Sugar Addiction: Is It a Serious Problem?

Sweet treats are no longer reserved for holidays such as Halloween or Christmas. Walk into any supermarket and you will find an abundance of sweet foods. Is it possible to get addicted to sugar? Sugar addiction is a type of food addiction. Excessive sugar consumption can have undesirable effects on our bodies. Let's discuss the symptoms of and treatment for sugar addiction.

Key takeaways:
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    Sugar addiction is defined as the “overconsumption of highly processed foods with rich sugar content."
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    The symptoms of sugar addiction include cravings for sugar, increased consumption of sugar, and continued consumption of sugar despite its adverse effects.
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    Artificial sweeteners, stress management, and regular exercise can help in breaking sugar addiction.
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    Consult your doctor to manage associated symptoms of obesity or any other metabolic disorders.

Today, sweet foods such as candies, chocolates, and baked products are easily available. Children and adults alike indulge in these sweet treats. Given that these foods are tasty or hyper-palatable, sugar addiction is possible. Sugar addiction is defined as “overconsumption of highly processed foods with rich sugar content.”

A seemingly harmless habit of eating chocolate after every meal can quickly escalate to an addiction. Sugar addiction can impact people's personal and professional lives, so it is important to prevent such addictions. Here we discuss symptoms, treatment of sugar addiction, and the significance of prompt treatment.

Why does sugar addiction need immediate attention?

Sugar addiction is considered a type of food addiction. Broadly speaking, food addictions lead to obesity or being overweight. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that by the year 2030, at least 57% of the world population will be obese. This silent epidemic of obesity was brought to the forefront during the COVID-19 pandemic, as obesity increases the risk of other diseases including infectious diseases. Given these effects of food addiction, including sugar addiction, it needs to be treated promptly.

The physiological mechanisms of sugar addiction are poorly understood. In drug or alcohol addiction, underlying brain mechanisms are studied, and abstinence is a possible treatment. For food or sugar addiction, the activation of reward circuitry in the brain was observed when animals had food addictions. Similar results are expected in human studies, however, no consensus about these physiological mechanisms has emerged yet. Furthermore, abstinence from food is not possible. This makes treatment difficult and hence, treating sugar addiction in early stages is important.

Symptoms of sugar addiction

In substance addictions, people may have a group of psychological, cognitive, and behavioral symptoms. Persons experiencing sugar addiction may demonstrate some of these symptoms:

  • Constant craving for sugar
  • Excessive intake of sweet foods
  • Prolonged intake of sweet foods
  • Repeated failure to stay away from sweets
  • Intake of sweet foods despite harmful symptoms

To diagnose food addiction, doctors have a multi-pronged approach. The patient may undergo a semi-structured interview with a psychiatrist or their family doctor. The patient needs to fill out various self-report questionnaires. For instance, the Eating Behaviors Questionnaire (EBQ) helps in capturing symptoms such as compulsive eating, repeated failure to stay away from sweets, and continuing to eat despite harmful symptoms. Another commonly used questionnaire is the Yale Food Addiction Scale. This questionnaire helps in identifying addictions to certain foods, such as sweet or salty foods.

However, since the brain mechanisms are yet unclear, food addiction and sugar addiction remain controversial diagnoses among clinicians.

How to break sugar addiction

"Prevention is better than cure" is true in cases of sugar addiction. Early intervention to break sugar cravings is important. Here are a few tips to manage sugar cravings:

  • Avoid hidden sugars. Many food items that are not sweet have sugars in the form of corn syrup and cane sugar. For instance, some pasta sauces include a lot of sugar. Becoming aware of hidden sugar and avoiding consumption helps in breaking sugar addiction.
  • Use artificial sweeteners. For some people, using artificial sweeteners, such as sucralose, may be a stepping stone to a sugar-free lifestyle. Talk to your care team before you use artificial sweeteners for a prolonged period.
  • Avoid starvation. When we are starving, we crave food, which in turn triggers excessive sugar consumption. Certain triggers, such as a particular bakery or pizzeria, can make a person indulge in sugar. It is best to avoid such locations when craving food.
  • Eat when hungry. To avoid starvation, adequate portions of healthy foods need to be consumed when hungry. One useful tool that nutritionists use is “the hunger scale” where zero is starving and 10 is overeating. Persons experiencing sugar addiction are advised to avoid both extremes of the scale.
  • Manage stress. People often turn to sweet foods when they experience stress. Practicing meditation, relaxation techniques, and time management skills can help in stress management.
  • Exercise. Exercise helps in increasing dopamine receptors and makes people feel happier. Regular exercise can help in reducing sugar cravings.

Sugar addiction may be difficult to break, but it can be done successfully. Treatments available for addictive behaviors may be necessary in some cases. Therapies such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and 12-step programs for addiction may be beneficial. Doctors may also prescribe medications such as antidepressants, anti-obesity, and anti-addiction drugs to reduce food intake. In some cases, treatments such as transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS) or surgery for obesity may become necessary.

Policymakers can also provide social interventions to reduce sugar addictions. For instance, the marketing of sweet foods or sodas to young children needs to be prohibited. Another way to reduce the consumption of certain foods is by levying taxes on the food.

Sugar makes food hyper-palatable and thereby addictive. Sugar addiction may lead to physical symptoms, such as obesity. Your doctor may ask you to fill out various questionnaires for diagnosing food addictions, including sugar addiction. Breaking sugar addiction is possible with some clinical help and various treatment options are available these days. Talk to your doctor and your nutritionist to discuss treatment options for your sugar addiction.

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