Health Matters: Your craving may be your addiction

Ryan Hunton

Ryan Hunton

If you look at the list of ingredients on the label of a processed food item, notice that added sugar is usually present in some form, hidden amidst a slew of chemical names and ambiguities that few understand. Even in foods that you would not think call for sugar (like a ready-made Salisbury steak, for example; Sugar makes the meat more shiny and adds flavor), you will likely find it – sometimes more than once.

 ‘Added sugars’ mainly include sucrose (table sugar) and high-fructose corn syrup. Recent studies have investigated whether excessive consumption of these two food items harms our organs, disrupts our hormonal cycle and causes chronic disease to occur. 

Nearly all health experts agree that sugar is the main cause of tooth decay and that it is an ‘empty calorie’ that provides no nutritional benefit. However, in a YouTube video called “Sugar: the Bitter Truth,” Dr. Robert Lustig, professor of pediatrics at the University of California, San Francisco, further suggests that consumption of these food items clearly increases one’s risk for some of the major diseases in the United States: obesity, diabetes, thyroid disorders, heart disease and cancer.

“Our current consumption is over our limit and our ‘processed’ food supply is designed to keep it that way,” Dr. Lustig said in a more recent column in The Atlantic.“Food should confer wellness, not illness.”

WKU associate professor of Family and Consumer Sciences and registered dietitian Dr. Karen Mason agrees that sugar consumption is a major problem among Americans and particularly among students. She said that obesity rates, which have risen consistently since the 1970s, correspond directly with an increase in sugar consumption. She added that as we get older, usually we become less physically active, our metabolism slows and, if we consume a lot of sugar, we are more likely to put on weight.

“Added sugars are empty calories, and they are easy to over-consume,” Mason said. “A lot of students eat these foods because they are cheap.”

A lot of processed foods are foods that we grew up with and that a grocery store presents to us in nearly every aisle. The list includes cereals, breads, pastries, candy, salad dressings, juices, soft drinks and sauces. 

Although many of these foods contain little or no nutritional value, we may eat these sugar-loaded foods because they are what we are accustomed to eating and because we think they taste good. Recent studies suggest that we may also eat them because of ‘sugar addiction.’

“I think that sugar addiction is real,” Mason said. “I know people who really crave sugar. It’s almost like … it affects their food decisions. It gives them a feeling of relaxation and comfort.”

A TED-Ed video by neuroscientist and research psychologist at Columbia University Dr. Nicole Avena explains the mechanism in the brain that makes sugary foods so hard to resist. When you first take a bite of sugary cereal, your taste receptors that respond to sweetness, found at the tip of your tongue, send a signal to the portion of your brain called the cerebral cortex. 

This signal activates ‘the reward system’ and causes you to want to take another bite. Excessive activation of this reward system, Dr. Avena suggests, can cause ‘loss of control, craving and intolerance to sugar.’

Those who regularly eat and drink processed food items underestimate the amount of sugar that they consume each day. Here are some tips to reduce sugar intake:

  1. 1.Consider why you eat and drink: We may eat and drink in order to satisfy hunger and thirst, or we may do so because it is lunchtime or dinnertime. Still, giving your body the nutrients and vitamins that it needs to maintain itself each day and to keep you well as you age is the main purpose of eating and drinking. Make food choices based on this.
  2. 2.Become more sugar-aware: Reduce the amount of sugar that you personally add to food and drink, and check the labels of your juice and cereal. Choose a brand that does not list sugar as the top ingredient or does not contain as much sugar. By practicing consciousness and moderation in your sugar intake, your taste buds may learn to enjoy other more subtle flavors.
  3. 3.Drink fewer sugary drinks: Mason said that if a person came to her wanting to reduce sugar intake, “The first thing I’d ask them is ‘what beverage are you drinking?’” She suggests drinking less soda, sweet tea, Powerade and Gatorade and to drink more water. Water has an unprecedented ability to regulate and purify the body, and other drinks cannot fill this role.
  4. 4.Eat fewer ‘concentrated sweets’: “These are your cakes, pies, and pastries,” Mason said. She added that these foods may satisfy your taste buds and your reward system, but they do not offer many nutrients and are not sustainable for long-term health. Practice moderation and be aware of how many cookies and candies you are eating throughout the day.
  5. 5.Try healthier and more natural sweets: Find new kinds of nuts and fruits and keep them with you throughout your day. Instead of satisfying your hunger or pleasure, these foods satisfy your health on a deeper level. By spending money on berries, apples, peaches, almonds and walnuts, you are investing in your health.

In closing, I believe that food should make us well rather than sick. It should function more like a medicine than a poison in our bodies. And it should heal more than it harms. Remember, the best food has no nutrition label.



“Sugar: the Bitter Truth,” Dr. Robert Lustig. YouTube.

“The Sugar-Addiction Taboo,” Dr. Robert Lustig. The Atlantic.

 “How sugar affects the brain,” Dr. Nicole Avena. TED-Ed.

 “Is Sugar Really Toxic? Sifting through the Evidence,” Ferris Jabr, Scientific American.