Sugar addiction also involves continued consumption of sugar despite negative consequences on health or well-being. / Photo: Reuters

By Mazhun Idris

Roald Dahl's classic 1964 children's novel, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, humorously depicts the irony of having a sweet tooth when the gluttonous Augustus Gloop falls into a river of chocolate while trying to drink from it.

In the real world, the weaponisation of sugar and its addictive consumption worldwide is a hazard that scarcely gets the attention it deserves, experts warn.

When a sugar shortage hit the Tunisian markets last April, the authorities rationed the commodity and capped its sale at two kilogrammes per customer per week.

In Kenya's Nairobi, Fredrick Nzioka restricts his daily sugar intake to a spoonful with his morning cup of tea. But he worries about his kids unwittingly consuming more sugar-laced products than is healthy for them.

"They love sweets, candies and sugared pastries," Nzioka, a senior operations manager at a Nairobi tech company, tells TRT Afrika.

Zainab Jumare, a radio journalist in the Nigerian city of Zaria, consumes around three cans of artificially sweetened beverages daily, but insists she isn't addicted to sugar. "If I want to, I can go without sugary drinks for days," she says.

Jumare isn't alone in developing an unhealthy sugar dependency without even realising it.

Historically, targeted production and marketing strategies involving sweetened food and sugar-infused snacks have encouraged people to overconsume sugar.

Habit to addiction

Various studies show many health hazards like obesity, type 2 diabetes, dental problems, cardiovascular disease, mood and metabolic disorders as being direct consequences of excessive sugar consumption.

"Addressing sugar overconsumption and promoting healthier dietary habits are priorities in Africa and globally,'' says Dr Musa Ibrahim Kurawa, who has conducted addiction studies.

Sugar dependency is has serious implications for teeth health, experts say. Photo:Getty Images

He describes sugar addiction, also called sugar dependency or sugar craving, as "a condition in which an individual has a compulsive craving for sugary foods or beverages".

This craving is "often intense and difficult to control, leading to excessive consumption of sugary foods," says Dr Kurawa, who teaches physiology at Bayero University in Nigeria's Kano.

"Sugar's addictive nature is attributed to its effects on the brain's reward system. When sugar is consumed, it triggers the release of neurotransmitters such as dopamine, which are associated with pleasure and reward," he tells TRT Afrika.

Essentially, sugar addiction involves the excessive consumption of sugary foods, particularly those high in refined sugars such as sucrose and high-fructose corn syrup.

Neurologists have observed that over time, it can lead to changes in the brain's chemistry and circuitry, resulting in a dependence on sugar to feel good.

Zainab Jumare explains her habit of consuming sweetened beverages. "They go very well with meals, almost like desserts," she says.

Some love the energy rush from consuming something sweet during their workday.

Prevalence in Africa

Dr Kurawa points out that there is limited specific data on the prevalence of sugar addiction in Africa.

''Still, there is no denying that the continent is experiencing a nutrition transition characterised by a shift towards diets high in sugar, unhealthy fats, and processed foods," he says.

He blames this on rapid urbanisation, changing lifestyles, and the easy availability of processed foods and sugary beverages across the continent.

"The gravity of the problem varies depending on factors such as socioeconomic status, cultural norms, and access to healthcare," says Dr Kurawa.

Worse, sugar enjoys social and cultural acceptance, and its addiction is often normalised.

Food manufacturers usually add sugar or sweeteners to enhance the taste of their products. Since sugar is naturally pleasurable to the human palate, it quickly leads to addictive behaviour and excessive consumption.

Just as chronic drug use alters the brain's chemistry, leading to tolerance, dependence, and cravings, sugar addicts trying to let go of the habit may experience withdrawal symptoms such as mood swings, fatigue, headaches, cravings, and irritability.

Associated risks

Dr Kurawa states that while excessive sugar consumption is not formally recognised as a medical diagnosis in most healthcare systems, it may contribute to the development or exacerbation of some health conditions.

"Genetic, environmental, and lifestyle factors all play significant roles," he says.

Diets high in sugar are associated with an increased risk of cardiovascular diseases, which are counted among the leading causes of mortality in Africa.

Consumption of sugary foods may also result in poor dental health, such as tooth decay and cavities, which can have long-term consequences on health and well-being.

In terms of nutritional deficiencies, high consumption of sugary foods and beverages may displace nutrient-rich foods from the diet, leading to deficiencies in essential nutrients and micronutrients.

Typically, addressing sugar addiction involves gradually reducing sugar intake, adopting healthier eating habits, and seeking support from nutritionists and behavioural therapists.

Experts recommend governments focus on public health campaigns and nutrition education, stricter food industry regulations, and taxes and tariffs on sugar-sweetened beverages.

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TRT Afrika