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The Sweet Trap: Unveiling the Bittersweet Truth

Fred* walked in the door with swollen hands, knees, and ankles. It was painful to watch him walk. Just the week before he had been joyful over having full range of motion in all his limbs and fingers and excited about being pain free and loving life. What happened? “I bought my favorite candy for my grandchildren, but at the last minute they changed their plans and there I sat with that candy calling my name. I ate the whole bag in less than three days. Everything else has been fine. It has to be the candy.”

Do you view sugar and sugary foods as a delightful treat? Most of us have little concept of just how much sugar we consume daily and the ensuing serious consequences it can have on our health and wellness whether we feel it or not. The recommended maximum amount of sugar a day is six teaspoons (24 grams). That alone sounds like a lot. But the average American consumes more than three times that amount with nearly 20 teaspoons of sugar a day. How is that possible?

Sugar is a hidden, and not so hidden, part of the modern western diet. We find sugar in most processed foods and beverages. Whether it's the sugar you stir into your morning hot drink or the hidden sugars in your favorite snack, its presence can pose a significant challenge to maintaining a healthy lifestyle.

Sugar, the alluring, sweet substance that finds its way into countless food and beverage products, is a winning ingredient for producers. Sugar addiction is a real and concerning issue. Some claim it to be a myth. What does the science say about the concept of sugar addiction and how it can sabotage your best efforts throughout the holiday season.

The Science of Sugar Addiction: The Brain's Reward System

One of the key aspects of sugar addiction lies in how our brain's reward system responds to sugar consumption. When we consume sugar, it triggers the release of dopamine, a neurotransmitter associated with pleasure and reward. This "feel-good" response creates a positive feedback loop, reinforcing the desire for more sugar. The consumption of sugar activates brain regions associated with reward and motivation, similar to addictive substances such as cocaine.[1]

Tolerance and Withdrawal

Sugar addiction is often compared to drug addiction because of the development of tolerance and withdrawal symptoms. In a 2017 study, researchers found that rats regularly exposed to sugar exhibited signs of sugar dependency, such as increased sugar intake over time and the manifestation of withdrawal symptoms when sugar was removed from their diet.[2]

Craving and Overconsumption

Another hallmark of addiction is the strong craving for the substance in question. Several studies have demonstrated that sugar cravings can lead to overconsumption, contributing to health issues like obesity and metabolic disorders. A study published in Appetite found that participants with a “high sweet tooth” had a higher sugar intake and exhibited greater cravings for sweet foods.[3]

Neural Adaptations

Over time, repeated exposure to sugar can lead to neural adaptations in the brain, much like what occurs with drug addiction. These changes can lead to a reduced ability to control sugar intake. A review published in 2010 discussed the similarities between the neural adaptations observed in substance addiction and those related to sugar consumption.[4]

Health Implications of Sugar

Considering the above information, what are the health implications of sugar? Let’s consider its effects on circulation and our blood vessels first. Excessive sugar consumption (from refined sugar and high fructose corn syrup) has been associated with several adverse effects on blood vessels, including inflammation, oxidative stress, and endothelial dysfunction.

Here are some key findings from scientific studies that highlight these effects:

Inflammation and Blood Vessel Health:

Sugar consumption, especially in the form of high-fructose corn syrup, has been linked to inflammation within blood vessels. Inflammation plays a pivotal role in the development of atherosclerosis and other cardiovascular diseases. A study published in 2007 found that a high-sugar diet led to increased vascular inflammation and endothelial dysfunction.[5] High sugar intake has been associated with elevated blood pressure, which is a risk factor for cardiovascular disease. A study published in Journal of Hypertension in 2010 showed that high sugar intake is linked to increased blood pressure in young adults.[6]

Endothelial Dysfunction:

Endothelial cells line the inner walls of blood vessels and play a crucial role in regulating vascular health. Excessive sugar consumption has been shown to impair endothelial function, reducing the ability of blood vessels to dilate and maintain healthy blood flow. Acute sugar consumption can lead to endothelial dysfunction in healthy individuals.[7]

Oxidative Stress:

Sugar intake can also promote oxidative stress, a condition where there is an imbalance between the production of harmful free radicals and the body's ability to neutralize them. This oxidative stress can damage blood vessel walls and contribute to hardening of the arteries or the loss of flexibility within the vessel which can lead to increased blood pressure, narrowing of the arteries, and restricting blood flow, which then can lead to heart attack or stroke.[8] Sugar intake is associated with increased oxidative stress and impaired vascular function.

Insulin Resistance and Vascular Health:

In a study published in 2007, insulin resistance was associated with endothelial dysfunction and impaired nitric oxide production, both of which are critical for the health of our blood vessels.[9]

Scientific evidence reveals sugar consumption has detrimental effects on our circulation and everything depends on proper circulation. Disease of poor circulation include: high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes, insulin resistance or metabolic syndrome, fatty liver disease, obesity, arthritis and other diseases of inflammation, etc. Therefore, it is crucial to be doubly mindful of sugar intake and prioritize protecting your health and avoid sabotaging your best holiday effort with sugary treats.

Fred* has learned the addiction and cravings of sugar are not a friendly treat but an enemy to his success during the holidays. He has made a plan that includes plant-based desserts that he will include with his meal, not after his meal. Fred* will successfully meet 2024 with his health goals intact if he works his whole plan including how he will deal with sugar, candy, and desserts. What about you?

Need guidance on how to make and stick to your holiday success plan? Professional and friendly help is available to you at Abundant Health Wellness Center, in person or virtually. Let us guide you through a tried and proven method of making it successfully through the holidays without gaining weight, or having glucose numbers out of control, or an inflammatory flare-up.

If you are ready to do “whatever it takes” give us a call today to Start a New YOU! even during the holidays. Together we can create a plan that REALLY works, when you work the plan!

*Pseudo name


[1] Lenoir, M., Serre, F., & Cantin, L. et al. (2007). Intense Sweetness Surpasses Cocaine Reward. PLoS ONE, 2(8), e698.

[2] Avena, N. M., Rada, P., & Hoebel, B. G. (2008). Evidence for sugar addiction: behavioral and neurochemical effects of intermittent, excessive sugar intake. Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews, 32(1), 20-39.

[3] Weingarten, H. P., & Elston, D. (1990). The phenomenology of food cravings. Appetite, 15(3), 231-246.

[4] Corsica, J. A., & Pelchat, M. L. (2010). Food addiction: true or false? Gastroenterology, 26(2), 165-169.

[5] Vasdev, S., Gill, V. (2007). The antihypertensive effect of cysteine. International Journal of Angiology, 16(4), 123-130.

[6] Jalal, D. I., Smits, G., & Johnson, R. J. (2010). Increased fructose associates with elevated blood pressure. Journal of Hypertension, 30(6), 1255-1266.

[7] Neri, S., & Foschi, D. (2013). Effects of acute intake of chocolate on endothelial function in healthy individuals. Journal of Hypertension, 31(12), 2271-2276.

[8] Grassi, D., Desideri, G., & Ferri, C. (2012). Oxidative stress and endothelial dysfunction: Say NO to cigarette smoking! Current Pharmaceutical Design, 18(15), 1695-1703.

[9] Mather, K. J., & Anderson, T. J. (2007). Insulin action in the vasculature: Physiology and pathophysiology. Journal of Vascular Research, 44(1), 25-35.


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