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Sugar and Mental Health

December 14, 2008 Written by JP    [Font too small?]

The world of nutrition was rocked this past week by a seemingly innocuous little study. It came in the form of a scientific presentation by Professor Bart Hoebel from the Princeton Department of Psychology. Dr. Hoebel and his team, which included members from the Princeton Neuroscience Institute, revealed findings that suggest that sugar can indeed be addictive.

Now I know that some of you are probably saying, “Tell me something I don’t already know!”.  But in order for the nutritional paradigm to shift, we need scientific support to back our suspicions and our personal experiences. This new research provides that support.

Relapsed Cravings

Sugar boyThere are three elements that need to be present in order for something to be considered an addiction. 1) There needs to be pattern of increased intake. 2) If the substance is removed, there should be withdrawal symptoms. 3) There needs to be a pattern of cravings and relapse.

Prior research had established that laboratory animals exhibited the first two elements of addiction. The third element now appeared in a controlled experiment.

The experiment was conducted on lab animals who binged on sugar, then were deprived of it for a prolonged period of time. These animals were then allowed access to sugar once again. The researchers reported that the addicted rats worked harder to gain access to the sugar and noted that they also ate more sugar than before. This indicates a clear pattern of cravings and relapse. Dr. Hoebel summarized this finding by saying, “In this case, abstinence makes the heart grow fonder.”

Substance Abuse?

These findings extend far beyond the arena of sugary foods. One example demonstrated by Hoebel is that rats that binge on sugar undergo changes in their brains that closely resemble the changes associated with cocaine, morphine and nicotine addiction. In addition, it appears that binging on sugar may provoke long-term alteration to the brain that may increase the risk of other forms of substance abuse, like alcoholism.

This is all relevant to us because Dr. Hoebel believes this research may apply to humans as well, in particular to those with eating disorders. But I wonder if his research has even farther reaching implications. According to the most recent figures released by the USDA, Americans consume approximately 180 pounds of sugar a year! And that figure only appears to be growing.

Take a look around you. Take a look in the mirror. Take a look at your typical day’s diet. Now you tell me, is addiction to sugar for real?

Be well!

JP

Referenced Material

Link – Princeton University Sugar Addiction Study

Link – Breaking the Sugar Cycle


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2 Comments & Updates to “Sugar and Mental Health”

  1. Maria Lisa Says:

    Not proud to admit it…but ‘addiction’ to sugary food choices is REAL! Add to it the variable of “socially acceptable” vices…and, easy accessibility, not to mention emotional eating ‘ops’…and, you have the perfect “recipe” for element #3! You’re very much on the mark. Thank you for helping us understand what prompts/motivates/sustains these habits. I find with whatever “addiction of choice” we adopt/”adhere” to, those who do not ‘suffer’ with that same malady have a complete absence of understanding [often times believing the only “ingredient” missing to correcting an unhealthy/harmful habit is shear WILL POWER. There is much judgment, opinion, and attitude that can accompany sometimes well-meaning ‘advise’ of/from others… which, sadly, might in turn be the impetus for many “element #3” episodes for folks like me~! btw: Do sugar ‘substitutes’ serve to “fool” the brain [and, how much might be TOO much?]

  2. JP Says:

    Thanks for sharing your insightful thoughts, Maria Lisa.

    There’s currently much debate about sugar substitutes. Recent evidence indicates that they may stimulate appetite and increase total caloric intake. These effects appear to be independent of any effects on blood sugar. To me, this indicates a possible mental-connection.

    At this time, I personally try to limit my intake of any kind of sweetener. I do however use a small amount of stevia – usually two or three packets a day.

    Stevia is an all natural, non-caloric sweetener that may act differently than artificial sweeteners.

    I’ll write a column about stevia sometime soon.

    Thanks for reading and commenting.

    Be well!

    JP

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