Sugar as addictive as cocaine, nicotine

09:30 AEST Thu Dec 20 2012
People can get hooked on sugar like they can on hard drugs. (Thinkstock)

A study on rats, which love sugar just as much as people, found that sugar was as addictive as cocaine, nicotine and alcohol.

For many people, the appetite for high-calorie items appears to be insatiable. But does this qualify as addiction?

An article in the Huffington Post last year by Frank Lipman - who describes himself as an integrative doctor - on his apparent sugar addiction and the road to kicking the habit, has provoked a great deal of discussion on sugar addiction.

Lipman believes that the desire for sugar is triggered initially by the sugar in mother's milk, and later by parents using treats to console or reward their children. By adulthood, people anticipate that sugar will improve mood and provide energy.

Following a 2007 study on rats, which love sugar just as much as people, French researchers came to the conclusion that sugar was as addictive as cocaine, nicotine and alcohol.

They offered the rodents a choice between water sweetened with saccharin and water laced with cocaine, and 94 per cent of the rats took the sweet option.

A further test revealed that even rats used to cocaine switched to sugar as soon as they were given the choice.

But Falk Kiefer, a German professor who specialises in addiction, says: "There is no such thing as sugar addiction."

The desire for food cannot be equated to heroin addiction, in Kiefer's view, although both sugar and heroin work on the same part of the brain: the reward system.

Nutritionist Sven-David Mueller is of the same opinion. "The kind of addiction people have for cocaine or psychotropic drugs doesn't develop with chocolate. Rather, there is a highly developed desire," he says, and this is tantamount to addiction for some people.

Mueller says that sweetness is a taste that we experience as positive, as shown by tests on babies. This is because sweet things are easily digested and not dangerous. He maintains that there are no studies showing that high sugar consumption is purely damaging.

"If I am not already overweight and exercise adequately and brush my teeth regularly, I will not get type 2 diabetes or caries from sugar," Kiefer adds.

Both agree that excessive sugar intake is associated with other risk factors, such as overweight resulting from too many calories in the diet, lack of exercise and chronic stress.

This in turn can lead to diabetes, high blood pressure, heart problems or joint ailments.

The experts says there is no well defined medical limit for how much sugar an individual may consume, although German health authorities recommend that no more than 10 per cent of daily energy needs should be consumed in the form of sugar.

A normal adult woman should therefore consume no more than 50 grams of sugar per day.

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