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Crack, smack, dope and…coke?

Is crack wack but candy dandy?

I’m not referring to the white powdery drug cocaine but the sugary drink kind, known on the streets as Coca-Cola. (Insert dramatic music and blood curling scream here). Seriously people, this is not a joke.

Ok, it’s kind of a joke. I’m not poking fun at those who crave sugar – it is totally legitimate but you’re not going to have so much sugar that it causes you to overdose and die on the spot. Instead, you’ll have a long, slow, and painful death from complications of diabetes. It’s not any better, but is it worse?

There’s been a lot of research in the past decade about the addictive properties of sugar and a number of interesting studies have been published. Here’s a brief summary of one (though many are similar to the findings of this study):

At Princeton, researchers studied the effect that a 10% sugar solution (the same ratio as many sodas) had on rats. The occasional drink of sugary water had no effect on the rats. However, when the rats had access every day, they began consuming more sugar water and less of their normal diet. The rats also exhibited withdrawal symptoms when they didn’t have access to sugar and their brains’ dopamine release was affected by consumption.

What does this mean? Sugar probably has some addictive properties – humans, like rats, have an innate preference for ‘sweet’ tasting foods and drinks. However, I would expect that rats show a withdrawal-type effect when the sugar is blocked from absorption because (like humans) sugar is their main source of energy. And what happens when you don’t eat? You get a little shaky – just like the rats “experiencing withdrawal”.

What this means for humans who consume sugar (aka everyone):

  1. Rats are not people. Humans have higher functioning brains. We can process thought and understand complex concepts much more easily, such as: having a lot of processed sugar every day is not good for you.
  2. There are some similarities between drug use and sugar intake. For instance:
  • Sugar makes you feel good, so do drugs. Consuming sugar releases dopamine, which signals rewards. Exercise and sex also cause a dopamine release – except the amount released from drugs is significantly higher than the dopamine released due to sugar consumption, exercise or sex.
  • As seen in diabetics, high sugar consumption leads to decreased response by our cells. That’s what happens in people with type 2 diabetes: they eat sugar but since their cells have become desensitized (to a degree), the sugar stays in their blood and their ‘blood sugar’ aka blood glucose rises. Drug addicts become desensitized to drugs – over time, they need more of a drug in order to get the same kind of high.

While I’m not surprised by the research findings and I completely believe that sugar has addictive properties, I’m not willing to agree that it is as addictive as heroin. I strongly believe that humans can wean themselves off sugar a lot more easily than they can off drugs and by making claims that the two are equally addictive is disempowering people to change their eating habits.

To be motivated to change, people have to feel that their goal is attainable. Some people might take this research and say “well, there’s nothing I can do about my weight gain. I’m addicted; it’s not my fault – it’s the sugar.” Wrong! You can lose weight or consume less sugar and it is within your control! Yes, it takes a lot of effort and motivation, but the neurological effects of food have not been proven to be similar to illicit, hardcore drugs. Drawing that comparison may be dangerous to one’s health.

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