Turning to sugar once in a while to calm frazzled nerves probably won’t hurt, but repeated trips to the cookie jar could lead to weight gain or even be addicting. For years, experts speculated that sugar addiction was an issue of habit, not substance abuse. Research at Princeton University changed all that. In those studies, researchers found that animals fed high-sugar diets exhibited all the symptoms of withdrawal, including agitation and nervousness, when sugar is taken away. Reintroduce sugar to their diets and the animals binged, all of which are classic symptoms of substance abuse.
Changes in the animals’ brains also resemble changes seen in morphine and heroin addiction. The very taste of sugar on the tongue releases endorphins in the brain, neurotransmitters that act much like morphine to provide a pleasurable response. Another neurotransmitter called dopamine permanently stamps the experience into our memory banks so that we are programmed to seek this yummy taste again. We literally become dependent on an inborn “high,” feeling both comforted and pleasured whenever we eat sugar. The response is so powerful that even the sight of food, let alone the smell, at a later date releases dopamine and a craving for another sweet taste and mood fix.
So what can you do? Cut back on sugar. Don’t deprive yourself of your favorite treats, it could backfire and lead to binging. Instead, make room in your diet for a cookie or a thin slice of your favorite cake, split a dessert with one or more friends, and establish rules about when and how you will indulge, such as not eating at the kitchen counter, out of the pie pan, off someone else’s dessert plate, or while watching TV. Remember, the first two bites satisfy your brain chemistry. Anything after that is pure indulgence.