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Sugar: The Sweetest Craving

The average American consumes about a quarter of a pound of sugar each day. Most of the food we eat, and especially the food we crave, contains a lot of sugar. Why do sugary foods taste so good that many of us overindulge—even when we know we probably shouldn’t? Let’s wonder a bit about the science of sugar.

We eat in order to provide our bodies with fuel. Fuel to power our muscles, to enable us to breathe, to pump blood, to walk, and to think. Hunger is our body’s way of reminding us to nourish ourselves.

Most physiologists agree, however, that cravings go beyond the need to merely satisfy hunger. The protein, vitamins, and other nutrients we need can be found in all manner of edible things. For example, brown rice, spinach, and cremini mushrooms are all great sources of energy and nutrition.

But how many of us are rooting around in our desk drawers looking for a spinach bar to get us through that mid-afternoon slump?

No, a craving for sweets isn’t about surviving. It’s about pleasure.

No, a craving for sweets isn’t about surviving. It’s about pleasure. The body alerts us to hunger, but the mind speaks to us about cravings.

Sugar activates one of the pleasure centers in your brain. This same region, known as the nucleus accumbens, is also associated with drug addiction. In response to both sugar and cocaine, for example, the nucleus accumbens releases the chemical dopamine. Dopamine makes you feel great! The trouble is, as time goes by, your body needs more and more sugar to produce the same amount of dopamine.

You end up craving sugar.

Why would your brain respond to sugar in this way? We developed this powerful reaction because our bodies need energy, and locked within each molecule of sugar is a relatively large amount of it. Tens of thousands of years ago, the release of dopamine in the brains of our ancestors made them seek out ripe fruit. As fruit ripens, starches convert to energy-infused fructose, a kind of sugar.

Sugar molecules are assemblages of hydrogen, oxygen, and carbon atoms. Without sufficient energy to hold those atoms together, they would drift apart and there would be no molecules. Our body can get some of that energy by rearranging the atoms in sugar to form smaller molecules—such as carbon dioxide and water—which require less energy to hold them together.

Your body’s metabolic processes are responsible for rearranging the atoms in sugar. Whatever energy is no longer needed to hold the atoms together is collected and stored. That excess energy fuels your body.

The sugar in a typical candy bar would release enough energy to power a 100W light bulb for about three hours.

How much energy is released when sugar is metabolized? The sugar in a typical candy bar would release enough energy to power a 100W light bulb for about three hours. The energy in a pound of sugar could run that bulb for nearly a day. Sugar is an excellent source of energy.

Could you run your car on sugar? The idea isn’t far-fetched. At the molecular level, sugar and gasoline are rather similar in composition. Indeed, people have been experimenting with making ethanol—which can power a car’s engine—from sugarcane. Burning gasoline releases about three times more energy than sugar, but gasoline is more costly to produce.

While sugar gives you energy, too much sugar will trigger a number of unhealthy responses in your body. The average American consumes about two to three times more sugar each day than recommended by the American Heart Association. A glance at the nutrition labels on the food you eat will alert you to the amount of “hidden” sugar in so much of the food we eat.

 

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Questions to ponder:

If you are someone who craves sugary foods, do you think you could satisfy your cravings by eating high-energy foods rich in nutrients, like crimini mushrooms?

 

Science
Illuminate, Health, Psychology

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