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Does Sugar Addiction Really Doom Diets?

By Amelia Edelman 01/14/14

Whether or not sugar is as addictive as other drugs, scientists and health professionals agree that Americans need to cut down their consumption.

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Photo via Shutterstock

“Lose weight” and “eat healthier” are two of the ten most common New Year’s resolutions, and they send many a guilt-ridden holiday reveler scurrying to the gym on January 1. But the most likely culprit responsible for seasonal weight gain – and for the inability to stick to a healthier eating plan – isn’t turkey or gravy or even alcohol. It’s the sugar, and it’s addictive.

More and more experts are agreeing that sugar’s addictive qualities leave those with a sweet tooth wanting more, even after they’ve been regularly indulging. In fact, humans and rats alike crave sugar even more than we crave fat. Anti-sugar advocate and neuroendocrinologist Robert Lustig recently pointed out that 77 percent of food items in an average American grocery store are spiked with sugar. Neuroscientist Nicole Avena added that overeating of foods such as sugar can actually produce brain changes not unlike those seen in drug users; Avena advocates for an eight-step withdrawal plan for cutting out sugar and starches.

But some doubts about equating sugar addiction with psychoactive drugs remain. Psychologist Ashley Gearhardt has warned against comparisons between sugar and addictive drugs like nicotine, stressing that the jury is still out on the former’s addictiveness and withdrawal symptoms. Still, when it comes to cutting down on sugar, Gearhardt doesn’t mince words: “Many people repeatedly fail when they try moderation,” she said. Instead, she recommends eliminating sweets entirely.

Is quitting sugar cold-turkey even possible? Yes, and apparently it’s even sustainable. “I have not had refined sugar or flour in about 15 years,” said journalist Michael Prager. “I do not feel deprived…I just found that life was better without it.” Sugar-kicking tips from Gearhardt and Prager include exercise, prioritizing long-term goals, monitoring cravings, and finding new foods that are rewarding and healthy.

Regardless of their preferred method for cutting down sugar consumption, scientists and health professionals agree that the average American’s daily intake of sugar – 22 teaspoons, or 100 grams, per day – is far too much. Instead, the maximum should be 6 teaspoons (30 grams) of sugar per day for women and 9 teaspoons (45 grams) for men, according to The American Heart Association.

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Amelia Edelman is a senior-level editor, journalist, and poet from New York City, currently living in Nashville but usually found on the road / in the air / around the globe. She writes about travel, home, design, health and wellness, work, literature, politics, and sometimes ghosts. Find Amelia on Twitter and LinkedIn.

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