Chapter 15 Sugar Addiction

When I first met Alicia, she weighed 250 pounds. She was only 15 years old.  When I entered my exam room, I saw a pretty young woman already emotionally damaged by the size of her body. She shrank away from me, obviously and painfully aware of how big she was. When I greeted her, she not only didn’t respond, she wouldn’t look at me, focusing instead on the floor. I realized she would withdraw further if I tried to engage her. So I turned to her mother, Maria, instead.  Maria told me that Alicia had always been hungry. When other children rushed outside to play after breakfast, Alicia would anxiously ask about lunch, when would it be served and what would they be having? No matter how much she ate, and how little time there was between meals, Alicia was always hungry.

 Eventually, Alicia began to take food from the family kitchen and hide it in her room. Hoarding food made her feel safe.

 Maria understood how her child felt because she had had a similar childhood. Now, as an adult, Maria weighed 270 pounds at just over five feet tall.

 Maria asked me to imagine going without water for three days. Then, a glass of cold water is set in front of you. The problem is you must exercise your willpower to avoid drinking the water. After an hour, you can put the glass to your lips and take a sip, only a sip. Then you have to wait another five hours before you can take another sip. Then you’ll have to wait until the next morning before you can have another.

  Obesity is a complex disease, and for Alicia her cravings may have come from the lack of the wonderful brain hormone known as dopamine that you have read about in chapter 10. As you will remember, dopamine produces that happy feeling you get when things are the way they should be. If you smile right now, look up, stretch your arms apart, and take a deep breath, you will feel something similar to the feeling dopamine delivers.  Mother Nature gives us this wonderful feeling to encourage us to do things that are good for us. Think of viewing a sunset, holding a baby’s hand, or the feeling of laughing with friends. 

Well-meaning health care providers had suggested to both Alicia and her mother Maria that they just needed to “do what the Greatest Losers did” and they would both be a healthy weight.  In other words, this was “all their fault” and they should be able to “fix” their problem.  In the next chapter (Myth # 4–Eat Less and Exercise More) and also in chapter 29 (Accommodating Your Biology: Anti-Obesity Medications), you will learn how both Alicia and Maria became successful in their search for health. 

 Years ago, I had the opportunity to meet Serge Ahmed. We had both been invited to participate in a food addiction workshop.  Dr. Ahmed told us about a study of his. He took his rats and purposely addicted them to cocaine.  These  

Cocaine-addicted rat…

little guys were some of the most addicted creatures ever. They had a button in their cage that, when pressed, delivered cocaine intravenously. The rats could press the button whenever they wanted and as often as they wanted. You can imagine how quickly they became dependent on this drug.

 Once they were good and hooked, Dr. Ahmed placed another button in the cage. When the rats pushed this button, they’d get some sugar water. While the liquid cocaine went straight into the rats’ veins, they had to physically

drink the sugar water. So, a little more effort was involved in getting the sugar into their bloodstream.

 The result?  In 72 hours, most of the rats had switched from cocaine to sugar!

 Imagine, as addictive as cocaine is, the rats were cured of their addiction in 72 hours. Of course, they had a new addiction—sugar. 

            And now you know why sugar and artificial sweeteners are in virtually all processed foods.

 Food companies don’t just need customers; they need repeat customers. Fast food restaurants don’t want occasional customers, they want daily customers. Whatever they can do to bring you back in, they will do it. They aren’t evil; they’re just in business.

 Mother Nature wants us to eat energy-rich food, so she has placed a pleasure circuit in our bodies to cause us to continue seeking sugar and other carbohydrates in the most easily ingested form as possible.

 Dopamine is a wonderful hormone. It is part of the reward mechanism that Mother Nature gave us to make sure we go after what we need in life. Of course, we’ve found ways to take advantage of this gift. We smoke, do drugs, and even eat sugar to increase dopamine in our brains.  The problem with addiction, whether from an illicit substance or from a more socially acceptable source, is that as our receptors get more and more dopamine, they become desensitized. The result is that we end up needing more and more of a substance to get the same “rush.” 

You can discover this mechanism by doing an experiment on yourself.  This is one experiment you’ll enjoy. (If you are a thin biology person, this study may make no sense to you because your brain does not work this way.)  Go at least a month without eating a hot fudge sundae.  Now, when you have that sundae in front of you, wait for a few moments before digging in. Take your spoon and carefully carve out a small bite and slowly place the ice cream in your mouth. Savor it.  Notice how you’re blown away with that first bite. Just feeling the cold sweetness on your tongue is glorious. Your whole body feels the pleasure of flavors coursing through your mouth. You may even shiver with delight. You’re probably feeling those pleasures as you read these words. You don’t even have to take that first bite. But I bet you want to.

 To continue the fantastic experience, you take another bite, and another, and another. But now notice that you aren’t getting the same pleasure you did from that first bite. You’ll be tempted to eat faster in an attempt to boost the dopamine in your brain. You’re still enjoying the sundae when you get to the final spoonful, but there was a lull about two-thirds of the way through the sundae when you weren’t really enjoying it. You were just eating unconsciously hoping to experience the pleasure associated with the first few bites.

 And you will notice that we can’t satisfy ourselves with spinach and grilled salmon. Even though these foods give us the nutrients we need, they don’t give the same feelings of pleasure that came from the ice cream.

 Now introduce some stress into your life. As your cortisol levels begin to rise, your dopamine is pressed down. Your body wants to be out of the stress; it wants the dopamine back. So you begin to crave the sugary foods that gave you that wonderful, relaxed feeling.

It is vital to note that sucrose, glucose, and fructose are important carbohydrates found in natural foods.  All of these carbohydrates will vary in their sweetness. When we eat fruits and vegetables, we are eating some sucrose.  The body converts this sucrose into glucose and fructose.  It uses glucose as its primary energy source, and converts any fructose into a healthy level of fat storage.

You will remember that glucose is the fuel for our muscles and brain.  Glucose causes insulin to be released and stimulates the production of leptin, a key hormone for regulating energy intake and expenditure as was noted in Chapter 9. 

Now, let’s see what happens to these sugars when they are artificially concentrated.  Sucrose becomes table sugar (made from sugar cane and sugar beets) and is devoid of fiber and nutrients.  When this is broken in the body to glucose and fructose, watch what happens next.

Of the two, fructose has more than twice the sweetness value for the same volume.  The excess glucose that is not used for muscle activity is converted into fat by the effect of insulin, and despite being in excess, at least it is satisfying to the brain.  By contrast, fructose gives no satisfaction.  This is why eating products that are sweetened by processed fructose will cause us to eat extra calories of any source.  There is no satisfaction. 

But even more troubling is how food companies isolate fructose.  They use this undesirable processed fructose as the primary sweetener.  On top of that, they market it as “all natural” on food labels because it comes from corn. But there is little left from the original kernels of corn in the syrup.

So, because it’s cheap and gives us wonderful jolts of dopamine, we have high fructose corn syrup in many of the products on the store shelves. It permeates our diets. But we don’t have a system to deal with the oversupply of high fructose corn syrup. There is no shut-off value for our desire for sweet. That is why we can keep eating and drinking even when we are full. It is also why you can drink a huge soda before you eat, and not feel full. All those calories, all that sugar, flood your system, and you don’t have a shut-off valve telling you that you’ve just consumed more than enough sugar.

88,000 individual processed foods 82% have added sugar

Even savory processed foods have fructose. Food manufacturers know that it’s the sweetness that hooks you. They want to make sure they not only tempt you, but also keep you coming back again and again. So they put fructose in as many of their products as possible.

Most of these products are processed foods, and without the fiber, the fructose gets into your system faster.  You get a quicker and more powerful dopamine rush. You immediately want more of what you just ate.  Pleasure with no satisfaction.

And more important for their bottom line, without fiber, we won’t feel full. You’ll eat the whole bag of chips, the whole frozen dinner, the whole tub of ice cream. Without any leftovers, you’ll need to buy more to get that great feeling again.  Not only are you buying more food, but also are needing to buy products to treat the constipation from eating fiber-less foods.  Steal the fiber from the whole foods that you would have eaten and then sell it back to you.  Quite a profit filled business plan.

Here is a personal side story to help you understand this change in our environment.  When I was a little boy growing up in Texas, we had access to sugar cane available to us from across the border in Mexico.  I would go to a local village general store and pay a penny for a short 6 inch section of sugar cane.  Next, I got out my precious pocket knife that might have been used for many unmentionable activities, and would whittle off the outer bark of the cane to reveal the white core filled with sweet flavors.  I could suck on that “sweet stick” all day.  Just jam it back into the back pocket of your jeans and bring it out any time for another “treat”. 

Now comes the “punch line”.  How many feet of sugar cane do you think it takes to make one teaspoon of sugar?  What is your best guess?  It takes 3 feet of sugar cane to make one teaspoon of sugar.  The average American consumes 22 teaspoons of sugar each day.  That would be 66 feet of sugar cane! 

Let’s just stay with normal non-processed foods.