Sugar addiction is real – here's what's behind the science and how to quit

MSNBC Host Mika Brezinski recently opened up about her lifelong addiction to sugar. An expert weighs in on how others can fight theirs. (Photo: Jennierae Gonzalez/EyeEm)
MSNBC Host Mika Brezinski recently opened up about her lifelong addiction to sugar. An expert weighs in on how others can fight theirs. (Photo: Jennierae Gonzalez/EyeEm)

“I have struggled with food issues for decades,” Morning Joe host Mika Brezinzki wrote in her op-ed on a lifelong love affair with sweets. “If it has sugar in it, I love it.”

Brezinski’s piece, published on NBC News on Monday, catalogs her conflicted relationship with sugar — a food group that both “soothes” her and has a “negative impact” on her health. The editorial elicited a wave of appreciation online, where many said they shared her feelings about the allure of sugar, and the challenges they’ve faced — due to its ubiquity — in giving it up.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the average percent of daily calories from sugar in America is 14 percent, with the leading sources being sugary sodas, cakes and cookies. On top of weight gain, this overconsumption can cause irreparable damage, putting you at higher risk of type II diabetes, heart disease, depression, anxiety, memory loss and even reduced brain volume.

For Nicola Avena, PhD, assistant professor of neuroscience at Mount Sinai Medical School, the reality of sugar addiction is stark. Avena, who authored a book on the topic in 2013 (Why Diets Fail: Because You’re Addicted to Sugar), understanding the mechanism behind it is the first step.

“My lab started publishing rat studies on this topic about 15 years ago, and we have seen more and more studies validate the types of behaviors and emotional experiences that Mika and many others experience when it comes to their relationship with sugar,” Avena tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “Our studies show that there are neurochemical changes in the brain that occur when we overeat sugar that are similar to what is seen with addictions to drugs, like alcohol or morphine.”

This explains, says Avena, why many feel that the pull of sugar is emotional.

“People often use sugar-rich foods to self-soothe and make themselves feel better. Sugar releases chemicals in the brain that make us feel good. It releases dopamine and opioids in our reward systems in the brain,” Avena tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “We have an innate, evolutionary desire to like sweet things… But in our modern food environment, we are in a state of food abundance, and the amount of sugar in just one serving of many of the processed foods out there is more than what is recommended for consumption in an entire day.”

For those who are concerned they may be suffering from an addiction, Avena says there are online diagnostic tools that can help clarify it, such as the Yale Food Addiction Scale. But in general, she says those who feel a “loss of control” over their sugar consumption, or see a daily impact, should think about talking to a doctor. “Many doctors who have adopted an addiction model to the treatment of overeating, and use techniques that are similar to those used to help people who have gambling problems, alcoholism or other addictions,” she says.

Avena says that for those who don’t feel fully addicted, there may be a way to have an acceptable relationship to sugar, but that it will be a challenge. “There is so much sugar added to our foods, and most Americans consume much more than the daily recommended amount of 8 to 10 teaspoons before we even hit lunchtime.” (According to the Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion (ODPHP), the average American consumes at least 17 teaspoons of sugar a day).

But while Brezinski says she is attempting to stop sugar cold turkey, Avena recommends that others start with small changes. “Instead of trying to quit ALL sugars at one time (which can be overwhelming), work to scale back on the sources of added sugars that are most problematic — such as sugar-sweetened beverages,” she tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “There are lots of resources out there for individuals who feel that they are eating too much sugar and need help controlling it. Speaking to a medical professional or psychologist who specializes in disordered eating is an important step to making a change.”

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