Your Brain on Sugar
It gives you a rush, messes with your mind, and always leaves you wanting more - and now researchers are calling for the government to regulate the sweet stuff like a drug.
Is sugar worse for you than, say, cocaine? According to a 2012 article in the journal Nature, it's a toxic substance that should be regulated like tobacco and alcohol. Researchers point to studies that show that too much sugar (both in the form of natural sucrose and high-fructose corn syrup) not only makes us fat, it also wreaks havoc on our liver, mucks up our metabolism, impairs brain function, and may leave us susceptible to heart disease, diabetes, even cancer. So far, no federal action has been taken (advocates blame industry lobbyists), and experts say simply raising awareness isn't enough, especially when 80 percent of our food choices contain sugar. "It's like watching a train wreck in slow motion," says coauthor Laura Schmidt, Ph.D., a researcher at the University of California, San Francisco.
Nevertheless, after the shock of hearing the news, many of us shrugged and turned back to our cupcakes. Yet, truth is, women in their 20s and 30s may already be feeling the effects of too much sugar without even realizing it. Here, the most common sugar-induced issues and how to beat them to prevent long-term damage—and feel your best right now.
STRESS EATING For a pick-me-up, you may feel the urge to inhale a bag of M&M's or scarf down a box of cookies. But the impulse goes deeper. To examine the hold sugar can have over us, substance-abuse researchers have performed brain scans on subjects eating something sweet. What they've seen resembles the mind of a drug addict: When tasting sugar, the brain lights up in the same regions as it would in an alcoholic with a bottle of gin. Dopamine—the so-called reward chemical—spikes and reinforces the desire to have more. (Sugar also fuels the calming hormone serotonin.)
THE FIX In times of stress, dieters are more likely to binge, studies conclude. That said, a cookie once in a while (say, twice a week) is fine, but on most days go for oatmeal with brown sugar, suggests Jeffrey Fortuna, Ph.D., a health and behavior lecturer at California State University, Fullerton. The whole grains fill you up and the sweetness is just enough to release serotonin.
INEXPLICABLE WEIGHT GAIN You stay away from burgers and drink diet soda. But sugar—both real and artificial—is the secret saboteur. When the pancreas senses sugar, the body releases insulin, which causes cells in the liver, muscle, and fat tissue to take up glucose from the blood, storing it as glycogen for energy. Eat too much at once, though, and insulin levels spike, then drop. The aftermath? You feel tired, then crave more sustenance to perk up. Faux sugars don't help. "Artificial sweeteners travel to the part of the brain associated with desire but not to the part responsible for reward," says Dr. Gene-Jack Wang, a researcher at Brookhaven National Laboratory in Upton, New York. Nor do they trigger the release of the satiety hormones that real sugar does, so you're more likely to consume more calories.
THE FIX Feed sweet cravings with fruit (the fiber will help keep insulin in check), and sub in sparkling water for diet soda. If you must indulge, go for a small snack made with real sugar, and eat slowly. Add fruit or yogurt to feel fuller and prevent a crash.