According to the American Heart Association, adult males should eat no more than 9 teaspoons of sugar per day. The recommended limit for women is 6 teaspoons per day, while a child’s daily consumption should not exceed 3 teaspoons. Yet on the average, Americans consume a whopping 20 teaspoons (that’s over 100 grams or over 3.5 ounces) of sugar each day. Over the course of a year, that adds up to nearly 80 pounds – all consisting of empty calories, with no nutritional benefit.

The health consequences are all around us: extreme obesity, diabetes, heart disease, hypertension, periodontal disease (which has been linked to Alzheimer’s), and cancer are all on the rise – and all are attributable, at least in part, to high sugar consumption. Sugar over-consumption has also been associated with depression and anxiety disorders. Unfortunately, it is all too easy to overdo. Drinking one 12-ounce can of a sweetened beverage every day can mean an added five pounds to a person’s waistline over the course of a year.

Food companies bear great responsibility in fueling America’s sugar addiction epidemic. Sugar (most often in the form of high fructose corn syrup) is added to many processed foods, including savory foods in which it does not belong. Why? There are three main reasons. It keeps people coming back for more. It’s an inexpensive “filler”, and in some cases functions as a cheap preservative.

A comparison between sugar and narcotics is not as far-fetched as it seems. While sugar (in the form of glucose) fuels the brain, the taste of it activates the same reward centers and pathways as street drugs such as cocaine and heroin. There is also the physiological effect on the body: a person eats a sugary treat, which causes a spike in glucose levels. In response, the pancreas releases huge amounts of insulin, which in turn results in a precipitous drop in glucose (as well as immediate fat storage). Because of this, appetite and cravings increase – and the vicious cycle begins all over again. This can also happen when a person eats refined carbohydrates, such as white flour, processed rice, and pasta, which the digestive system breaks down quickly into simple sugars.

Many people will be surprised to learn that the dangers of sugar addiction have been known for decades. In 1975, author William Dufty, himself a recovering sugar addict, wrote Sugar Blues, an extensive tome on the history of sugar (which fueled the tragic slave trade for centuries) and its effects on health. Dufty discusses his own personal journey, and how a diabetes diagnosis and his marriage to health-conscious film actress Gloria Swanson motivated him to kick the sugar habit once and for all.

Some people attempting to detox from sugar turn to alternatives such as honey and maple syrup. However, while these may be useful in tapering off from table sugar, chemically, they are identical – and like the heroin addict who undergoes methadone treatment, it can be trading one addiction for another. On the other hand, naturally sweet foods, primarily fresh and dried fruit, are digested at a slower rate, releasing sugar into the bloodstream in smaller amounts over time, thus avoiding the sugar spikes and lows. Furthermore, these foods contain fiber, which also slows the digestion process and lowers carb intake (net carbs = total carbs – fiber). This is another reason to switch to whole, unrefined grain products.

Foods high in protein can also stave off hunger and food cravings. Of course, there are many people online who will attempt to sell others on trendy “sugar detox” diets and programs. Others, including this writer, have been successful in kicking sugar “cold turkey,” although, like any addiction, there are withdrawal symptoms. A more practical strategy is to gradually cut back over time, retraining the taste buds to enjoy foods that are less sweet. Eventually, you will be surprised at how much better food tastes without added sugar – and you’ll feel better all around.

K.J. McElrath is a former history and social studies teacher who has long maintained a keen interest in legal and social issues. In addition to writing for The Ring of Fire, he is the author of two published novels: Tamanous Cooley, a darkly comic environmental twist on Dante's Inferno, and The Missionary's Wife, a story of the conflict between human nature and fundamentalist religious dogma. When not engaged in journalistic or literary pursuits, K.J. works as an entertainer and film composer.