If you have ever made the off-hand comment that you are a chocolate addict or that you are addicted to sweets, you aren’t far off from the truth.
As obesity rates soar in the U.S., researchers are hard at work trying to determine why some people find it so hard to stop overeating, and why all of us are susceptible to eating too much sugar.
Studies have compared the brains of people hooked on sugar to those hooked on drugs and found startling similarities.
As junk food companies push us to eat more, learning the truth about the brain on sugar and addiction should help us to find the strength to say no.
How Is Sugar Like Cocaine?
This seems like an extreme statement, but researchers at Connecticut College have proven that, at least in rats, sugar is as addictive as cocaine. The results are preliminary and should be backed up by other researchers, but the study from Connecticut College has shown that rats given cocaine form a pleasurable association between consuming the drug and the environment in which they were given it. The same occurred when the rats were given Oreo cookies to eat. They also found that the sugar in the cookies stimulated more neurons in the pleasure centers of the rats’ brains than cocaine did.
In other words, cookies and sugar stimulate the brain in the same way that drugs do. This stimulation of the pleasure center is what makes drugs so addictive. The finding helps to explain why people find it so pleasurable to eat sugary foods and why it can be so tough to give them up.
Obesity vs. Cocaine Addiction
In other studies, brain scans have been performed to compare the neural activity of obese people, cocaine addicts and people who are neither obese nor addicted to cocaine. The images of those who are obese and those who are addicted to cocaine are strikingly similar, according to an article on Science.MIC, and different from the scans of normal brains. What researchers see are differences in the pleasure center.
In the part of the brain that is stimulated when we experience pleasure (e.g., getting a hug, eating candy or taking cocaine), we have dopamine receptors. Dopamine is the brain chemical that is released from its receptors when we feel pleasure. In the brain scans, researchers see very few receptors in people who are obese or addicted to cocaine and compared to normal people.
This is expected for cocaine addicts. The effect of the drug is to cause a rush of dopamine, but over time use reduces the number of receptors. This leads to the user needing more cocaine to get the pleasurable feeling and eventually to needing cocaine just to feel normal. This is how addiction happens. Seeing the same lack of dopamine receptors in obese people indicates that long-term and frequent consumption of sugar has impacted the brain in a similar way and can lead to genuine addiction.
All evidence seems to point to sugar as an addictive drug. As with any drug, some people may be more susceptible to developing an addiction than others. And many of us seem to be more at risk for sugar addiction than any other type of addiction. The results are devastating for public health and the health of individuals. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one-third of Americans will be diabetic by 2050, a direct result of the obesity rate and prevalence of sugar addiction.
Now that we are more enlightened as to the addictive potential of sugar, it is important that we act accordingly. As individuals we need to moderate our sugar intake and as a society we must place more value on healthy lifestyles. For those already addicted, the research will hopefully continue until effective treatments are developed.