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Sugar a 'gateway' substance?

By Natalie J. Ostgaard, Crookston Daily Times, August 30, 2006
Margaret Adamek, Ph.D. speaks in the CHS auditorium Tuesday.
(Natalie J. Ostgaard, Photographer)

Sugar is not something people group in the same category as marijuana or cigarettes. Yet, it is actually a "gateway" substance that could lead to addiction to harder drugs such as amphetamines, according to Margaret Adamek, Ph.D.

Adamek, founder and director of the Sugar Project and Special Projects Director at the University of Minnesota's Center for Urban and Regional Affairs, talked Tuesday evening about dysfunctional foods - refined carbohydrates and sugars in particular - and their profound effects on people. About 25 people attended her presentation at the high school.

While citing numerous statistics and research from a number of sources, she showed how the United States is experiencing a public health crisis due to an interlocking web of socio-economic factors such as the agricultural industry, health and environment that create dysfunctional eating patterns in the population.

"We're in the middle of an obesity epidemic," Adamek asserted, "that radically transformed over the last 20 years."


Adamek brought forth statistics on Americans from several reliable sources to drive home her point:

  • Administration of amphetamines to children has risen 3,000 percent in the last 10 years, and 85 percent of all amphetamine prescriptions are administered to children.
  • Nearly a third of children are overweight. Obesity rates among children have doubled in the last 10 years and tripled for adolescents.
  • The adult obesity rate is a whopping 64 percent.
  • About 40 percent of girls and a third of boys born in 2000 will acquire type II diabetes by the time they turn 50. Between 1990 and 1998, the prevalence of diagnosed diabetes increased 33 percent.
  • Increasing numbers of children are diagnosed with attention deficit disorder, depression and generalized anxiety disorder. Children who are obese also tend to be depressed.
  • Since 1970, consumption of high-fructose corn syrup has increased 4,000-plus percent, and we eat 300 calories more per day due to carbohydrate consumption. In the same period, refined carbohydrate consumption rose 50 percent.
  • One-third of children and a fourth of adults eat fast food every day. This is besides the processed foods they receive at school and home.
  • Between 1983 and 1999, sugar intake rose 30 percent to 158 pounds per person per year.
  • Since 1977, soft drink consumption is up 135 percent.




  • Junk foods - dense, nutrient-poor foods with no dietary benefit - comprise 27 percent of the average daily food intake.


    Everyone knows high sugar consumption as well as other refined carbs and fats can lead to obesity. But, Adamek pointed out, more and more research is proving a correlation between high intake of these foods and a whole slough of problems such as diabetes, depression, anxiety, attention deficit disorder and various addictions.



    Adamek referred to research conducted by Dr. Kathleen DesMaisons, president and CEO of Radiant Recovery(r), an innovative diet-based treatment program for alcoholism, depression, addiction and compulsive behaviors. Her research into the theory of "sugar sensitivity" spawned the field of addictive nutrition.

    DesMaisons determined four neurochemical roots of the problem, which "sugar sensitive" people are born with: volatile blood sugar (diabetes, fatigue, moodiness, lack of concentration and emotional outbursts); and low levels of serotonin (depression, aggression, poor attention and impulsive behavior); beta endorphin (chemical dependence, and a sense of victimization and alienation); and dopamine (drug and alcohol addiction, low self-esteem, violence and anger).

    "Someone with carbohydrate sensitivity is affected 35 times greater when ingesting the same amount as someone who is not carb sensitive," Adamek explained. "The intensity of the reaction created big peaks and valleys with moods and blood sugars."


    The biochemical result is that sugar has an addictive drug effect on the brain. Children who are addicted to sugar are much more likely to become addicted to other substances as they get older, she added.

    Families from certain ethnic groups tend to have more alcoholism, diabetes, obesity and depression run through their family trees, she added.

    Dieters typically use artificial sweeteners to save on carbs. This does not work as well as it seems, Adamek noted, because research indicates that the sweet taste alone stimulates the addictive opiate response in the brain.


    Choices, changes and a plan

    Do these statistics and research mean anyone suffering from sugar sensitivity is doomed? Hardly, Adamek stressed.

    "There is hope and, with a little hard work, you can change your eating habits and consequently your life."


    Adamek said the standard medical approach to solving the previously mentioned emotional and physical problems has been to prescribe drugs for the symptoms: Paxil for anxiety, Prozac for depression, insulin for diabetes and Ritalin for ADHD.

    "We have another line of defense, however," she said. "Food."

    DesMaisons developed a seven-step approach to gradually remove refined carbohydrates and processed food from one's diet and replace them with quality protein and complex carbohydrates, fresh fruits and vegetables and essential fatty acids. While the exact steps may vary depending on factors such as age and dietary restrictions, the plan includes regular meal and snack times, keeping track of eating and emotional patterns and changing food choices.

    When feeding children, it is important that they get enough healthy food for their size and age and at regular intervals, she said. Fruit juice, while good in small amounts, can also be easily overdone.

    "A 20-ounce bottle of apple juice is far too much for an 8-year-old," she noted. "Just one small glass a day is sufficient.

    "This is nothing you haven't heard before," Adamek said. "These are just simple, healthy eating strategies you can use the rest of your life."

    She is happy to see schools moving toward healthier food choices for students, but there is still a long way to go, she said.

    "A few innovative projects are going on that incorporate fresh food from local farms," Adamek explained. "But many schools still regularly use a lot of processed foods in their lunch programs."

    So families need to take the helm and move toward cutting the junk out of their diets themselves. In time, she said, children will stop resisting the change and learn to like the foods, which incidentally don't have to cost an arm and a leg.

    "This is doable on fixed incomes. There are a lot of inexpensive proteins. Eggs are always fairly cheap."

    Adamek stressed that anyone following DesMaisons' diet will feel much more energetic, happy and healthy overall. It has also been known to alleviate many of the emotional problems associated with dysfunctional eating.

    Check out the website www.radiantrecovery.com for more detailed information, diet tips and community forums.