Sugar as addictive as cocaine, heroin, studies suggest. Start your day with protein.
It’s one addiction that won’t land you in court or an inpatient rehab. But sugar – as anyone who mainlines sweets can attest – can be just as habit-forming as cocaine.
Researchers at Princeton University studying bingeing and dependency in rats have found that when the animals ingest large amounts of sugar, their brains undergo changes similar to the changes in the brains of people who abuse illegal drugs like cocaine and heroin.
“Our evidence from an animal model suggests that bingeing on sugar can act in the brain in ways very similar to drugs of abuse,” says lead researcher and Princeton psychology professor Bart Hoebel.
In the studies, he explains, animals that drank large amounts of sugar water when hungry experienced behavioral changes, too, along with signs of withdrawal and even long-lasting effects that resemble cravings.
Some people experience powerful cravings for sweets – internal messages telling them to eat sugar even though they know it’s bad for them – says Dr. Louis Aronne, director of the Comprehensive Weight Control Center at N.Y. Presbyterian Hospital/Weill Cornell Medical Center. “These people get strong urges to consume sweets, and these cravings border on addiction,” he says. “When they eat sugar, just like when someone ingests cocaine, some people get that feeling of well-being, a rush that makes them feel good for a period of time. When the sweets are taken away, the people just don’t feel right.”
In the animals studied at Princeton, bingeing released a surge of the neurotransmitter dopamine in the brain. “It’s been known that drugs of abuse release or increase the levels of dopamine in that part of the brain,” Hoebel said.
After the rats’ sugar supply was withdrawn, they became anxious. Their teeth chattered and they grew unwilling to venture into the open arm of their maze. Instead, they stayed in the tunnel of the maze.
Deprived of their sugar, the rats displayed signs of withdrawal similar to the symptoms seen in people when they stop smoking, drinking alcohol, or using drugs.
Just as not everyone has the tendency to become an alcoholic or a drug addict, so not everyone is hard wired to be a sugar-holic, Aronne says. And there is certainly effective treatment for a sweet addiction, though it’s not likely to go down easily among those who like their candy and cookies.
“If people eat starch and sugar in the morning, it’s very difficult to get their behavior in control and they’ll be craving sweets all day,” Aronne says. “So we have people start out their day by eating protein and vegetables in the morning, like a broccoli omelet for breakfast.