From chocolate gelato to strawberry shortcake, even the most triumphant eaters among us have their sugar cravings.
It isn’t simply because sweets taste delicious: Research shows that sugar stimulates the brain in the same way as cocaine—and can be just as addictive. Indeed, according to Harvard, it’s one of the seven most addictive legal substances. (See #1.)
And while some of us may be willing to forfeit our clean eating strategies for a slice of bread pudding with salted caramel ice cream, it’s important to know that eating sugar causes more than potential weight gain and mood swings.
Here are 5 surprising things that happen to your body when you eat sugar—and how to curb your gummy bear cravings:
As mentioned, sugar is highly addictive, due to the surge of dopamine—a key neurotransmitter—that arrives when it’s eaten.
If dopamine sounds familiar, you’re right: It’s the same chemical that’s stoked by, well, dope, like ecstasy and marijuana. And similar to how an alcoholic who needs to drink more to achieve the same buzz, the more frequently you eat sugar, the more you’ll need to consume to feel the same jolt.
“As dopamine receptor neurons get overstimulated, the number of receptors to bind to decreases, so you’ll need a bigger hit of dopamine to get the same rush,” says Dr. Robert Lustig of UCSF Children’s Hospital in San Francisco.
Anti-sugar fix: Chew fennel seeds. Naturally sweet, without containing any sugars, fennel seeds (which taste like anise) can help stave off cravings while also diminishing belly bloat. Further, fennel seeds are rich in dietary fiber—which may give you the power to walk right by that pastry case without stopping.
2. Less-than-Lustrous Skin
At times, nothing seems to hit the spot like a hot fudge sundae, but do know that sugar wreaks havoc on more than just your waistline.
“When you have sugar molecules in your system,” Elle reports, “they bombard the body’s cells like a meteor shower—glomming onto fats and proteins in a process known as glycation. This forms advanced glycation end products (commonly shortened, appropriately, to AGEs), which cause protein fibers to become stiff and malformed. The proteins in skin most prone to glycation are the same ones that make a youthful complexion so plump and springy—collagen and elastin.” When those proteins cross with excess sugars, skin may turn saggy and wrinkled—and you can say goodbye to radiance.
Anti-sugar fix: Satisfy your sweet tooth with a bowl of organic blueberries. Not only is this superfood a boon for your complexion (thanks to excellent levels of antioxidants), but they’re also terrific for your noggin. And speaking of which…
3. Increased Appetite
How many of us have noshed on a bag of jelly beans for a quick fix—only to find ourselves even hungrier than we were beforehand?
There’s a reason behind it: According to Time, fructose—the naturally occurring sugar in fruit that, along with glucose, is rendered into high fructose corn syrup and table syrup—accelerates the brain’s “reward and appetite centers” and “can interfere with feelings of satiety.”
Anti-sugar fix: Go for lean proteins like free-range organic chicken, edamame, eggs, and beans—they’ll keep hunger at bay and keep you from reaching for sugary eats.
4. Memory Impairment
There’s nothing sweet about misplacing your keys when you have to make it to a meeting in twenty minutes. And yet, eat a surplus of sugar and you just might.
Why? Researchers at UCLA discovered that while fructose arouses your brain’s reward centers, it can also harm memory and decrease learning.
Anti-sugar fix: Stock up on savory snacks that’ll bolster brain health, such as avocados, broccoli, bone broth, and Brazil nuts, which, with its high levels of Vitamin E, may slow cognitive decline as you age.
5. Joint Pain
Ever wonder why you’re experiencing aches and pains? Take a look at your sugar intake. Inflammation and a higher number on the scale, both of which can be spurred by excessive sugar, can do a number on the health of your joints.
What’s more, sugar can be damaging to the collagen surrounding your joints; broken down, and you may feel three times your age. “What’s damaging to the body is how high your blood sugar level gets, and how many times throughout the day you’re doing that,” explains Amanda Foti, R.D.N. “A little bit of glucose throughout the day won’t be as bad as one big spike.”
Anti-sugar fix: Eat more salmon, pumpkin seeds, spinach, and walnuts. Omega-3s and Vitamin D can reduce inflammation and joint discomfort.