Sugar – Obesity, Addiction, Depression

“…the war on drugs has taken a back seat, but not because it has been won. Rather, because a different war has cluttered the headlines — the war on obesity. And a substance even more insidious, I would argue, has supplanted cocaine and heroin. The object of our current affliction is sugar.” – Robert Lustig


Remember a few years ago when high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) was implicated in childhood obesity? That was the research of neuroendocrinologist Robert Lustig. As described in his book Fat Chance: Beating the Odds Against Sugar, Processed Food, Obesity, and Disease (2013), added sugar was implicated in not only obesity, but metabolic syndrome which can include any or all: obesity, high blood pressure, diabetes, and heart disease. Why?

Too much sugar causes a surge in insulin. Insulin blocks the effect of leptin, the hormone that signals that you have had enough to eat. This leads to obesity, which is linked to a host of other diseases.

Now Lustig is back on the scene with a new book, The Hacking of the American Mind: The Science Behind the Corporate Takover of our Brains and Bodies, which proposes another more sinister effect of sugar: depression. Sweet is evolutionarily delightful; it gives us pleasure. Excess sugar consumption floods the brain with dopamine, the pleasure neurotransmitter. And similarly (for our purposes) as insulin blocks the benefits of leptin, so does dopamine block serotonin, the contentment neurotransmitter.

Therefore, sugar behaves simarlarly as all substances of abuse – it is addictive. It fuels short-term pleasure, while dampening a long-term sense of well-being. Without the substance, and with lowered serotonin, in absence of the drug of choice, the world is grey and depressing. Another “fix” of pleasure can temporarily increase positive emotion. With decreased seratonin, only a rush of dopamine can take an addict out of the colorless funk that invariably occurs when the substance is not longer in the body.

The FDA, the USDA don’t adequately acknowledge the extent of the ill effects of sugar. And why should they? Legislators are often unduly influenced by big money; in this case the Sugar Association’s powerful lobby. Sound like a conspiracy? Well, maybe it is. That very same lobby paid off Harvard researchers decades ago to point the finger toward fat rather than sugar as the key to the dietary cause of heart disease.

This unfortunate influence yields to this day an OK from the FDA of a carbohydrate-heavy food pyramid, and still little acknowledgment that sugar is the enemy. Therefore, it is very difficult to persuade people to believe that sugar is really that harmful.

But it certainly can be, especially in excess. And it is correlated with depression, and as a therapist, I say that is bad news.

To be continued….

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