A 2001 animal study found that “behavioral findings with sugar are similar to those observed with drugs of abuse.” Rats that were allowed unlimited daily access to sugar ate more sugar every day as the study went on. They especially increased the amount of sugar that they ate in the first hour they were allowed access, following a pattern of “binge” behavior. A second group of rats that were allowed a limited amount of sugar each day actually decreased the amount of sugar they ate as the study progressed.
The fact that the rats increased the amount of sugar they ate is a common pattern of substance abuse. It could mean that they built up a tolerance, meaning the rats need more sugar to create the same euphoric feeling they experienced when they first ate it.
Another manner in which sugar simulates an addictive drug takes place in the brain. Many addictive drugs such as cocaine cause an increase in dopamine release in a particular area of the brain known as the “pleasure center.” Researchers in several different studies observed the same dopamine increase in rats that binged on sugar.
These studies tell us that moderation is the key when it comes to enjoying sugary snacks (or anything else except for leafy greens). A little bit of sugar can provide some dietary enjoyment and excitement. However, if we eat too much too often, we’re setting ourselves up for a destructive crave and binge pattern.
For a collection of dessert recipes made with natural sugar alternatives, check out The Nourishing Apron blog.
This article is a reprint of a post I did for Pinnacle Physical Therapy.