Special Report: Sugar addiction its effects on the body

Is there such a thing as a sugar addiction or is it an excuse to over indulge? Nutrition experts say no matter what its appeal, sugar causes more harm to us than we realize.
BAKERSFIELD, CA -- It's been cultivated for centuries, refined to be cheap and accessible, processed into numerous foods from bread and pasta to candy and cake, and it satisfies like no other food group.

"Sugar, yes, it falls into that category of the same kind of compounds that can cause addiction like cocaine, like alcohol," said Dr. Richard Johnson, a nephrologist at the University of Colorado.  Johnson is one of the country's leading researchers on sugar and its effects on the body.

"Glucose is the regular fuel that we use in our body in normal ways, but fructose has a relatively unique metabolism," said Johnson.

"Normally when you eat a nutrient, it's used to produce energy, but when you eat fructose, there's actually a period where the energy falls dramatically inside the cell. It triggers inflammation, it triggers oxidative stress, all kinds of inflammatory processes. And it affects the energy production in the cell which is the mitochondria. That leads to the cell wanting to hold onto fat and triggers changes in the body that makes you insulin resistant."

At Kaiser Permanente in Bakersfield, registered dietician Cheryl Leighter says sugar, in all of its forms, is often hard to resist. Sugar is also hard to avoid. Many processed foods contain hidden sugars. Low fat dairy products actually have more sugar in them than their full-fat counterparts.

The reason for all the extra sugar comes from a government diet recommendation in 1977 that said Americans should reduce their saturated fat consumption to reduce heart disease. Low fat products were born, but companies realized if you remove the fat, you remove the flavor.

"When those low fat products first came out, we thought it was such a great idea," said Leighter.

"They're making foods healthier for us, but then when you really start to look at the label, salt will go up, sugar will go up, sometimes the calories don't even change."

"I view it as a trick," said Johnson.

"Because they're trying to make you think of it as being healthy. So they say 'low fat' but they don't tell you that it means high sugar."

Sugar is not all that natural to human diets. It's believed to have been first cultivated in 8,000 B.C. in New Guinea. Through exploration, sugar showed up in India in A.D. 500. The Arabs were the first to refine it with the creation of marzipan in 600. By the 1500's, sugar was widely used in Europe. Christopher Columbus even brought sugar cane with him on his second trip to the Americas in 1493, to see if it would grow in the Caribbean.

Today, nutrition experts say we consume three times the amount of sugar recommended for our diet. The sugars in the food we consume can create a dependency, resulting in what many people refer to as a needed "sugar fix" throughout the day.

"Insulin is a hormone made by the pancreas. All foods trigger an insulin response, but these sugary things will really trigger a big burst of insulin and it takes your blood sugar down and then you're left exhausted," said Leighter.

"So then you want more. You need your sugar fix to bring you back up, but you create this roller coaster."

Getting off the ride is not easy. Even more disturbing than weight gain, Johnson said his new research on sugar reveals that it is actually toxic.

"There are now links with kidney disease, with food allergies, with heart disease, with fatty liver," said Johnson.

"In our research, we can actually show how fructose induces these changes, so there is a very strong link."

His new hope is for consumers to start carefully reading labels and make the decision whether it's really worth it to reward yourself with sugar.

In Sugar Addiction Part 2, we will meet people who broke their addiction and how they did it, and Dr. Johnson explains the how fructose from fruit is less harmful.

17 News weekend anchor Leigh Paynter has been on a no-sugar diet for seven months. Here are a few of her tips:

1. Don't get hungry. My food schedule is breakfast, snack #1, lunch, snack #2, dinner #1, and dinner #2. Lean protein, green vegetables, nuts, and complex carbohydrates like sweet potatoes, quinoa, and rice will help keep you full and cut the sugar cravings. Prepare and pack your meals in advance.

2. Drink a lot of water. One or two cups of coffee or tea can count towards at least 90 fluid oz of water a day.

3. Quest protein bars, Walden Farms syrups and salad dressings, and Extra Dessert Delights gum can help curb a sweet tooth.

4. Replace milk with sugar free almond, soy, or coconut milk.

5. Replace ketchup with hot sauce.

6. Replace sugar for coffee and for baking with Stevia.

7. If cravings are too great, try a piece of 86% Dark chocolate or a half cup of berries, which are low calorie.
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