The United States of sugar addicts

The National Post created this infographic to compare the American Heart Association's daily recommended sugar intake with the sugar contents of popular food items. Jennifer Sygo/National Post.
The National Post created this infographic to compare the American Heart Association’s daily recommended sugar intake with the sugar contents of popular food items. Jennifer Sygo/National Post.

What do you know about sugar? As a substance most people in the U.S. consume in excess daily, one might think the general population would be more educated about it.

The average American ingests more than 126 grams, or about 25 teaspoons of sugar per day, according to a 2015 study by Euromonitor International. The country with the closest sugar consumption rate is Germany, where the average person consumes about 103 grams of sugar daily.

“Your Starbucks drink may have 25 spoons of sugar in it,” an article by Ivana Kottasova published by CNNMoney in February, was “recommended” more than 30,000 times on its website. In the piece, she cited a report by British campaign group Action on Sugar that revealed the high sugar content in coffee drinks from popular chains.

The World Health Organization (WHO), however, recommends the average adult consume no more than 25 grams, or 6 teaspoons, of sugar per day. This means some Starbucks drinks contain four times as much sugar as you are supposed to consume in an entire day.

The WHO even reduced its recommended sugar intake in 2014, based on scientific studies showing how excess sugar consumption leads to weight gain and tooth decay in adults and children.

There is no denying that Americans love sugar, but are we addicted?

Many researches say we are.

Much like drugs, sugar intake increases the amount of dopamine released in the brain, according to neuroscience doctoral candidate Jordan Gaines Lewis of Penn State College of Medicine in her Washington Post article, “What happens to your brain when you give up sugar.”

“Over the long term, regular sugar consumption actually changes the gene expression and availability of dopamine receptors in both the midbrain and frontal cortex,” Lewis wrote. “Specifically, sugar increases the concentration of a type of excitatory receptor called D1, but decreases another receptor type called D2, which is inhibitory.”

Consuming sugar also hinders the dopamine transporter, a protein that “pumps dopamine out of the synapse and back into the neuron after firing,” Lewis said.

In simpler terms, regular consumption of sugar over time results in lengthened dopamine signaling and ultimately a perceived need for more sugar. The brain can become desensitized to sugar and need more in order to attain the same feeling or “high,” according to Lewis.

What goes along with sugar addiction is sugar withdrawal.

Researchers deprived rats of food for a length of time in a 2002 study by Carlo Colantuoni, investigator at the Lieber Institute for Brain Development, and scientists at Princeton University (Pedro Rada, Joseph McCarthy, Caroline Patten, Nicole Avena, Andrew Chadeayne and Bartley Hoebel). Then, they gave the rats access to a sugary solution and regular food. They studied the rats in this pattern for a month, and the rodents showed symptoms similar to those of drug addiction when deprived of sugar.

The rats showed typical withdrawal symptoms, such as teeth chattering, paw tremors and overall shaking, according to the study.

“Although these studies were conducted in rodents, it’s not far-fetched to say that the same primitive processes are occurring in the human brain,” Lewis wrote.

It is possible to break the addiction. Danae Steele, a maternal and fetal physician from Neenah, Wisconsin, said she has cut sugar out of her life because she considered herself a sugar addict.

“I would go out of my way to pick up something sweet,” said Steele, who stopped eating sugar in late February of this year. “I would even eat in the car where people wouldn’t see me. I was ashamed and didn’t want people to know what I was doing.”

When her friend quit eating sugar, Steele decided to join because it was something she had been thinking about trying for a while, she said.

“I thought, if she can do it, I can,” Steele said. “It’s always nice to have support from friends.”

Steele said she can’t avoid coming in contact with sweets.

“It’s everywhere: holidays, special events, parties,” Steele said. “I just walk away. I try to remind myself that it’s for my health,” said Steele, who underwent weight loss surgery in 2010 and has since lost 65 pounds.

Steele said she is not trying to lose weight by cutting sugar out of her life, and she just wants to be healthier. She said she would be happy, however, if she did lose more weight.

“It’s more about my physical and mental health,” Steel said. “[Before], I didn’t feel like I could eat sugar in moderation.”

Steele said her new sugar-free lifestyle is going well.

“I don’t feel any physical cravings,” Steele said, “but I’ve been thinking about sugar.”

Sugar is an addictive substance, but artificial alternatives are not necessarily a good substitute.

“Just because a product is ‘sugar-free’ or made with non-nutritive (artificial) sweeteners, doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s healthy,” according to the American Heart Association website.

Haylie Pomroy, a food coach and the author of The Fast Metabolism Diet, posted an article about cooking and baking without sugar in June 2015. She suggests using non-cane-based sweeteners such as coconut sugar, raw honey and date sugar, saying they are metabolized more efficiently by the body because they don’t cause blood-sugar spikes or stimulate fat storage.

“I don’t think sugar substitutes are good for any of us,” Steele said. When she gets a craving for sugar, she said she grabs a piece of fruit instead.

“Fruit is not the same as chocolate or tiramisu, but it’s still good,” Steele said.

Lindsey Wilhelm is a reporter for Arizona Sonora News, a service from the School of Journalism with the University of Arizona. Contact her at lindseywilhelm@email.arizona.edu.

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