Photograph courtesy of D Sharon Pruitt

If there is a food I can’t resist, it would be french fries, not cookies. My 4-year-old son, however, has a thing for sugar. He’s been known to fake a cold to get me to give him children’s Tylenol, which is sweetened with high-fructose corn syrup. Some mornings he will wake up and, if denied something sweet, will go into a tantrum so alarming that I jokingly call him the “sugar junkie.”

My joke may not be so far off. Scientists are now seeing links between sugar consumption and changes in the brain similar to the changes we see with addiction to drugs. I asked my colleague Dr. Elissa Epel, an expert on stress and obesity at UCSF, to explain.

Naomi Stotland: You lead an obesity research group. Why did you decide to make sugar the theme of this year’s symposium?

Elissa Epel: Sugar consumption is not a particular area that I set out to focus on. I study how stress affects eating, and a common complaint is that stress causes people to choose sugary, high-fat foods. For some people it’s savory food, but for most women, it’s the sugar. We are driven to eat sweet food because it makes us feel good. It stimulates the part of the brain that feels pleasure.

NS: Do you think too much sugar is the reason so many people are overweight?

EE: The main reason for obesity is simply too many calories. But what makes us eat so much? People overeat when food tastes really good — loaded with sugar, but also with salt and fat.

NS: Do you think people can be addicted to sugar, just like cigarettes, drugs and alcohol?

EE: For most of us, it’s easy to understand the drive for sweets. Few of us truly understand how sugar can cause a full-blown addiction and the suffering and health problems that go along with it. Certain people experience foods, particularly high-fat sweet foods, as a psychoactive, or mind-altering, substance. It affects how they feel. Mary Dallman’s rat studies from UCSF show sugar can calm the body.

People who develop food addiction tend to have family histories of drug addiction and/or emotional disorders like depression and anxiety. Now that there is a scientific scale [PDF] to measure food addiction in humans, we will be learning much more about it.

NS: What should the average person do to decrease their health risks from added sugars?

EE: The most important thing is to avoid having foods you don’t want to overeat in your home and at work. Because you may find them in your stomach before you even make a conscious decision to eat anything.

Epel, in conjunction with the Stress, Environment, and Weight Center is sponsoring the fourth annual COAST/UCOP Obesity Symposium on March 2. The symposium, held at UC Davis, will explore links between sugar consumption, the brain and the nation’s obesity epidemic.

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Naomi Stotland, MD, Assistant Professor, UCSF Department of Obstetrics, Gynecology and Reproductive Sciences, San Francisco General Hospital.

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