Anyone who knows me also knows that I have a huge sweet tooth. I always have. My friend and fellow graduate student Andrew is equally afflicted, and living in Hershey, Pennsylvania – the “Chocolate Capital of the World” – doesn’t help either of us.
But Andrew is braver than I am. Last year, he gave up sweets for Lent. I can’t say that I’m following in his footsteps this year, but if you are abstaining from sweets for Lent this year, here’s what you can expect over the next 40 days.
Sugar: natural reward, unnatural fix
In neuroscience, food is something we call a “natural reward.” In order for us to survive as a species, things like eating, having sex and nurturing others must be pleasurable to the brain so that these behaviours are reinforced and repeated.
Evolution has resulted in the mesolimbic pathway, a brain system that deciphers these natural rewards for us. When we do something pleasurable, a bundle of neurons called the ventral tegmental area uses the neurotransmitter dopamine to signal to a part of the brain called the nucleus accumbens. The connection between the nucleus accumbens and our prefrontal cortex dictates our motor movement, such as deciding whether or not to taking another bite of that delicious chocolate cake. The prefrontal cortex also activates hormones that tell our body: “Hey, this cake is really good. And I’m going to remember that for the future.”
Not all foods are equally rewarding, of course. Most of us prefer sweets over sour and bitter foods because, evolutionarily, our mesolimbic pathway reinforces that sweet things provide a healthy source of carbohydrates for our bodies. When our ancestors went scavenging for berries, for example, sour meant “not yet ripe,” while bitter meant “alert – poison!”
Fruit is one thing, but modern diets have taken on a life of their own. A decade ago, it was estimated that the average American consumed 22 teaspoons of added sugar per day, amounting to an extra 350 calories; it may well have risen since then. A few months ago, one expert suggested that the average Briton consumes 238 teaspoons of sugar each week.
Today, with convenience more important than ever in our food selections, it’s almost impossible to come across processed and prepared foods that don’t have added sugars for flavour, preservation, or both.
These added sugars are sneaky – and unbeknown to many of us, we’ve become hooked. In ways that drugs of abuse – such as nicotine, cocaine and heroin – hijack the brain’s reward pathway and make users dependent, increasing neuro-chemical and behavioural evidence suggests that sugar is addictive in the same way, too.
Sugar addiction is real
“The first few days are a little rough,” Andrew told me about his sugar-free adventure last year. “It almost feels like you’re detoxing from drugs. I found myself eating a lot of carbs to compensate for the lack of sugar.”
There are four major components of addiction: bingeing, withdrawal, craving, and cross-sensitisation (the notion that one addictive substance predisposes someone to becoming addicted to another). All of these components have been observed in animal models of addiction – for sugar, as well as drugs of abuse.