What that sweet stuff is really doing to your brain and body.
Drinking a milk shake makes you feel good—really good. Researcher Eric Stice has proof. In his lab at the Oregon Research Institute, he gave chocolate shakes to more than 100 teenagers and then took images of their brains using MRI technology. The result: After teens drank the shakes, the “reward center” of the brain—the part that floods the body with feel-good chemicals—lit up like a Christmas tree. The more sugar the shakes contained, the more this pleasure center glowed. Turns out, it’s the same brain region activated by highly addictive drugs like cocaine.
The study revealed other evidence that sugar acts like a drug. It showed that kids who typically ate a lot of ice cream had less reward center activation after drinking the shakes than kids who didn’t, suggesting that the more sugar you eat, the more you need to produce those same happy feelings.
Going cold turkey from sugar may even trigger withdrawal. When lab rats are given a lot of sugar and then are suddenly deprived of it, their teeth chatter, their paws tremble, and some even get aggressive.
So is it really possible to get hooked on the sweet stuff? Health experts warn that sugar addiction is not only a real problem—it’s also a scary health crisis. It can permanently damage your body. “When you consume sugar in high doses, it acts as a toxin in your liver,” says Robert Lustig, M.D., a professor of pediatrics at the University of California, San Francisco.
Here’s why: When you chug down a 20-ounce bottle of soda or demolish a bag of candy, you send a giant load of fructose straight to your liver (fructose is a product of almost every sweetener, including white sugar, honey, and high fructose corn syrup). Some of that fructose then gets converted to fat, which can accumulate in your liver—a similar physiological process that happens to heavy-drinkers after years of consuming alcohol. “Over the long term, sugar can cause scarring and cirrhosis, a liver disease that never goes away,” says Lustig.
Sure, small amounts of sugar are safe. Trouble is, most people consume dangerously high quantities. Teens take in more than anyone else—we’re talking triple the recommended amount. The World Health Organization suggests no more than about 8 teaspoons a day for guys and just 6 teaspoons for girls (slightly more if you’re really active). But most teens blow right past those digits by 8 a.m. with a big bowl of sweetened cereal. By day’s end, many of you have gobbled down more than 28 teaspoons of sugar. That’s like eating 19 five-pound bags of sugar in a year!
You can retrain your taste buds. Cut back on sugar, and you'll notice that you need less sweetness to feel satisfied. It takes only about four weeks to see a big difference, says Marcia Pelchat, a sensory scientist at Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philidelphia.
DUMP LIQUID SWEETS—OR SCALE BACK. If you drink a soda every day, switch to every other day. Still need something sweet to sip? Dilute a quarter-cup of juice with sparkling water and ice.
GO NATURAL. When in doubt, reach for an apple or orange. A whole piece of fruit not only has intense natural sweetness to nix your cravings, but it also has fiber, which will keep you full and satisfied.
SPLIT THE DIFFERENCE. Mix half your sugary morning cereal with half unsweetened o's. Ditto for flavored yogurt with plain. It will still taste sweet, but you'll get 50 percent less sugar.
FIGURE OUT WHAT'S EATING YOU. Are you reaching for sweets because you're bored, stressed, or tired? Text your BFF, watch a funny video, or take a long walk instead.
WE ASKED THREE TEENS TO TRACK EVERYTHING THEY ATE FOR A DAY.
Then we crunched the numbers to find out how much sugar they were really eating.
Athlete With A Sweet Tooth: Jakob Reece, 15
Jakob admits that seeing his sky-high sugar total was surprising. But he thought it was OK since he runs, hikes, and swims. Jakob’s right that being active means he can have slightly more sugar than an average kid—a few extra teaspoons a day—but he’s still consuming more than SIX times the amount he should.
Breakfast: 3 cups Cinnamon Toast Crunch cereal with 2% milk (37g), large glass of chocolate milk (24g)
Lunch: Cheeseburger (5g), bag of Baked Lay’s chips (2g), a pint of chocolate milk (12g)
Snacks: Two peanut butter cups (21g), 3 cups of caramel and almond popcorn (38g), 16-ounce Coke (52g), one cup of chocolate frozen custard (33g)
Dinner: Cheeseburger and Southern-style chicken sandwich (7g each), large fries, a 16-ounce Coke (52g), medium ice cream cone from McDonald’s (20g)
TOTAL SUGAR: 310 grams (78 teaspoons)
Sugar Sipper: Sydney Elkins, 16
“I don’t think I eat a large amount of sugar,” says Sydney. Technically, she’s right. . . because half of her sugar comes from what she drinks. If Sydney swapped her apple juice and sweetened tea for water, she'd come much closer to hitting the healthy limits for sugar.
Breakfast: Plain bagel with cream cheese (6g), 12 oz apple juice (30g)
Lunch: Turkey sandwich with Swiss cheese and mayo (7g), individual bag of Lay’s Potato Chips (2g), bottle of strawberry iced tea (36 grams)
Snacks: Large bowl of Honey Nut Cheerios (31 grams) with milk
Dinner: Meatloaf, mashed potatoes, and green beans
TOTAL SUGAR: 112 grams (28 teaspoons)
Sugar Lover: Charlie Kanter, 15
Charlie was not ashamed of his sweet tooth. “Yeah, I eat a lot of sugar, it tastes good!” he says. “But looking back, I probably could’ve gone without the Sprite and Hershey bar.” Skipping those two items would have cut 17 teaspoons of sugar from his day!
Breakfast: Bowl of Frosted Flakes with skim milk (30g), cup of grape juice (30g)
Lunch: Salami, turkey, and cheese sandwich (7g); grapes; individual bag of potato chips (2g); Mini Oreos (14g); Hershey bar (24g); 20-ounce bottle of Sprite (44g)
Snacks: Water, mandarin oranges
Dinner: Spaghetti with marinara and chicken meatballs; salad with lettuce, tomato, olives, mango, avocado, onion, and Italian dressing (4g); 6-ounce chocolate soft-serve ice cream (22g)
TOTAL SUGAR: 177 grams (44 teaspoons)