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I’ve written and recorded a lot of evidence-based content over the years on just about everything you can imagine related to building muscle, losing fat, and getting healthy.
I’ve also worked with thousands of men and women of all ages and circumstances and helped them get into the best shape of their lives.
That doesn’t mean you should blindly swallow everything I say, though, because let’s face it—nobody is always right about everything. And especially in fields like diet and exercise, which are constantly evolving thanks to the efforts of honest and hardworking researchers and thought leaders.
This is why I’m always happy to hear from people who disagree with me, especially when they have good arguments and evidence to back up their assertions.
Sometimes I can’t get on board with their positions, but sometimes I end up learning something, and either way, I always appreciate the discussion.
That gave me the idea for this series of podcast episodes: publicly addressing things people disagree with me on and sharing my perspective.
Think of it like a spicier version of a Q&A.
So, here’s what I’m doing:
Every couple of weeks, I’m asking my Instagram followers what they disagree with me on, and then picking the more common or interesting contentions to address here on the podcast.
And in this episode, I’ll be tackling the following . . .
- Sugar is addictive in the same way that hard drugs like cocaine and heroin are.
5:11 – What do people mean when they say they’re “addicted” to sugar?
6:48 – What is the argument for sugar addiction?
8:11 – What do scientific studies say about sugar addiction?
12:57 – Do rats show signs of withdrawal from sugar?
14:25 – Does sugar cause a similar neurochemical dopamine response to drugs?
15:33 – What does human research say about sugar addiction?
Mentioned on the Show:
What did you think of this episode? Have anything else to share? Let me know in the comments below!
Hey there, and welcome to another episode of Muscle for Life. I’m Mike Matthews. Thank you for joining me today. And quickly, if you haven’t already, please do subscribe to the show in whatever app you are listening to me in so you don’t miss new episodes. And it helps me by boosting the rankings of the show.
And so what are we getting into in this episode of the show? Well, this is, uh, another installment in my Saysyou series where I get people to challenge me on things. Basically, I get people to tell me things they disagree with me on, and I pick ones that are either topical or just interesting to me or that, uh, I am.
Getting challenged on often, and I address them here on the podcast. And so if there’s anything that I’ve said or written that you disagree with me on, I’d love to hear from you. You don’t even have to say what your position is if you don’t want to. If you just say, Hey. You’ve said that sugar is not addictive, and I disagree with you, which is the topic of today’s episode, by the way.
Then you will hear back from me. You can DM me on Instagram at Muscle Life Fitness, or you can email me. I prefer email, mike muscle life.com. You will hear back from me and I may. Also pick your contention to address here on the podcast. What you will not get is an angry or hostile or snarky response from me.
I actually like hearing from people who disagree with me. I like hearing other people’s perspective on things, even if ultimately I don’t agree, if it doesn’t change my perspective. Enjoy the process of exploring other ideas. And so today’s episode is about sugar. Is it addictive? I’ve said in the past it is not addictive in the same way that drugs are addictive, the meaning of the word, of course, semantics does matter.
And I’m gonna get into that. Uh, Many people disagree. They say that yes, it is addictive in the same way that cocaine is addictive. Maybe it’s not as addictive, but in the same way in terms of mechanism, and I disagree, and I’m going to explain why. Also, if you like what I’m doing here on the podcast and elsewhere, and if you want to help me do more of it, please do check out my sports Nutrition company Legion, because while you don’t need supplements to build muscle, lose fat and get healthy, the right ones can help.
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So that means that your favorite flavors or products may or may not. The onslaught, do not risk such a calamity. Instead. Head over to by legion.com now and claim your discount and bask in the post-purchase glow. Okay, so scientists have been studying the underlying mechanisms of weight gain for decades now, and they have been trying to get a handle on this global obesity crisis, people.
Especially here in the West are just getting fatter and fatter. It’s a big problem and a lot of people are trying to figure out solutions to this problem. And a recent trend in the scientific literature is this idea that you can become addicted to food. And that, of course can lead to weight gain. And there has been a lot of emphasis on sugar in particular, on sugar addiction.
And if we’re gonna talk about this, we have to start with defining our terms, right? What do people. By, oh, I’m addicted to sugar. If they are using the term, let’s say colloquially, if the, if it’s not a technical term, if they’re just saying, Hey, I really like to eat sugar, it makes me feel good. Okay, I understand that.
But if they are saying, no, no, I am addicted in the sense of how neuro. Defined addiction, something that involves persistent compulsive, uncontrolled behaviors that are maladaptive, that are destructive. That’s how addicted I am to sugar. Well, that of course means something else, and that really is what I’m going to be talking about in this episode.
I am not disputing that sugar can feel great and sometimes it’s nice to feel. At least for a little bit, especially when we are generally not feeling so great when we have a bad day or a bad week or a bad month, and many people turn to sugar for that electro stimulation that approximates joy. So of course, no argument from me there.
Yes, if we are going to talk about quote unquote addiction in that sense, then sugar is more addicting. It is far more pleasurable than say, Brussels sprouts, although if they’re cooked right, if they’re crispy, salty, maybe a little bit of bacon, they’re pretty good. But still, it is not pint of Jenny’s ice cream.
that said, though, the type of addiction that we see with drug users, well that is something else altogether. And the argument essentially for sugar addiction is that overeating, sugary foods that inevitably lead to obesity is maladaptive. And it’s often characterized as both persistent and compulsive.
But although there’s a lot of research. Sugar addiction, so to speak. There is not a consensus on whether or not it exists. And you might wonder how can that be? How can there be a lot of research on a topic? And some people are certain it exists, are certain it’s real. And then you have others who are experts in their own right, let’s say equally credentialed who are on the complete opposite end of the spectrum, they say.
It’s not real. It is all in your mind essentially. Well, whether or not you believe it’s real comes down to how you read the research. Now, if you just take a cursory glance at sugar addiction studies, you are going to see a lot of quote unquote proof. If you just cruise abstracts, for example, you probably are going to conclude.
It exists. It certainly sounds like it exists, but if you dig a little bit deeper, you realize that, to acknowledge that, to believe in sugar addiction, you have to make some pretty big. Leaps, some leaps of faith, some leaps of logic. For example, many people who believe sugar addiction is real point to the fact that studies show that people exhibit binging behaviors with sugar, and that is a hallmark of drug addiction, for example.
That isn’t exactly true, though people haven’t been shown to exhibit binging behaviors in research. Rats have, and although we share a lot of DNA with rats, we are not big rodents. And even then, the rats only show signs of binging in certain circumstances. They show signs of binging when they’re deprived of food for 12 to 16 hours, for example.
But if they’re allowed to eat as much and as often as they want to, Then we see that the rats do not binge in the same way, and the same is true when it comes to the dopamine response that is associated with sugar. Only intermittently fed rats show signs of a dopamine response. That’s similar to what you’d expect in a human drug addiction study.
Moreover, a little detail that many people miss or just don’t mention is that rats that binge on sugar, they often offset the amount of sugar that they eat in the binge by eating less of their normal food. And this means that their calories actually end up staying about the same regardless of the food they eat, and that prevents them.
From gaining weight. Yes. That has been shown in studies, and this is not something, by the way, that sugar addicted. I’m putting that in scare quotes. Humans do. I wish that were the case. It would help a lot of people avoid weight gain, but of course, that is not the case. And this fact has led some researchers to suggest that it is the intermittent feeding schedule.
With the rats. That’s what causes the changes that resemble this drug addiction. And this is easily explained from the rats perspective if you think about it. Because eating is uncertain. They don’t know when they’re going to be fed how much they’re going to be fed. That would create circumstances that would be conducive to binging, right?
It would make even people make them more likely to. A lot of food because they don’t know when they’re going to get fed again. It’s gonna be longer than they want it to be, and brain chemistry is also likely to adapt, to encourage you to eat whenever you get the opportunity and to eat more than you’re filled to eat a lot.
It’s also worth noting that in the studies that show rats exhibiting Bing behaviors, the rats are normally allowed access to food for around four hours into the dark cycle, which is the time of the day when the rat’s appetite is. It’s highest and it’s most likely to seek and eat a lot of food. And the rats that are used are also specifically selected for sucrose preference.
So these are little rodents that have a preference for sugar. They like. Sugar. And if you’re wondering why they use these rats, it’s simply to increase the likelihood of the rats eating the sugar, because of course that has to happen for the study to be useful. And both of those points though, do raise the question of the vulnerability of these animals to developing addiction like symptoms.
Another argument used to silence. Sugar addiction deniers, like me, is that studies have shown that substance seeking behaviors, which is another telltale sign of drug addiction, have been observed in sugar addiction studies. And yes, that’s true in rodent studies. Research shows that rats will work long and hard to get their little paws on drugs or sugar, and it’s normally measured by how many times the rat is willing to press a lever to get.
Reward. For example, in one study conducted by scientists at the university, Bordeaux researchers found that rats were more motivated to seek sugar than cocaine. And of course that led to a slew of headlines suggesting that sugar hits the new crack cocaine, or that’s, that was literally. The title of, uh, an article, , another One, Oreos are as addictive as Cocaine to your Brain.
Now, what the writers didn’t mention is that the rats were also more motivated to seek saccharin, which is a super sweet zero calorie sugar altern. Than cocaine. And of course that suggests that something else is going on here. Right? Is it just that the rats love sweet things more than they like cocaine?
Yet another common argument made in support of sugar addiction has to do with habitual use and withdrawal. And this is because studies have shown that rats, not humans, but rat. Show signs of both, even if they haven’t taken drugs for a long period of time. For example, rats that return to an environment where they have previously taken drugs begin to show drugs seeking behaviors.
And this is similar to how humans act, and this is believed to be due to the changes that it that take place on a neurochemical level after you use drugs for a long time. So when these rats return to an. That they previously had drugs in. It triggers the desire for drugs, and studies have shown similar effects with sugar.
So if rodents return to an environment where they had a lot of sugar previously, they tend to behave in the same way. Also, when these quote unquote, Sugar addicted rats are given drugs that alter their brain chemistry so that it’s as if they hadn’t had sugar for a long period of time. They show signs of withdrawal.
They show anxiety teeth chattering for paw tremor, head shakes that said In one study conducted by scientists at Princeton University, rats showed similar withdrawal symptoms following eight days of access to sac. Which again suggests that it might just be the super sweet taste that rats crave rather than sugar specifically.
Now lastly, on the rat research. On the animal research, there is some evidence that sugar can cause a similar neurochemical. Response as drugs in rats, A similar dopamine response, but we have to remember that while foods and drugs can share some brain reward pathways, food intake is controlled by many other things like hormone levels and gastric distension.
So how full your stomach is and. Those types of factors are not recognized as having anything to do with addiction. So while there may be some similarities between eating sugar and eating cocaine, although I guess you don’t eat cocaine, but uh, I think you get it. That doesn’t necessarily mean. These things are one and the same.
Uh, to paraphrase a study by scientists at MA University, coincident shared brain reward pathways do not necessarily indicate addiction. We have to remember that there are many other variables at play here with food and with drugs. Many different. Variables Now, no discussion about sugar addiction would be complete without also talking about the human research, and that won’t take very long because there’s not very much of it.
Uh, several studies have looked at food addiction over the past few decades, and some of them support it. Some of them, uh, counter it, some of them reject it. Human dietary studies. However, do not support the conclusion that a particular micronutrient or a taste like sugar or a low calorie sweetener can cause binge eating and weight gain more than other foods.
In fact, some studies show that people who consume low calorie sweeteners tend to eat fewer calories overall and fewer carbs overall. And of course that suggests that some people. Even do better with controlling their calorie intake, they may even be less likely to overeat or, uh, engage in other supposed addictive behaviors by having these low calorie sweeteners regularly.
That said, some scientists have used F M R I data to link addiction. These behavioral responses associated with addiction with highly palatable. And they’ve said that this data clearly shows the link, but when you look at the details, many of these experiments are fraught with methodological issues. For example, some studies have used images of food rather than actual food eating food.
And so those responses may or may not reflect what would actually occur if the person ate the food that they were looking at. And other FM MRI studies, for example, they’ve used food odors just smelling the food rather than consuming the food. In some of these studies, they have used food tasting. You hear that and you’re like, okay, good.
We’re not just looking at food or smelling food. But then they’re not using solid food, at least most of them are not using solid food. They tend to use sugary drinks, and that can be a problem. For example, because of the gastric distension that I mentioned, you can drink a few hundred calories and have that empty from your stomach very quickly.
Whereas if you. Eight, a few hundred calories of relatively, let’s say, nutritious food. A few hundred calories of vegetables, for example, would fill your stomach and keep it full for, uh, at least an hour or two, maybe longer. Now some people will acknowledge those shortcomings and they will say that the brain circuits that were activated in those human FM r i studies are still.
To what you’d expect to see in food and drug addiction studies in rats. So there does seem to be something here, but we have to remember that simply activating the same reward circuitry in our brain, that does not necessarily mean that. All of the behaviors elicited by drugs come along with that, that they also must exist with food because of this similarity.
We also have to remember that FM r I measures blood flow, increased blood flow to different areas in the brain, and while that is widely accepted as indicating increased activity, In different regions of the brain, F M R I cannot indicate what neurotransmitters are being released. And some of these chemicals are excitatory.
Those would be the ones that would be linked to addiction, but some of them are inhibitory and we can’t assume that increased blood flow means up more excitation. It must be excit. Transmit neurotransmitters. And so while I don’t want to completely discount the F M R I data and the studies that do show that some stuff happens in the brain that is similar, when we eat foods, we really like to, when we take drugs, we really like, we just need to use caution.
When we are assessing the results of these studies, especially if we are looking at our own behaviors, because food doesn’t only nourish us, it’s also fun to eat. And when something is fun and makes you feel good, and this is especially true of highly palatable foods, a lot of them that contain sugar, for example.
That can be a great reward in itself, right? And food. Yes, it may activate some of these same pathways that addictive drugs do, and it may make animals behave in ways that resemble drug addicted animals, at least under certain circumstances. None of that proves that sugar addiction. Real in the same way as drug addiction, as cocaine addiction, at least you can’t prove that to any reasonable scientific standard, and that, by the way, is why food addiction, any kind of food, is not currently a diagnosable mental disorder.
Now if you are struggling with sugar, if you have struggled in the past, don’t take this, uh, episode as a, as a personal attack. I do understand where you’re coming from. I do acknowledge that sugar is different than many other foods, and I am well aware of the physical and the mental effects it can have on people, especially when people go from eating a lot of it or eating it very regularly to trying to eat none of it.
That is usually not an enjoyable experience. I, I also know that many people find when they are dieting in particular, when they’re cutting and they, they’re restricting their calories, that by including some sugary treats in their meal plans, it actually tends to set them back because they tend to eat too much.
Maybe they give themselves a couple hundred calories of ice cream per day. And then it turns into double that because they don’t stop eating. They just keep eating. Uh, again, that’s something that we’ve all run into to one degree or another, and I acknowledge that the symptoms can feel. Addictive and you can feel like you are not under control and feel compulsion.
My point in this episode is, is actually something that is positive for you if you are struggling with sugar or if you have struggled, it’s that you can beat it and it is not going to be as grueling as somebody trying to beat a drug addiction. Just go on YouTube and look at, uh, some videos of people going through.
Draws. It’s pretty intense. You are not going to have to suffer through that. You might have to endure some discomfort. You might have to retrain your appetite. You might have to retrain your palate. You might have to work on improving your relationship with food. But I’m on your side on this one. I’m rooting for you.
And I’ve worked with thousands of people over the years who have successfully reigned in their sugar, quote unquote, a. But I will say that a common denominator among all of those people is they decided to take responsibility for their sugar intake. They stopped just blaming the molecule and saying, Hey, it’s an addictive molecule.
It’s basically like nicotine or uh, any other addictive drug, and I’m really struggling with it. They reframed it in a way that made it less daunting that said, Hey, this molecule does not. The power over me that heroin or cocaine would have over me. I really like this stuff and I do feel drawn to it, but I can overcome that.
And then from there they were able to figure out how to do that. It’s like with any problem, right? Every problem in the world that we have individually, that we have collectively, Every problem has a solution. There is a solution out there waiting in the wings. We just have to find it. And then sometimes the harder part actually is to simply face it.
Well, I hope you liked this episode. I hope you found it helpful, and if you did subscribe to the show because it makes sure that you don’t miss new episodes. And it also helps me because it increases the rankings of the show a little bit, which of course then makes it a little bit more easily found by other people who may like it just as much as you.
And if you didn’t like something about this episode or about the show in general, or if you. Uh, ideas or suggestions or just feedback to share. Shoot me an email, mike muscle for life.com, muscle f o r life.com and let me know what I could do better or just, uh, what your thoughts are about maybe what you’d like to see me do in the future.
I read everything myself. I’m always looking for new ideas and constructive feedback. So thanks again for listening to this episode, and I hope to hear from you.