Ah, sitting down on the sofa, leaning back and enjoying a sweet treat after a long day at work, running home to get dinner ready for the kids, then get a meal ready for the family and finally putting the little ones to bed… isn’t this a great feeling? Just to relax and treat yourself to something nice. Quick question: Did anyone think of an apple just now? I bet everyone did… right? But while it’s ok to have a sweet treat such as a cookie or a cupcake from time to time, too much of a good thing CAN be bad for you.

A study in 2013 in the US showed that sugar even seems to be as, if not more, addictive as cocaine. Researchers showed that Oreo cookies activated more neurons in the pleasure center in rats than cocaine. The rats would be able to choose between Oreos and rice cakes in one cage and between salt water and cocaine in another cage. The rats in the first cage would spend as much time in the Oreo side than the rats would spend in the Cocaine side of the different cages. Even more interesting was the fact, as mentioned above, that the Oreos activated more neurons in the pleasure center than cocaine! Oh, and the rats would eat the inside of the Oreo cookies first, just like us humans!

But why is this so important? In today’s western civilization, we are consuming too much sugar. That’s a fact. And too much sugar is bad for our health. It causes type 2 diabetes, which in turn causes serious complications like blindness, leg ulcers, nerve damage and increases the risk of heart attacks, strokes and an early death. That’s another fact.

And this is where it gets tricky: the more sugar we eat, the more we crave it. This is the same as what happens in an addiction. Eating sugar causes a release of Dopamine in our brain, which is a key factor in the reward cycle in our brain. If you behave in a way that causes an excess of dopamine, you get a “High” and you are going to want to repeat the behavior that caused this “High”. The problem is, the more you repeat it, the less dopamine your brain will produce and you will have to repeat the behavior more and more to get the same level of feeling good. That’s why we get used to sugar and start taking in more and more. Just like a drug addict always needs more and more drugs to get his “High”. And as the experience with the rats and the Oreos shows, sugar seems to be even more addictive than cocaine.

The other problem we face is that added sugar is everywhere! Not just in sweets, but also food like fat free yoghurt, granola bars, etc. So, even when you think you’re going with the healthy option, make sure to check the amount of simple sugars in the snack you choose. When checking the label, make sure to look at the subsection of Carbohydrate: “of which sugars”. That’s the value that refers to simple, refined sugars. For reference, 4g of sugar is equal to one sugar cube. The current recommendation of the NHS is to eat a maximum of 30g of sugar per day for an Adult. That’s roughly the same as 7 sugar cubes.

The good news in all this is that we can go back on this change in our brain. If we decide to eat less sugar, especially the refined and concentrated type, our brain will adapt and need again less sugar to get back to the positive “High” feeling we like so much. Less sweetened food will start tasting sweet again and you will notice that some food will be too sweet for you after a while.

To sum it all up, our society eats way too much sugar, mainly because sugar can be extremely addictive and because nowadays, it’s everywhere! But there is an easy and simple way to control your sugar intake: Start being label-savvy, consciously limit your intake of refined and added sugars by choosing natural and fresh foods and avoid highly processed options. Your brain will adapt to this change and even that apple will start tasting sweet again and become one of our rewards after a hard days work!