Sugar is an important test case for addiction. We know that drugs like alcohol, heroin, and cocaine are profound mood changers and mind benders. But what about other substances that are sometimes abused, like sugar. If sugar is a “moodifier,” then should alcoholics and other addicts be using it regularly?
The answers to questions about sugar are vital to the treatment of eating addiction, but they also help deﬁne the role of substances in all addictions.
Sugars are simple carbohydrates, consisting of a single molecule (monosaccharide) or a double molecule (disaccharide). Disaccharides must be broken down into monosaccharides before they can be used by the body.
Also called dextrose, glucose is the form of sugar that is used by all cells of the body as fuel. Since it is ready for use, it requires no conversion by the liver, so is metabolized very rapidly. Glucose tastes 70 percent as sweet as sucrose, and is sometimes used as a food additive.
Fructose, also called levulose, is one of the sugars commonly found in fruit. Fructose must be converted by the liver into glucose before it can be used as a fuel.
Since it tastes 1.7 times as sweet as sucrose, fructose is being used more commonly as a sweetener, often as “high fructose corn sweetener.” This may be better for food addicts who are sensitive to ordinary table sugar (sucrose), but there are concerns about large amounts of fructose causing copper deﬁciencies.
Galactose is not very common in nature, except when combined with glucose to form lactose (see below). When it is found free in nature, it tastes 32 percent as sweet as sucrose. It takes longer to metabolize because it must be converted into glucose by the liver.
Ordinary table sugar, sucrose, is a combination of one fructose and one glucose. It is relatively easy for the enzymes in saliva or other digestive juices to split these two, and then there is a glucose and a fructose molecule. The glucose will be immediately available, but the fructose molecule must be converted by the liver before it can be used.
The sugar in milk is lactose, composed of one glucose and one galactose molecule. Since lactose tastes only 35 percent as sweet as sucrose, it could be easy to get a lot of it and not think you have had much sugar. Once it is split into glucose and galactose, the glucose is immediately available, just as with sucrose.
Maltose, or malt sugar, is two glucose units. They are split very easily, and used Very rapidly. Both molecules are immediately usable by the body, and so it seems that this would be the most psychoactive sugar for food addicts. Maltose tastes only 46 percent as sweet as sucrose, so it might deceive you.
Glycogen (animal starch) is a polysaccharide, like vegetable starch, and not a sugar. But we mention it here because it is the body’s form of short-term storage for glucose. The liver, muscles, and fat cells can convert glucose into glycogen when signaled to do so by insulin, which is released by the pancreas. Another pancreatic hormone, glucagon, causes glycogen to be converted to glucose as needed.
Is sugar a mood-altering drug? While there is a scarcity of scientiﬁc evidence, some people who have worked extensively with food addiction claim that there is some kind of mood-altering effect that has to do with sugar. Theories for this effect have to do with the blood sugar level, the insulin overshoot, the tryptophan/serotonin connection, and other effects of reﬁned sugars.
If your blood sugar level is high, you have more energy available and feel more alert and more like doing things. If you eat reﬁned carbohydrates, especially sugars that contain glucose, the blood sugar level can rise quickly, making you feel “better” within a few minutes.
If the blood sugar level rises very rapidly, the body will assume you have eaten a large amount of carbohydrate-containing foods, and will crank out insulin to convert the excess glucose to glycogen, preventing your body from burning yourself up with too much blood sugar.
But since these sugars are metabolized very quickly, there is then an excess of insulin and the blood sugar level may fall back below where it was when you ate the sugar. So you feel depressed -- and it’s back to the candy machine again.
The excess insulin also forces large neutral amino acids (LNAAS) into the muscles and other tissues of the body. One amino acid, tryptophan, is relatively unaffected by insulin, so suddenly it has less competition for the limited number of spaces on the transport molecules that cross the blood-brain barrier. Once in the brain, the tryptophan becomes serotonin, a natural tranquilizer.
Evidence of the psychoactive effect is supported by the fact that some eating addicts experience blackouts, similar to those found in chemical dependency, although not usually as long-lasting or severe. These seem more common in those who have been eating a lot of sugar in their diet.
Reﬁned carbohydrates, almost by deﬁnition, have fewer amino acids, vitamins, and minerals than their unreﬁned counterparts. The digestion of these foods requires enzymes and other biochemical agents that the sugary foods do not replenish. This may lead to enzyme depletion or other nutritional problems, which may make good judgment more difﬁcult, and the addiction spiral continues.
There is no evidence that anyone is so sensitive to sugar that a very small quantity will set off these reactions. But some factors regarding this sensitivity are:
The total quantity of sugar (especially glucose) in a meal or snack affects the speed of blood sugar rise.
It would make sense that the concentration plays a large part. A tablespoon of sugar spread throughout a large meal would be metabolized more slowly than that tablespoon eaten by itself.
The more protein present in the meal or snack, the more competition the tryptophan would have for transport across the blood-brain barrier, so the less serotonin would be produced.
While not yet generally understood or documented, there seems to be a link between sugars and fats that generates cravings. For most (but not all) eating addicts, sweet fats are far more powerful than sweets by themselves. And there seems to be more craving for salty fats than for sugar without any fat.
Some eating addicts have been told that they should not consent to having an intravenous glucose drip while in the hospital. Unless someone has some scientiﬁc evidence or a good logical explanation, there should be no problem with an I.V. glucose drip unless it is much too rapid (and then there would be more serious problems to your health). The sensitivity is to rapid metabolism of sugar, not to the presence of glucose in your blood. If you don’t have any glucose in your blood, you die.
Compounding the problem is the food industry, which regularly uses sugar as a food additive. Why? Because it helps products sell better. Now that the public has an increasing awareness about the nutritional problems and other concerns about sugar, the food industry has simply started to conceal sugar as an ingredient. They do the same with fat.
Most of the literature that relates to the metabolism of sugar and other carbohydrates is intended for nutritionists who advise people with diabetes, who must be careful of foods that will increase their blood sugar too rapidly. One tool for nutritionists is a glycemic index (GI).
This index sets glucose at a value of 100 and compares selected foods to it. The higher a food scores on the glycemic index, the faster it tends to increase the blood sugar. Maltose (which is sort of a double shot of glucose) scores 105. Fructose, which must be converted into glucose by the liver, scores 20. Sucrose (table sugar) is 59 on this scale, almost exactly between glucose and fructose, which are its two components.
High-fat and high-protein foods are low on this scale, indicating that they are metabolized more slowly. Peanuts are 13, soybeans are 15, and milk products are about 33.
There are a few surprises, however. Carrots may be as high as 71, and ice cream gets only 36.
Does this mean that people sensitive to sugar are free to eat ice cream but should leave out carrots completely? Not a chance. Ice cream is getting a lower score because it contains a lot of fat.
A 100-gram portion of chocolate ice cream has:
- 28.2g of carbohydrate, including:
- 25.4g of sugars
- 1.2g of dietary fiber
- 11.0g of fat
- 3.8g of protein
- Total 216 calories
A 100-gram portion of raw carrots has:
- 9.6g of carbohydrate, including:
- 2.8g of dietary fiber
- 1.4g of starch
- 4.7g of sugars
- 0.9g of protein
- 0.2g of fat
- 334% of daily value (DV) of Vitamin A
- Total 41 calories
This means that you could a whole pound of raw carrots for about the calories that are in a small to medium scoop of ice cream. The carrots would give you almost double the carbohydrates, but less sugar, more protein, and only about a tenth the fat of the ice cream.
The only thing wrong with the pound of carrots is that it would be more than the maximum recommended amount of Vitamin A, which is one of the vitamins that becomes toxic in excess.
A newer measure called glycemic load, takes the glycemic index (GI), and multiplies it by the grams of carbohydrate in a particular portion, divided by 100.
A GL of 10 or less is low, and 20 or above is high. Examples, using a 100 gram sample, are:
- 0.6 — Cabbage
- 3 — Apple, raw
- 3.5 — Carrots
- 3.6 — Watermellon (has a lot of water)
- 9.3-18.4 — Potato
- 10-11 — Banana
- 13 — Chocolate ice cream (lots of fat)
- 25.0 — Corn tortilla
- 30 — Bread, white
- 48.0 — Baguette, white, plain
- 49-74 — Rice, boiled, white
Note that many servings are much larger than 100 grams.
A good article on the Glycemic Load is on Wikipedia.
To find the estimated Glycemic Load for most any food, go to NutritionData.self.com.
The Bottom Line
What can we conclude from all this? At the present state of the research, we can suggest that:
- Some people seem more sensitive to sugar than others.
- The combination of sugar and fat is most likely to stimulate cravings.
- There is more we don’t know than we do know.
- You should probably avoid reﬁned, concentrated sugars, especially in early recovery.
Updated 1 Sep 2015
Addictionary 2 by Jan & Judy Wilson
is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.