Sugar Is Addictive In The Same Way As Smoking And Alcohol

09/04/2016 2:12 PM AEST | Updated 15/07/2016 12:51 PM AEST
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Young woman with ginger hair wearing a yellow blouse and colourful make-up staring at a smiling chocolate chip cookie.

Does it seem like kicking a sugar habit is as hard as dropping the cigarettes and cold ones?

It turns out there’s a good reason behind that -- a group of researchers have found that sugar, alcohol, and nicotine are all addicting in the same way.

“What we’ve shown is that the brain changes after long-term sugar consumption. It’s actually the same as what happens with alcohol and nicotine,” lead author of the study, Queensland University of Technology's Professor Selena Bartlett, told The Huffington Post Australia.

“A lot of people have talked about sugar being addictive, but what we’re demonstrating is the complete brain mechanism that’s driving that addiction process,” she said.

The study found that changes to the brain’s neurons, caused by long-term consumption of sugar, drove test subjects to seek ever-higher levels of dopamine by consuming even more sugar -- the same way an addiction to nicotine or alcohol works.

The researchers also found that in animals, sugar addiction can be treated with a drug used to help people quit smoking. They used an FDA-approved drug, varenicline, to stop sugar addiction in rats.

But while the study showed such a treatment is possible, Professor Bartlett said it’s not necessarily desirable.

“I’m not advocating a direct drug treatment for sugar addiction,” she told HuffPost Australia.

“But it is game-changing, in the sense you can demonstrate that alcohol and nicotine and sugar are changing the brain in exactly the same way.”

The findings could also help us better understand ways to treat sugar addiction and reduce the contribution it makes to Australia’s obesity problem.

In 2014-2015, 63.4 percent of Australian adults were overweight or obese -- well over half of our nation's population. That was an increase from 1995, where 56.3 percent of the population were overweight or obese.

Experts have called for a sugar tax to help arrest rising obesity rates. While Professor Bartlett said a sugar tax could help to create change, it wasn’t the only culprit in rising obesity levels.

“It’s not all sugar. Everything in moderation is fine. It’s things like supersizing, sugar in all sorts of foods, it’s difficult for the brain to reduce consumption because it feels so good. Combined with sedentary behaviour, that’s what’s driving the obesity rate higher,” Professor Bartlett told HuffPost Australia.

“Our studies show only long term, excessive consumption is bad, changes the brain. If you have a teaspoon of sugar in your coffee, you’re not going to get addicted.”

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