Sugar consumption in the United States has increased from 18 pounds per person per year in 1800 to more than 180 pounds per person per year in recent estimates. That is an increase approaching 600% over 200 years.
What was once a rare delight has become a staple of every part of every meal that we consume in our industrialized world. With our current crisis of obesity and diabetes, sugar consumption must be analyzed as a possible contributor by our government, researchers and most importantly by consumers. Here are a few things to consider:
Researchers have found that sugar stimulates the human brain using the same reward pathway as known addictive drugs. In fact, some researchers suggest that the addictive properties of sugar are stronger than that of some of even the strongest addictive, illicit substances such as cocaine. The food industry has used this knowledge, paired with behavioral tactics, to produce products that are not only poor in nutrition but specifically designed to be addictive. Ever wonder why not every chip in a bag of Doritos has the same amount of sweetness or spice? It’s a tactic to drive you to eat another handful in order to find the sweetest or spiciest chip in the bag.
In 1977, the food pyramid, paired with nutrition guidelines from the National Institutes of Health and the American Heart Association, placed blame on dietary fat for the perceived increase in heart disease in the United States. Although limited evidence backed these guidelines at the time, pressure from government agencies and the food industry paved the path for an unprecedented change in the way we eat. Americans listened and decreased intake of dietary fat in order to prevent heart disease. The food industry responded with products that substituted sugar for dietary fat to maintain taste and replaced saturated fat with trans fats for shelf life and texture.
Grocery stores were then stocked with products that met the recommended dietary guidelines. These products were not only touted as healthy but were designed to keep consumers coming back. Sugar, behavioral tactics and additional ingredients such as MSG made these substances irresistible to consumers. Now, more than 40 years later, we have raised two generations of Americans who have been drawn away from natural, local and seasonal foods all the while becoming addicted to highly processed foods, fast food windows and sugar in all its varied forms. The result is a society that has become dependent on a dubious industry for its nutrition.
During this time, Americans have gotten sicker, fatter and more desperate for help. Health trends have become more extreme and nutrition “experts” are everywhere shouting their opinion of the “right” way to eat. Those who attempt to make a change in the right direction and drop the processed junk foods most often find improved health. However, the vast majority of these attempts to lose weight fail. Even well-designed nutritional approaches will fail unless the underlying behavioral components are addressed.
The underlying behavior that fuels lifestyle change failure is addiction. Addiction to sugar. Addiction to highly refined junk foods and sugar in all its varied forms – organic, all-natural or otherwise. We have been taught and conditioned to be addicted to food by design – food industry design, marketing design and social acceptance – and as a result the majority of Americans are now overweight or obese, pre-diabetic or diabetic.
The next time you reach for something to eat, ask yourself: Am I hungry? Does my body need this food? Or is this a result of a craving driven by marketing or a behavior driven by addiction? The road to addiction recovery starts with acknowledging the problem and an intense desire to make change.
Ashley Lucas has a doctorate in sports nutrition and chronic disease. She is a registered dietitian, nutritionist and the founder and owner of PHD Weight Loss and Nutrition, offering weight management and wellness services in the Four Corners. She can be reached at 764-4133.