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Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Is Sugar More Addictive Than Cocaine?

In 2014, Americans were eating more sugar than ever before -- on average, about 160 pounds a year. (howzey/Flickr)

In 2014, Americans were eating more sugar than ever before — on average, about 160 pounds a year. (howzey/Flickr)

The 2015 Dietary Guideline Advisory Committee just released new recommendations to limit added sugars to 10 percent of daily calories. Right now, Americans are eating more sugar than ever before — on average, about 160 pounds a year.

James DiNicolantonio is a cardiovascular research scientist at St. Luke’s Mid-America Heart Institute in Kansas City, Mo. He recently published a comprehensive review of dozens of studies in which he contends that sugar is more dangerous than salt when it comes to risk for heart disease. He says that refined sugar is similar to cocaine — a white crystal extracted from sugar cane rather than coca leaves — and that studies show it can be even more addictive than the recreational drug.

“When you look at animal studies comparing sugar to cocaine,” DiNicolantonio told Here & Now’s Lisa Mullins, “even when you get the rats hooked on IV cocaine, once you introduce sugar, almost all of them switch to the sugar.”

DiNicolantonio is careful to differentiate between refined and intrinsic sugars; while the former have the potential to cause adverse health effects due to their concentrated nature, the latter, such as lactose in milk, “aren’t necessarily unhealthy,” he explained. In fact, humans are biologically drawn to sugar, as it helps the body to store fat, and thus allowed us to better survive winter in Paleolithic times.

We shouldn’t be able to eat a Snickers bar for cheaper than we can eat an apple.

– James DiNicolantonio

“Unfortunately now, that [neurological] reward is working against us because now we’re ingesting very refined sugars at a much higher potency and dose than we used to,” he said.

But sugar addiction is not biological. Instead, DiNicolantonio says a certain consumption threshold must be achieved over a certain period of time in order to alter the brain’s neurochemistry. Subsquently, people experience dopamine depletion and sugar withdrawals.

“You get this intense release of dopamine upon acute ingestion of sugar. After you chronically consume it, those dopamine receptors start becoming down-regulated — there’s less of them, and they’re less responsive,” he said. “That can lead to ADHD-like symptoms … but it can also lead to a mild state of depression because we know that dopamine is that reward neurotransmitter.”

It’s not that people should never consume sugar, but rather that they should limit their intake to avoid the aftereffects, which can eventually cause pre-diabetes, DiNicolantonio said. He noted that when he craves sugar, he tries to go for dark chocolate or almonds.

“We’ve got to give people hope, right? You don’t want to just tell them they can’t ever have sugar again,” he said.

Still, he says the FDA could help to lessen the issue.

“The government subsidizes corn, so high fructose corn syrup is cheaper than sugar, and that’s why it’s so ubiquitous in our diets,” DiNicolantonio explained. “They need to start subsidizing healthy foods. We shouldn’t be able to eat a Snickers bar for cheaper than we can eat an apple.”


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Robin Young and Jeremy Hobson host Here & Now, a live two-hour production of NPR and WBUR Boston.

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