Sugar: The Universal Gateway Drug

May 18, 2021

Hankering for a sugar rush goes far beyond a sweet tooth. It takes a bite out of our dopamine, pleasure-reward system and points us in the wrong direction. In her article, “40-Day Experiment Reveals What Happens to Your Brain When You Give Up Sugar”[1] neuroscientist Jordan Gaines Lewis describes the reality of sugar addiction. Rats that are conditioned to a sugary solution demonstrate the four major components of addiction: binging, withdrawal, craving, and cross-sensitization (the tendency for one addictive substance to lead to another i.e. a gateway drug).

Moreover, sugar-addicted rats subjected to a water stress-test, rather than trying to escape, display more passive floating behavior, suggesting learned helplessness. This puts the “be a good boy and I’ll give you a treat,” in a whole other light. Well intentioned parents may be setting their kids up for a life-long habit of self-soothing through food pacification.

The average American consumes roughly 70 to 150 pounds of sugar a year depending on whether you count all dietary refined sugars or just the ones added at table. This works out to 3 to 6 cups of sugar a week. In reality, of course things are much worse as some people consume considerably more and others much less, “on average.” The current USDA recommendation is to consume less than 10 percent of calories as added sugar a day, or 50 grams of sugar (200 calories) for someone on a 2000 calorie diet. For comparison, a 12 once soft drink contains about 40 grams (10 teaspoons) of sugar.

With numbers like these, it’s no wonder that 1 in 10 Americans have Type 2 Diabetes and 1 in 3 are prediabetic. (Only two countries have more: India, second and China first.)  

Fortunately, Type 2 diabetes is entirely reversible with weight loss within the first few years of onset.

What is much harder to reverse is the disordered pleasure-reward system. There is no way to erase an old pattern. Once the synaptic connections are established, they may persist for a lifetime much like learning how to ride a bike. What we can do is create a new, healthier pattern to overlay the old one and make it the new default mode. This takes clarity of intention and repetition, otherwise known as perseverance:

  • Begin by assessing your daily sugar consumption. Do you add sweeteners? What do you usually have for dessert? What is your beverage of choice?
  • Determine your ideal body weight. A good place to start is with what you weighed in high school. (The opinions of others are notoriously unreliable due to personal bias.)
  •  Make a commitment with yourself to kick the sugar habit. (See: How to Make and Keep Agreements with Yourself, The Pleasure Report, Jan. 2021).   [make hot link]
  • Remember attaining your goal has nothing to do with discipline, shame, or guilt. It has everything to do with pleasure, feeling your best, and truly enjoying life!

Quick book update:

As David Bolduc, owner of Boulder Bookstore told me, “Great! You’ve written a book. Half the work is done. Now you have to sell it.” He wasn’t kidding. Toward that end, I’m writing magazine articles and doing guest podcasts. I have always been passionate about relieving human suffering and this gives me the opportunity to reach thousands of people at one go. It is both inspiring and very satisfying.

My media events will be announced on my social media and posted to my website under the “Tribe” tab. Also you can check out the “Ask Dr. Jia” tab for interesting Q&A discussions, and feel free to ask a question.


Dr. Jia

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