Is it human instinct to eat sugar?

fruit and vegetables The government currently recommends that we eat five portions of fruit and vegetables a day

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I've given up refined sugar for Lent and this is the third in a series of articles charting my progress.

It's been nearly four weeks since I gave up sugar and the first thing to report is that I haven't lost any weight.

I didn't start this experiment in order to lose weight (well, I wouldn't have minded a couple of pounds) but the fact that my weight has remained exactly the same is puzzling.

I've been keeping a food diary and experts at Aberdeen University's Rowett Institute of Nutrition and Health have offered to analyse it for me.

Nutritionist Sylvia Stephen starts with a day's food intake before I gave up sugar.

She said: "In total that amounts to 107 grams of sugar. That's quite a lot for one day's intake. The recommended amount of sugar for a woman is 50 grams."

I'd eaten more than 50 grams of sugar in just one piece of cake that day, but what comes next is most surprising of all.

Start Quote

We know that sugar interacts with reward systems in the brain. Some of those reward systems and the changes you see in them are quite similar to the changes you see with addictive drugs”

End Quote Julian Mercer Professor

Ms Stephen said: "When you tried to give up sugar, you actually consumed slightly more sugar than you did before.

"You've increased your fruit and veg - which is fine - but you have to bear in mind portion size.

"One one day you ate 200 grams of grapes. That is equivalent to 30 grams of sugar. You also consumed 50 grams of raisins, which is 34 grams of sugar."

It seems I am craving sugar in my diet. Is it possible I'm addicted to sugar?

It's a question for Professor Julian Mercer. He's taking part in a Europe-wide research project to find out whether some of us are actually addicted to certain foods.

He said: "We know that sugar interacts with reward systems in the brain. Some of those reward systems and the changes you see in them are quite similar to the changes you see with addictive drugs."

"What we think is driving our over-consumption of calories is that those reward centres in the brain are over-riding the 'energy balance' centres in a different part of the brain.

"We find taking in sugar, and also fatty foods, much more rewarding. Probably the origin of that goes back into evolution."

'Protective effects'

The theory is that the brain is pre-programmed to encourage us to eat high-energy foods in order to give us the best chance of survival.

In our modern day sugar-laden environment we have to try to override our 'instincts' and Sylvia Stephen has the perfect illustration.

On one tray are two portions of vegetables and three portions of fruit. Beside the tray are six - yes, just six - caramel chocolate buttons.

She said: "All of these five portions of fruit and veg - which is the government recommendations - total 150 calories.

"Those 'harmless' chocolate buttons in the corner are also 150 calories.

"If you look at the nutritive value, you'll get far more vitamins and minerals from the fruit and veg and they'll give you protective effects against cardiovascular disease and some cancers."

It seems I need to increase the variety of fruit and vegetables but cut down slightly on portion sizes...and when Easter finally arrives I'm going to make my chocolate eggs last a very, very long time.

In her final report, Eleanor gets some help from a teenage triathlete and hears a plea for clearer food labelling.

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