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Obesity researcher helps sugar addicts conquer cravings to win at weight loss

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If you've been on diet after diet without losing weight, a research neuroscientist says that sugar addiction may be the problem. In an exclusive interview on Jan. 16, Dr. Nicole Avena explained how you can overcome your addiction to kick your cravings and lose weight permanently.

Based on her work at New York Obesity Research Center, Columbia University and St. Luke's-Roosevelt Hospital, Nicole discovered that for some individuals, "cutting sugar and carbohydrates resulted in dramatic improvements in several aspects of life."

Sugar addiction is very real, contends Nicole, and she decided to create a book that would combine "real science" with stories of people who "feel compelled to overeat certain types of foods, and can't give them up no matter what they try to do." Her book "Why Diets Fail (Because You're Addicted to Sugar): Science Explains How to End Cravings, Lose Weight, and Get Healthy" provides the keys to reversing that situation.

Although some say that drug addiction and sugar addiction are identical, Nicole disagrees.

"Based on the results from studies done by my group and others, it appears clear that the overconsumption of sugar can lead to behaviors and brain changes that resemble drug addiction, however, sugar addiction will be different in many important ways from drug addiction," she said in our interview.

The reason is deceptively simple.

"We need foods to live (but we don't need illegal drugs), and our social behaviors often involve foods and food cues (whereas we don't have as many cases of drug-cues or social pressure to take drugs)," she stated.

Thus, although sugar addiction can impact all aspects of your life, it's characterized in a different way than substance addictions such as cocaine, Nicole explained.

In her experiments as a research psychologist at Columbia University, Nicole focused on the neurotransmitters and brain receptors involved in eating, reported NPR on Jan. 16. Her experiments proved that too much sugar actually results in brain changes and behavior similar to addiction.

Your brain on sugar: Dopamine levels surge in the same way as they do when an addict takes a drug like heroin - although the levels are not as high.

But the impact from that sugar results in a cycle leading to cravings, the loss of control, increased sugar tolerance, weight gain and the feeling that you must have another dose of sugar to survive.

If you want to lose weight and are drawn to sugary foods that repeatedly defeat your best attempts at diets, Nicole recommends says learning to read labels is critical. By gradually cutting down on your intake of sugar, you can win at weight loss permanently and end your addiction cycle.

But don't make assumptions that certain beverages and foods that seem innocent, such as fruit juice, are free of sugar. In the United Kingdom, a government adviser is warning that fruit juice has as much sugar as Cocoa-Cola and should be banned, according to the Huffington Post.

Susan Jebb, head of diet and obesity research at the Medical Research Council's Human Nutrition Research unit in Cambridge, says that she thinks everyone should "wean" themselves from fruit juice.

“I would support taking it out of the five-a-day guidance,” she said.

“Fruit juice isn’t the same as intact fruit and it has got as much sugar as many classical sugar drinks. It is also absorbed very fast so by the time it gets to your stomach your body doesn’t know whether it’s Coca-Cola or orange juice, frankly. I have to say it is a relatively easy thing to give up. Swap it and have a piece of real fruit."

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