Sweet Temptation – The Potential Dangers of Sugar Addiction


2Sugar has been shown to have similar effects on the brain as addictive substances, such as cocaine, alcohol or cigarettes, not to mention the psychological and health-related risks. Sally Harvey investigates the potential dangers of this common ingredient.

We live in a society of convenience. With limited hours in the day, overloaded with high demand, we search for the quickest, fastest solution to fuel the body, and, in most instances, the most unhealthy. A high percentage of all foods we eat contain sugar. Even our children’s dietary plan consists mainly of sugar-laden cereals and soft drinks, processed lunchbox items and ready-made meals.

If we actually look at the scientific research that is being done on sugar and its effects on the body, we would no sooner omit certain items from our regular shopping list and replace them with far healthier alternatives.


Sugar addiction

“Sugar addiction” has become a topical subject of late, from media reports to published books and expert comment; society is finally being exposed to the potential dangers of sugar overindulgence. In fact, the effect sugar has on the brain is being likened to that of other addictive substances, such as cocaine.

The best and most simple way to explain this is as follows: sugar intake releases dopamine in the brain, and when it links to the D2 receptors in the brain (located in the brain’s reward centre), changes take place and you experience pleasure and reward. The problem, as happens with all addictive substances, is that vulnerable brains (addictive types), have the compulsion to eat more, and the more they consume the less they experience a sense of pleasure and reward. Why? The brain reward centre is over-stimulated, its survival mode kicks in and it reduces the sense of pleasure and reward. This causes the addict to crave more and more of the sugar fix, chasing the “high” of the first fix, but never being able to fully experience it again.


Current director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) Dr Nora Volkow pioneered the use of high-detailed imaging devices to discover dopamine as the root of addiction. Her work revealed the changes in a drug addict’s brain to be identical to those of a food addict.

It also showed the frontal cortex to be affected, causing the person to be impulsive, irritable, impatient, and not able to concentrate, plan, organise or strategise.

It needs to be understood that sugar addiction can affect men and women of all shapes and sizes – you do not have to be fat to be an addict. Self-destructive, addictive behaviour is usually the result of a history of abuse or trauma, but it can also be due to heightened stress levels and sleep deprivation – something most of us experience with today’s fast-paced lifestyle. Research has also shown sugar cravings to be linked to mineral and vitamin imbalances, an unhealthy gut and hormonal imbalances.

There are also those that replace one addiction for another. How many smokers quit and start consuming huge amounts of sugary sweets, chocolates and cakes? Stopping smoking doesn’t make you fat, it is the cross-addiction process that does, and, unknowingly, you have now become a sugar addict – and this is the most difficult addiction to beat because sugar is almost everywhere and in everything you eat.

Health risk

Robert Lustig, author of Fat Chance: The Bitter Truth About Sugar and professor of paediatric endocrinology at the University of California, discusses an analysis of 175 countries over the past decade and how it has shown that the cause of type 2 (noninsulin-dependent) diabetes is by no means based on calorie intake.

“When people ate 150 calories more every day, the rate of diabetes went up 0.1%. But if those 150 calories came from a can of fizzy drink, the rate went up 1.1%. Added sugar is 11 times more potent at causing diabetes than general calories.”

He blames the fructose molecule in sugar for this. Why? It fools the brain into thinking it is not full, so we overeat. It also cannot be converted into energy by the cell’s mitochondria, so instead it is turned into liver fat, causing increased insulin resistance and ultimately causing chronic metabolic conditions, such as diabetes and heart disease.


Obesity has also become a major concern worldwide. According to Olga Rossouw (RD) SA, a private practising dietician, sugar is not the only culprit:

“The modern diet consists of a large intake of refined starch, fast foods, cordial drinks, and saturated fats. This, coupled with the fact that most people remain inactive, has caused a major increase in obesity, resulting in insulin resistance (diabetes), heart disease, hypertension and strokes. Cortisol secreted by the adrenal cortex also plays a role in the regulation of blood glucose level,” she adds.

“Adrenal fatigue caused by stress creates an imbalance of blood sugar, which leads to sugar cravings and incorrect food choices. The sugar intake causes a spike and then a sudden drop in the sugar curve, which results in tiredness, morbidity, depression and further cravings.”

“We also need to take into account the high pH level in the body caused by stress, inactivity and the consumption of refined starches and sugar. ” says Rossouw. “This is the ideal breeding ground for parasites and disease, such as irritable bowel syndrome, Candida overgrowth and Heliobacter pylori. In all cases, sugar should be avoided.

“Sugar can also cause hormonal instability, which is worsened by the person being overweight and suffering from insulin resistance. Endometriosis, which is an inflammatory disease, can be worsened by the intake of sugar.”

How to stop

Some people advocate stopping sugar cold turkey, especially if you are a serious addict. Others are against any method of control but rather look at emotional healing, while there are those who like to focus on an intermittent fasting to get the desired results.

Rossouw suggests replacing sugar with artificial sweeteners, free of aspartame and cyclamates, or slowly decreasing the intake. “If a person follows a balanced diet – with the correct amount of carbohydrates, proteins, fats and the food combinations are worked out according to individual needs – taking into account areas such as age, activity, lifestyle, and health, the sugar cravings will disappear. Doing some form of exercise, getting adequate sleep, meditating and drinking enough water will also assist. It is often just a habit and lifestyle change that is needed.

“By omitting sugar or having little amounts, the body can break it down and use it as part of its energy supply. The body will get the rest of the energy from other foods consumed, and therefore input will equal output, and you will lose weight and prevent secondary disease.”

CURRENT Issue 17 – March 2016 (Autumn)

Issue 17 – March 2016 (Autumn)

This article was written by Sally Harvey and edited by the A2 team EXCLUSIVELY for the A2 Aesthetic & Anti-Ageing Magazine March Autumn 2016 Edition (Issue 17). 

A2 Magazine prints only four magazines each year – reporting seasonally on everything you need and want to know about aesthetics, anti-ageing, integrative medicine, quality and medical skin care, cosmetic dentistry and cosmetic surgery in South Africa – where to go, who to see, what to expect, something new and so much more! Never miss an edition – click here for more info about where you can buy the print and/or digital copy of A2 Magazine (including back copies).

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About Author

Sally Harvey

Sally Harvey is a journalist for A2 Aesthetic & Anti-Ageing Magazine, a freelance writer and PR Consultant - sallyh@axxess.co.za

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