How addictive is sugar?

Ask any personal trainer is sugar bad for you, and you’ll get a definitive answer. Yes it is without doubt. Ask the same personal trainer is sugar addictive, and the answer won’t be quite so conclusive. Some believe that it is, whilst others will tell you that the jury’s still out. The problem is there hasn’t previously been any conclusive evidence to either confirm or deny these accusations. However, a recent study in the British Medical Journal might go some way to throwing light on the subject.

The study investigated the link between sugar consumption and body weight by looking at the results of previous studies. It found that reducing dietary sugar intake in their diet could lead to a reduction in their weight of about 2.2lb (1kg) in adults. The findings also suggested that sugar increases body weight by promoting overconsumption of energy. In other words, the taste of sugar could lead us to want to eat more of it.

So sugar is calorific? Well, that’s hardly news: we’ve known that much for decades. 40 years ago British physiologist, John Yudkin, claimed that high sugar consumption was linked to heart disease. We also know that sugar has the potential to cause tooth decay, and eating too much sugar-rich food can lead an imbalance of dietary nutrients.

So what new evidence has come to light? Robert Lustig, professor of paediatrics at the University of California, has been researching into the effects of dietary sugar for a number of years, and has now come to the conclusion that sugar is addictive. In one of his recent interviews he claimed:

“There are five tastes on your tongue: sweet, salty, sour, bitter and umami. Sugar covers up the other four, so you can’t taste the negative aspects of foods. You can make dog poop taste good with enough sugar.”

Controversially Lustig also maintained that table sugar, known as sucrose, which is a combination of glucose and fructose chemically bound to each other, is identical to high fructose corn syrup – which he describes as a “chronic toxin”.

Lustig has been fiercely criticised for these remarks by Sugar Nutrition UK and other bodies funded by the sugar industry, which claim that sugar is most definitely not toxic. However he has also received support from Dr Alex Richardson, senior research fellow at the University of Oxford and founder director of the UK charity Food and Behaviour Research. Richardson agrees with Lustig and maintains that there is far too much sugar and empty carbohydrates in children’s diets which could in the longer term lead to developing Type 2 diabetes:

“We find that highly processed foods are making up massively more of children’s diets. Things like cakes, biscuits, snacks and crisps. Fruit and vegetables are so vital for children. They provide essential vitamins and minerals, but so often a third of a plate of child’s food is sugary rubbish and a small amount is veg or fruit.”

Sugar comes in many forms. It occurs naturally in fruit and milk, and will not impact on health, but when sugar is added to foods like cereals, desserts, confectionery, processed meals and soft drinks it can become a problem if consumed in large quantities. This type of ‘added’ sugar may be a good source of energy, but it contains no other nutrients.

The last word on the subject should be reserved for the British Dietetic Association. Its advice is simply this:

“Research suggests that sugary drinks make it harder for us to regulate the overall amount of calories eaten and a regular intake may be a factor contributing to obesity in children. [However] Sugary foods and drinks can only make us gain weight if overall we eat more calories than we use for energy.”

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