Photographer:Fotograaf: Joey Roberts/ Simone Golob
“Sugar addiction is just as serious as other forms of addiction, such as alcohol, cigarettes and even certain drugs,” writes Jasper Alblas, the Dutch author of books such as Het 7 x 7 Afslank Receptenboek
(The 7 x 7 Slimming Recipe Book), on his website.
Let’s admit it, eating sugar is delicious and who doesn’t succumb to a bag of liquorice or a bar of chocolate every now and again? One piece of liquorice or a square of chocolate is really not enough. But does that mean that we are addicted to sugar? Will we suffer from cold turkey symptoms when we stop? A Dutch blogger from ‘Eet goed voel je goed’ (Eat well feel well) warns her readers that they could suffer “terrible headaches and full blown cravings for everything” when they stop taking sugar.
“Nonsense, there is no such thing as a sugar addiction,” says Rob Markus, professor holding an endowed chair of Neuropsychology, specialising in food, brain and behaviour. “People who are overweight like to look for a cause outside themselves. They point a finger at sugar and its addictive character. But being overweight is simply that you take in more calories than you burn. You eat too much.”
Where does the idea of sugar addiction come from? “In experimental research on animals approximately ten years ago, scientists starved laboratory rats and then gave them a choice between normal rat food and sugared water. Well, of course you know what they chose. Sugar is tasty and is preferred to other types of food. What the scientists saw in the strong response to this sugar water was an increased dopamine level (a neurotransmitter in the brain), just like in cocaine addiction. One and one make two, they concluded: sugar is just as addictive as drugs. The media picked it up and exaggerated it by two. It was announced as ‘the truth’. But dopamine rises with everything that you like: a lovely hot shower, a gift that you really like, a good film, sex, and food. The difference with drug addiction is that eating sugar do not cause a structural change in the brain, it doesn’t manipulate the brain like drugs do.”
Over the past few years, the scientific world has become more and more convinced that sugar addiction is an obstinate myth, says Markus. “We took the averages of results of controlled studies in the field that were carried out properly. “But it is not easy to make a dissenting view heard in the media. They immediately say that you are working for the sugar industry.”
Some time ago, the Dutch Diabetes Fund set up a sugar rehab clinic in Amsterdam with which they want to “make citizens aware of the high levels of sugar intake and its effects on their health”. Markus was surprised. “I sent them an e-mail saying that the sugar addiction they are referring to, does not exist. A collaboration of European scientists unanimously agree that specific food such as sugar is not addictive and is not the cause of obesity. We cannot give one nutrient the blame for weight problems and diabetes. I feel that the Diabetes Fund is misleading the public.” What was the reaction to Markus’ email? “They would take it into consideration.”
Mythbusters is a series in which academics shoot down popular myths on complex topics