The epidemic of obesity has spread across the country, and “experts” have linked the issue to everything from inactivity to a bad diet. However, more recently, studies have revealed that there may be a surprise culprit behind this widespread issue: the sugar and obesity link.
For a number of reasons, it seems that sugar causes obesity and overeating. Rather than obesity being about a lack of exercise, it seems it may largely come down to how much sugar we consume on a daily basis.
What the Science Says About Sugar Cause Overeating and Obesity
While obesity has long been blamed on the “lazy fat kid” who won’t do anything but stay inside and play video games, scientists are now beginning to show that there may be a more surprising direct link. What they have found is that the consumption of fructose, the form of sugar which the Western diet is overly saturated with, has the ability to trigger a change in the brain that leads directly to overeating.
Specifically, one study found that, after participants drank a fructose beverage, their brain does not register the feeling of being full. While this was a small study, other subsequent studies have continued to confirm the same phenomenon. It seems that the specific culprit is fructose, not necessarily all forms of sugar.
In one, scientists used MRI machines to scan the blood flow in the brain of 20 healthy young individuals both before drinking fructose and before drinking glucose. After drinking the beverage containing glucose, the area of the brain which are associated with reward/desire for food were turned off, leading to the individual feeling full. After drinking fructose, that region remained unchanged, and the desire to eat continued.
Sugar Can Change the Brain
So then, essentially, sugar seems to have the ability to fundamentally change the brain. That doesn’t mean every time you consume sugar, you’re sure to end up binge-eating until you’ve bloated yourself beyond recognition. You can eat food and drinks with fructose in them and not ever notice this effect, but it depends on how much you moderate your intake.
If you begin eating a diet which is especially high in fructose, that’s when you’re going to run into issues. You may not notice a difference at first, but each time you consume a large amount of sugar, you will be reinforcing your brains lack of response to tell you you’ve eaten enough. Over time, as you continue to consume large volumes of fructose, you’ll continue to weaken this area in your brain.
This region of your brain is the natural regulator of how much you eat. If this section of the brain is damaged, you will begin to lack the ability to feel full, and therefore, you will be stuck in a cycle of overeating. Perhaps the most difficult thing about this cycle is that it is so difficult to break – even if you’re aware of it. Why?
Because sugar can be addictive.
The Nature of Addiction
Hearing me say “sugar is addictive” may come as a bit of a surprise to some of you. Often, we think of substances that are addictive as illegal drugs and alcohol. Certainly something as innocent as sugar couldn’t be addictive, could it?
That’s most certainly not true. In the same way you can be addicted caffeine, you can become addicted to sugar.
While you may not necessarily be addicted to sugar if you see a piece of chocolate cake and feel a strong desire to destroy it with your digestive system, addiction to sugar is certainly possible. But first, to understand that, you must understand what addiction really is.
In medicine, someone is called “addicted” when their brain chemistry has literally changed to the point that it strongly compiles them to continue a substance that is clearly harmful to their health. If you are experiencing serious withdrawals, bingeing or craving, this could be a sign that you are addicted to sugar. The problem with addiction is that, one you’re in the cycle of it, breaking out goes against everything your brain is telling you to do. You can heal yourself, but it takes a whole lot of strength and will power.
Western Diets are Full of Sugar!
So why is it that people are becoming addicted to sugar, perhaps to the point of causing an epidemic of obesity? The answer comes down to the fact that in America today and in the last few decades, we are eating FAR more sugar than we ever have before. Since the 1970s, more and more foods that we eat have become processed and filled with sugar, and more and more of the beverages we drink are being saturated in the substance.
Coincidentally (or perhaps not so much), the increase in sugar intake nationwide has coincided with the increase in the epidemic of obesity and being overweight. Today, a third of western children and teens and more than 2/3 of adults are other obese or overweight according to their BMI.
The bottomline is that if you’re trying to quit sugar, you’re going to have to make a conscious effort to do so. There is a ton of sugar in most of the drinks and meals we get at our favourite restaurants (particularly fast food restaurants), and there is a ridiculous amount of sugar in the food we eat from the grocery store. As a general rule, eat more natural foods like veggies, fruits, beans, nuts and whole grains to avoid overeating sugar.
Sugar = Overeating = Obesity
Once you see the link between eating sugar and overeating, the link to obesity becomes pretty clear. If you fall into the cycle of addiction to sugar, your brain has likely already begun to change. It has probably become more and more difficult for your brain to help you sense when you are no longer hungry, so you tend to eat double or even triple your serving size at each meal.
With all of that extra food and all of those extra calories, it doesn’t take long for body fat to begin to build up. Though you may recognise the weight gain, being in the cycle of addiction to sugar and eating overly large meals as a habit will likely be hard to change. Seen this way, it’s not hard to identify the sugar/overeating/overweight link, where things begin to go wrong, and what the culprit is that we need to avoid (fructose).
Sugar Lacks Nutritional Value
Beyond just the neurological issue of fructose, it should be noted that the form of sugar we eat the most is completely lacking in nutritional value. This can be another contributing factor to the issue of overeating, as when you are eating too much of something that is not nourishing your body, your body will continue to tell you to eat until it gets the material it needs.
That means you’re eating empty calories on top of all the necessary calories, and that extra weight can built up quickly. Rather than adding so many sugary treats on top of the food you need, you would be much better off filling yourself primarily with substances your body can use directly.
The Myth of Inactivity
Given that the recent studies are more true than the previous explanations for obesity we have had, it seems fairly clear that the idea that inactivity is the primary cause of obesity is a myth. This is certainly not to say that exercise and activity isn’t essential for health – it is! – but the phenomenon of obesity is more likely linked to overeating and sugar intake.
What does that mean?
If you’re trying to lose weight, don’t focus on exercise first. Instead, pay attention to the food that you eat and the amount of food that you eat. Be aware that, the more sugar you eat, the less you will be able to regulate how many calories you intake. Try calorie counting and keeping your primary sugar intake to one treat a week. Don’t forget about exercise altogether, just remember that when it comes to losing weight, it is a third priority.
How to Break the Sugar Habit
Breaking the habit of sugar addiction is most definitely a difficult task. As with any addiction, it requires an incredible amount of dedication, self-motivation and conviction. Remember that throughout the entire process, you brain, and therefore your psychology and your natural impulses, will be telling you to do the opposite of what your rational mind is telling you to do. Be aware that the cravings will be intense and the psychological need to reach for the cookie jar will be nearly unbearable.
Don’t worry – it gets easier the longer you can hold out. As you begin to cut sugar from your diet, your dependency will dwindle, and you will experience fewer and fewer intense cravings to indulge. Hold strong to your goals, find friends to keep you accountable and press onward, and you will achieve your goal.