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Dr. Nicole Avena: Our Love Affair with Sugar

Her pioneering research reveals how foods we love hijack our brains into addictive-like eating.

Have a sweet tooth? If so, you may be one of the millions of Americans who may be consuming too much of the sweet stuff and we’re not just talking about the sugary white granules, but also the sugar hiding in many foods and beverages we love.

Craving the Sweet Stuff

Various studies show excess sugar consumption increases the risk of developing obesity, dental decay, diabetes, metabolic syndrome, heart disease, cholesterol levels, and hypertension. With all these risks, you might think to reduce or eliminate sugar intake. But have you noticed how hard that is to stick with? We are constantly bombarded by clever marketing tactics promoting foods that are clearly bad for our health. Alas, too often we make exceptions and indulge in just one more bite of that sweet lusciousness.

At the grocery store, we walk through aisles of sugar-laden foods, trying to determine which are healthier choices. How do we know we are making the right choice? Surrounded by sweet temptations, we often succumb and “treat” ourselves, or even worse, unknowingly make bad choices based on marketing jargon. It’s no wonder a huge segment of the American population has expanding waistlines and declining health despite efforts to “eat better,” join a gym, or be on the latest diet craze. The problem lies with our eating behavior and brain changes made by the addicting powers of certain foods, mainly sugar.

Food Addiction Pioneer

Dr. Nicole Avena is doing something about it in a very big way. She is a research neuroscientist and recognized expert in the fields of nutrition, diet, and addiction. As a pioneer and leading authority in the field of food addiction, her research work formed the basis of this new field of exploration in medicine and nutrition. Additionally, she is an expert in diet during pregnancy and early childhood nutrition.

Currently, Dr. Avena works as Assistant Professor of Neuroscience at Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City and is also a Visiting Professor in Health Psychology at Princeton University. She received her Ph.D. in Neuroscience and Psychology from Princeton University, and a postdoctoral fellowship in molecular biology at The Rockefeller University in New York City.

Her research on food addiction shows that foods we enjoy most can take over our brains and lead to an addictive eating behavior. She has authored and published over 90 scholarly journal articles and several book chapters and books covering diet, nutrition, and overeating. She presents her research findings at scientific conferences and university symposiums.

Dr. Avena has been honored for her research achievements, receiving several awards from groups including the New York Academy of Sciences, the American Psychological Association, and the National Institute on Drug Abuse. Her work receives funding from notable organizations such as the National Institutes of Health (NIH), National Eating Disorders Association, as well as pharmaceutical partners.

Getting the Word Out

She often makes media appearances and interviews and is regularly featured on the Doctor Oz Show and The Doctors. Other appearances include The Couch and Good Day NY, among many others. As a sought-after speaker, her audiences encompass universities, government agencies, schools, industry groups, and special interest groups. Her TED-Ed talk, How Sugar Affects Your Brain, ranked #2 most watched (over 7 million views). You can view her TED-Ed video here:

Dr. Avena has been featured in a multitude of national publications such as Time, Bloomberg Business Week, and others. She even made the cover story of the September 2017 issue of National Geographic. The article explores her research on brain addiction and she reveals that “rats will keep gobbling sugar if you let them, and they develop tolerance, craving, and withdrawal, just as they do when they get hooked on cocaine.” She says high-fat foods and highly processed foods such as refined flour may be as problematic as sugar.

The article also mentioned the results of a survey she and her research team performed on 384 adults showing “Ninety-two percent reported a persistent desire to eat certain foods and repeated unsuccessful attempts to stop, two hallmarks of addiction. The respondents ranked pizza — typically made with a white-flour crust and topped with sugar-laden tomato sauce — as the most addictive food, with chips and chocolate tied for second place.”

Is There a Solution?

Food addiction leading to obesity is at an epidemic level and may seem impossible to overcome, but there is an effective solution to help improve our health. Dr. Avena uses science to combat food addiction that can break our overeating. She has written several books including Food Junkie which uses layman’s terms to explain why certain individuals feel compelled to eat high-calorie, tasty foods, exhibiting behavioral and emotional changes similarly seen in drug addicts. Her book, Why Diets Fail (Because You’re Addicted to Sugar), presents definitive proof that sugar is addictive, and explains the first science-based program to cut out sugar, end cravings, and lose weight permanently.

She also offers a wellness series designed for non-scientific individuals who would like to improve their health and learn the science behind it. Each 45-minute one-on-one nutritional consulting session is conducted via Skype or phone. Availability is limited and the initial consultation fee includes an ebook copy of Why Diets Fail.

Is there anything we can do right now? She explains that going cold turkey to avoid sugar may not be the answer. Unlike drug addicts, a food addict is constantly bombarded by advertisements and has easy access to the very thing he wants to avoid. Her lab is working on possible pharmaceutical solutions —perhaps what works for drug addicts might work for food addicts.

At a live presentation at Paleo f(x) Austin, Dr. Avena recommends we should be, “looking at our nutrition labels and become more educated food consumers.” This includes not only reading sugar content on nutrition labels but knowing where the hidden sugars are by reading the list of ingredients. “Know the names of added sugars, not just sugar and high fructose corn syrup, there are 56 names or ‘code words’ as I like to call them, for basically added sugar.”

In one of her articles for mindbodygreen, she writes “The key to achieving your goals lies in your knowledge of where sugars exist and what you can replace them with, and the consistent desire and dedication to follow what you know.”

For more information about Dr. Avena’s work visit drnicoleavena.com and be sure to read up on her blog posts on better health at mindbodygreen.com.