Why is our brain programmed to like sugar if it is harmful to our health?
Although we are concerned, sugar is currently an important part of our diet: peoples consume about 94 grams of sugar daily (between direct consumption and added sugar in processed products), which is twice the maximum amount recommended by the World Health Organization. This amount has been increasing for years, even though we know that the excessive consumption of added sugar is directly related to some pathologies such as cancer or hypertension.
We know that the consumption of sugar (and we talk about refined or added sugar, not the intrinsically present in food) is harmful to our health, and even then we continue to demand it and we continue to take it. Are we programmed so that our body likes sugar? Can it be considered an addiction?
Dependence or addiction to sugar
Is there really an “addiction” to sugar? When using this term there is some controversy: while some scientists like Gary Taubes are very clear and do not hesitate to say that there are people addicted to sugar, others prefer to be more cautious and leave it in the term “dependence”, a term with similar negative connotations, but perhaps less aggressive.
The fact is that the consumption of sugar affects our body, specifically our neurotransmitters, in a similar way to other substances such as drugs. Can we talk then of a real addiction?
The reward system in the brain
Why are sugar-containing products so appealing to us and is it so pleasant to eat them? This is related to the reward system that is activated automatically in our brain when we ingest any of these products.
As explained in the video that you can see above, at the same moment that we introduce a mouthful of a food with sugar in our mouth, our taste buds detect the taste and begin to send signals to our brain. Explained very succinctly: these signals activate the reward mechanism in our brain, the same that is activated against other substances such as nicotine or alcohol, and cause it to secrete dopamine, a neurotransmitter associated with pleasant sensation.
The signals that we receive when eating products rich in sugar are interpreted by our organism from the point of view that something good has happened, creating a pleasant memory of it. That is why, in successive occasions when we find ourselves again faced with the dilemma of “I eat or not like that piece of chocolate”, our body remembers the pleasant sensation and the usual response is “of course!”.
As with other substances that generate addiction or dependence, the greater the amount of sugar we consume in our day to day, the greater the amount of sugar that our body demands to generate the same pleasant response. A dangerous whiting that bites its tail and from which we can escape “resetting” our threshold of sweetness.
No, you do not need sugar (refined) to live
On many occasions we can hear, in defense of a “moderate consumption” of products that contain added sugar (remember here that the recommendations of the WHO are not moderate consumption, but give us a maximum consumption figures per day and person: 25 grams of added sugar) that our body needs sugar to live , and that, above all, our brain needs sugar to function.
This is not exact: as the chemist Óscar Picazo explains in the infographic that you can see above, our brain works perfectly without the need for added sugar. In order to exercise its functions properly, it needs glucose (which it obtains from different sources, evidently among them is refined sugar, but it is not essential) or it can also be done by means of ketone bodies (in the case that the level of glucose in our organism be low).
The sugar intrinsic or naturally present in food is sufficient for our body to function correctly, without the need to provide sugar, much less refined or added, by other routes.
Why is it so hard for us to do without sugar?
Eliminating added sugar from our diet is not an easy task: we may think that by stopping drinking that spoonful of white sugar in coffee we are already dispensing with the largest amount of sugar we have in a day. But the reality is that 75% of the sugar we consume daily does not see it, but we take it indirectly through processed foods.
The food industry uses sugar, under different names, as a flavor enhancer, to increase the palatability of its products , but also gives other uses such as the long-term preservation of food. It is a cheap and tasty ingredient: that’s why we find it in most processed products (although these do not have an especially sweet flavor, as can happen, for example, with sliced bread).
One of the questions that most people ask when they decide to do without sugar is “and now with what sweeten my dishes?”. As we said when we talked about “resetting the threshold of sweetness”, the ideal is not to have to sweeten the food, even though our body has become accustomed to that ultra-sweet taste that we offer each day, but to return to the original taste of the foods without sweetening or sweetening them.