an addiction when it causes harmful effects.
If you repeatedly have the urge to consume carbs when you are hungry, so that you don’t faint, that isn’t an addiction; it is just smart. It crosses over into the addiction category when the effects of your eating become harmful, like obesity.
Addiction is a condition (technically, a “brain disease”) in which a person compulsively seeks a substance even if it causes harm. These conditions are thought of as brain diseases because they change how the brain does its job within the body. In this sense, sugar can be considered addictive, but only when it causes harmful effects.
Taking Back Control
Now that you know the ways that your body is reacting to sugar, do you see any patterns in your eating behaviors? For example, when you feel depressed to do you reach for a sugary treat to boost your mood? Do you find that you eat a lot of certain types of food, like sweet fruits, but still don’t feel full?
If these behaviors are creating problems for you, it is time to take back control. Realize that you can get that mood-boost in other ways that don’t involve excessive calorie consumption, like playing with a pet or laughing with a friend.
Eat foods that will help you to feel full in a healthy proportion instead of binging on foods that have been pumped full of fructose but won’t make you feel satisfied.
Sugars create a complex array of reactions in the body. Some of those reactions are addictive and change our brain chemistry. If you are treating sugar like a drug and seeking it out for unhealthy reasons, it is time to curb the habit! Take steps towards ending the addiction.
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