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The Truth About Sugar

Can you get addicted to sugar? Do you need to quit it cold turkey? Here are expert answers.
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Recently, talk show host Ellen DeGeneres declared that she was going on a sugar cleanse, purging her diet of all refined sugars to boost her well-being. While naturally occurring sugars, such as the kind found in sugar snap peas, were still OK to eat, no one was going to catch Ellen letting a Bundt cake cross her lips.

Her sugar cleanse diet inspired many viewers to embark on their own sugar smackdowns. Is this the latest food fad, or are the sugar naysayers on to something? 

Spoonful of sugar

We don't need to go cold turkey on sugar, health experts tell WebMD. But most of us would do well to lighten up on the sweet stuff.

Is sugar addictive?

A coworker with an unshakable candy bar habit might sigh that she's utterly addicted to sweets. Can someone truly become physically dependent on sugar?

Sugar taps into a powerful human preference for sweet taste, says Marcia Pelchat, PhD, a scientist at the Monell Chemical Senses Center, a basic research institute in Philadelphia.  "We're born to like sugar," she says.

"Sugar does seem to be special in some ways," Pelchat says, even in the womb. Doctors used to treat the problem of excessive amniotic fluid by injecting a sweet substance into the liquid, she says. The appealing taste would prompt the fetus to swallow more fluid, which was then flushed out through the umbilical cord and the mother's kidneys.

Not only do infants prefer sweet tastes, but when babies drink a sweet solution, it can ease pain through a natural analgesic effect in the body, Pelchat says.

Way back, the preference for sugar may have conferred an evolutionary advantage by leading people to seek out ripe fruits, which are sweet and serve as a good source of calories, she says.

But nowadays, is the coworker's constant hankering for sugar merely a strong liking or is it a true addiction, with physical dependence and withdrawal symptoms?

"The jury's still out," Pelchat says. Scientists aren't sure if people can become physically dependent on sugar, although some animal studies suggest that such a thing is possible, she says. "There are the same kinds of changes in brain dopamine, in these animals given intermittent access to sugar, as in drug addicts."  

Unlike with substance abuse, people don't get the shakes when they stop eating sugar. But people with constant sugar cravings do exhibit one symptom of dependence, Pelchat says: "continued use despite knowledge of bad consequences or having to give up certain activities." For instance, people who crave sugary, fatty foods will keep eating them even if obesity makes it uncomfortable to walk or to sit in an economy seat on the plane.  

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