January 17, 2010

Sugar: More Addictive Than Crack?

Many people like to downplay the significance of consuming a diet high in sugar. Despite loads of research to the contrary, people don’t want to admit that high sugar consumption can be extremely dangerous for your health. Thankfully, mainstream media is starting to highly some of the dangers. Recently, ABC ran a report on junk food and addiction. If you haven’t seen it yet, I highly recommend spending 5 minutes watching the clip:

Good Morning America: Junk food may be as addictive as drugs

Although many of us experience cravings for junk food, what we don’t realize is that for certain people the need for junk food can be as intense as for a heroin junkie needing a fix. Scary stuff! What I find particularly fascinating, although not surprising, is that the addictive properties of junk food are far more pronounced for people struggling with obesity.

What does this mean for weight loss? For starters, it’s apparent we need to do away with the belief that people who struggle with their weight are necessarily “lazy” or “weak willed”. Weight loss isn’t easy at the best of times; factor in brain chemistry changes on a par with heroin addiction and combating obesity takes on a whole new level of complexity.

Secondly, simple calorie counting or basic advice such as “eat smaller portions” is woefully deficient. Effective obesity treatment must involve cognitive behavioural therapy, the avoidance of junk foods and possible pharmacological intervention. Although I’m loathe to endorse drugs as a treatment of choice, I appreciate the effectiveness of methadone for treating heroine addiction. To think obesity treatment would entail any less extreme interventions is quite narrow-minded in my opinion.

Now before anyone gets the wrong idea, my support for pharmacological interventions in the treatment of obesity in no way suggests we remove personal responsibility from the weight loss equation. Fat may not be your fault, however fat remains your responsibility.  Although, there are some people who can eat all the refined sugars, high-fat snack foods and alcohol they want  and stay remarkably lean (I’m not suggesting this is healthy), this clearly isn’t the case for most of us.

If you carry the unfortunate genetic predisposition for excess body fat and a stronger than normal response to high sugar/high fat foods, you need to avoid junk foods like the plague. No “sweets are ok in moderation”, no “cheat days”, no “forgetting your lunch so you’ll just grab something quick at that burger place”. Recovering cocaine addicts know they can’t have have “a little hit from time to time”; the same strategy should apply to junk food. Is this the “sexy” answer? No. But it is the correct one.

Ridiculous weight loss plans or relying on artificial sugar- or fat-substitutes will never produce sustainable weight loss. Unfortunately, rewiring our brains and behaviours takes time, effort and is replete with ups and downs. But just as any addiction can be overcome with the proper plan and support, breaking free of a junk food cycle is within everyone’s means.


Tim says:

“I appreciate the effectiveness of methadone for treating heroine addiction.”
“relying on artificial sugar- or fat-substitutes”

is there not a contradiction here? given that methadone has some serious problenms as an anti-addiction therapy (such as its lethality, its far worse withdrawal and the indefinite nature of the treatment), i think you might want to reconsider the first assertion, but i’m curious whether you can back up the second assertion with data. why are substitutes not an effective weight-loss strategy, despite what many weight-loss organisations say?

GT says:

Tim – I’ll accept the rebuke re: the methadone comment. I am aware of some of the side effects of methadone and there is definitely a discussion to be had with whether it may in fact pose greater risks in the long run than might heroin. But in terms of the sugar/fat substitutes, there is scant data showing that these foods lead to greater weight loss/weight management in the long run. While interventions consisting of an acute reduction in calories do correlate with short-term weight loss, many of the longer studies of diet advice centered around calorie counting shows extremely poor results.

This has more to do with the reality that fake food lacks many of the micronutrients (vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, etc) that are necessary for optimal health and body composition. Even when calories are controlled, it appears that a diet consisting primarily of processed foods causes substantial problems with hunger control as well as issues with hormonal dysregulation.

A study publish in the Journal of Obesity in 2008 found that high consumer of artificially sweetened beverages actually were at heightened risk of obesity… which runs in stark contrast to the idea that controlling calories is the major goal for diet reform. If you’d like to read it yourself, here’s the link: http://www.nature.com.proxy1.lib.uwo.ca:2048/oby/journal/v16/n8/pdf/oby2008284a.pdf
The nice thing about this particular study was the the same group of individuals were followed for 7-8 years (and not a comparison across different people), so it raises some interested questions.

Then another study published in that same journal a year earlier found that when people switch from sugar-sweetened beverages to their diet counterparts, what is often seen is a compensatory increase in the amount of food consumed… leading to no actual deficit in amount of calories consumed.

Obviously these studies don’t prove that diet soft drinks or fat substitutes cause obesity, but they do suggest that using large amounts of nutrient devoid foods (diet or not) is not likely going to lead to long term success.

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GT says:

Thanks. Just trying to make the point that weight loss goes beyond simple calorie counting; that real change involves taking a hard look at certain behaviours and changing them.

Like the comprehensiveness of your site, good job.