No matter what, you can’t seem to silence your sweet tooth. You always opt for dessert, even when your meal has left you stuffed. To you, anytime is snack time — and snack time is just another excuse to reach for something sugar-coated. If this sounds a lot like your relationship with sweets, you might have a sugar addiction.
Your relationship with sugar is like any other bad relationship. You probably know it’s bad, but you just can’t convince yourself to walk away. Maybe you can’t convince yourself you need to leave sugar for good, but the information in this article might.
Let’s look at the different types of sugar, why you’re so convinced you need sugar in your life, and, most importantly, how you can beat your sugar addiction once and for all and quit the bad habit for good.
How many kinds of sugar are there, really?
There’s a lot of confusion out there about the difference between carbohydrates and sugar. Let’s make it a little easier: sugar is a carbohydrate. Carbohydrates are what’s known as a macronutrient, alongside protein and fat. You get carbs from the foods you eat. Once you eat carbohydrates, your body breaks them down into energy — eventually, a molecule called glucose. (The term blood glucose, or blood sugar, refers to how much glucose is in your blood after you digest food.)
What makes this more complicated is that there is more than one type of carbohydrate. Different types of carbs behave differently in your body. The way they’re digested is completely different. Therefore, not all carbs are bad — and not all of them are good, either.
Let’s discuss the different types of carbohydrates and how your body breaks them down.
When you see a section on a nutrition facts panel labeled “sugar,” this is the kind of carbohydrate it’s referring to. These are known as simple sugars or simple carbohydrates. They’re made up of one or two molecules of sugar, which makes them very easy to digest. Your body digests simple carbohydrates quickly, which releases large amounts of glucose into your bloodstream. This flood of glucose causes a sharp spike in your blood sugar. Eventually, in healthy individuals, insulin kicks in, and your blood sugar drops. Fruits and vegetables, as well as refined grains, processed foods and sweets, all contain simple sugars. Not all simple sugars are bad for you — but many are considered harmful.
Fiber is what is known as a complex carbohydrate — it’s made up of many sugar molecules, making it harder to break down. Your body digests it very slowly, which means the uptake of glucose in your bloodstream is also much slower. This leads to a much smaller spike in blood sugar, which is one reason why high-fiber foods are so healthy. This is the type of carbohydrate you will find in fruits, vegetables, beans, dairy, and grains. The higher a food’s fiber content is, in general, the better that food is for you. However, this also depends on its other nutritional benefits, such as vitamins and minerals.
Like fiber, starch is also a complex carbohydrate that releases glucose into your bloodstream slowly. You’ll find starch in many vegetables and grains, as well as foods like beans, breads, and cereals. Starch is not bad for you if it comes in a food that’s highly nutritious. However, like simple sugars, if it’s present in a food that is otherwise unhealthy, it’s not going to do you much good.
What are added sugars?
Sometimes food manufacturers take the sugar from healthy foods and add it to foods during processing — thus, they become added sugars. Added sugars contain all the simple sugars found in fruits and vegetables and many other healthy foods — without the nutrition that comes along with those foods. This is why foods with added sugars — everything from candy to cookies to chips, syrups, and soft drinks — are so bad for you. They contain plenty of sweetness, but almost no nutrition whatsoever.
For the purposes of this article, when we refer to “sugar,” we’re talking about added sugars — the highly processed chemicals that do not occur naturally in foods. Do not fear foods that contain sugar naturally. In reasonable amounts, they will usually not cause harm the way processed sugars will.
Why you can’t stop eating sugar
If you suspect you have a sugar addiction, you’re most likely craving foods high in simple sugars and extremely low in other nutrients. Some of the most addicting foods in the world are loaded with added sugars and other synthetic, highly processed food additives. The science behind why it’s so easy to get hooked on sugar is complex, but if you’re at all familiar with addiction to any substance or activity, it’s not that foreign of a concept.
How addiction works
The different parts of your brain communicate through neurotransmitters, which travel between neurons to transmit different messages. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, many drugs interfere with this process, completely scrambling the brain’s normal communication systems. Sometimes, this ends up stimulating feelings of pleasure. If a drug ends up flooding your brain with dopamine, it tricks your brain into thinking you’ve consumed something nice. Your brain wants more of that nice thing — thus, you start craving more of it, even when you no longer want it.
This is an extremely simplified explanation of how drugs can mess with your head, but it’s all you need to know in order to understand why eating too much sugar is so dangerous.
Your brain on sugar
Sugar addiction isn’t much different than an addiction to any other substance. While sugar itself is not a drug in the traditional sense, it can act a lot like one. Drugs can essentially stimulate the overproduction of dopamine, which makes your brain feel good. Eating too much sugar also raises the levels of dopamine in your brain — and the same thing that happens when you take too many drugs happens when you overdo the sugar.
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