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If I told you that you were unwittingly consuming an addictive substance that induces chemical reactions similar to cocaine, day after day, and probably have been for years, would you believe me? Or would you wonder what I was on myself?
Everyone loves some good conspiracy exposure, and in 2014 the documentary film “Fed Up” gave us one. It was designed to raise awareness regarding the sheer amount of sugar the average American consumes in his or her daily diet. The adverse effects therein, along with corporate and government hijinks to keep the problem under wraps, were also investigated.
Perhaps conspiracy is the wrong word. The amount of sugar in a given product is readily available on its nutrition facts label, even if the recommended daily percentage is conspicuously absent, but there’s no doubt about the nefarious activity surrounding sugar and its presence within our food and beverages.
The interviews in the film were unsettlingly revealing, and the statistics provided were even worse. For example, 98 percent of food related advertisements that children view are for products high in fat, sodium, and sugar; drinking one soda a day increases a child’s chance of obesity by 60 percent; Americans consumed an average of 153 grams of sugar per day in 2012, which averages out to 130 pounds per year, and the kicker: more than 93 million Americans, somewhere around 28 percent of the population, are considered obese.
Feeling a sense of empowerment after watching the movie, I decided to try eliminating refined sugar in my own diet. It couldn’t be that hard, I thought. All I’d have to do was pay attention to everything I regularly took in (which, admittedly, was almost entirely ladened with some form of sugar). Sugary drinks like soda and iced tea would be easy enough to weed out with water as an ample replacement. Other snacks like cookies, ice cream, and cakes would be surely missed, but they seemed dispensable as well—after all, I wasn’t a six-year-old.
But as I reached for a box of Cheerios as a breakfast alternative—the most non-sugary, anti-kid cereal I could think of—I was shocked to find that each cup of the fiber-Os contains a gram of sugar, all while tasting like little bits of cardboard hollowed out into Manila-colored circles.
If you think it stops with wretchedly fibrous breakfast cereals, think again. Greek yogurt, white bread, barbecue sauce, and salad dressings all contain gobs of added sugar. Wheat Thins—Wheat Thins!—offer up four grams per serving. Even cow’s milk, which contains natural sugar known as lactose, clocks in somewhere around 12 grams per serving of the sweet stuff.
It’s almost as if grocery store aisles should be coated in finely grained sugarcane, because the shelves already are—depending on the source, somewhere around 80 percent of grocery store products contain added sugar, and that doesn’t even include items with natural sugar such as milk and fruit.
As hard as it is to find items without sugar, it’s nearly as unpleasant to physically get over its absence. Upon removing as much sugar as I could from my diet, particularly from soda, I quickly dropped into an unpleasant haze. Wafting periods of lethargy washed over me, and constant headaches pounded the inside of my skull. I was quick to anger or frustration when something wasn’t to my liking, and found myself desiring sweet carbonation every single time I took a sip of water. It’s safe to say that I was going through some sort of withdrawal.
That term might seem a bit coarse given the subject matter, but science has backed up the likenesses between sugar and illicit drugs. In fact, sugar stimulates your brain in much the same way cocaine does, as evidenced by this infamous scan. More recently, neuroscientist professor Selena Bartlett from Queensland University of Technology in Australia published a study that shows substances used to treat drug addiction could also be used to treat addiction to sugar.
“Like other drugs of abuse, withdrawal from chronic sucrose exposure can result in an imbalance in dopamine levels and be as difficult as going ‘cold turkey’ from them,” Bartlett said in the study’s press release.
With more agreement on sugar’s status as an addictive substance, the next step—as with any drug—is treating it. It’s what spurred the creation of the Healthy Eating & Lifestyle Program (HELP), the world’s first inpatient program treating obesity as a food addiction, specifically to sugar and refined carbohydrates. The program is based in a facility in Cape Town, South Africa, but according its founder Karen Thompson, high demand from the United States will bring a satellite version to California in 2017.
“In conjunction to using a low carb, healthy fat, and Ketogenic diet, in conjunction we also address the issues related to overeating and binge eating by looking at underlying trauma, psychological and spiritual issues,” Thompson says.
The inpatient program lasts 21 days, and the incoming American version will be an intensive five-day program. Exercise is encouraged, but as a tool for stress release and enjoyment rather than an effort to lose weight, and emphasis is placed on building up patients’ self-esteem and self-love.
Thompson acknowledges that sugar is not addictive for everyone who uses it, but identifies herself as someone for whom sugar is a drug with emotional, physiological, and psychological resonance. She also holds the belief that we have been conditioned to experience this reaction from sugary foods because the foods themselves have been designed that way.
“We are addicted to foods high in sugar and refined carbs which have been engineered to be addictive,” Thompson explains. “The only way we can stop is not by eating everything in moderation, but by abstaining from our ‘drug of choice,’ which in this instance is sugar.”
It might be hard for some to wrap their head the idea. Sugar doesn’t have the overt short term effects that drugs like cocaine and heroin may have on a person, a family, or entire communities. But even though the effects aren’t immediately apparent, the rising obesity percentages don’t lie about the decay sugar is having on our bodies and society.
“The world is facing a tsunami of lifestyle related illnesses that will cripple our global economy in the next 20 years,” Thompson says. “The short term effects are not nearly as severe, however the long term effects of overeating sugar and refined carbs have on our health are terrifying.”