Many people believe they suffer from sugar addiction.
That is, they believe their relationship with sugar is the same as the relationship an addict has with hard drugs: they crave sugar intensely, binge on it when they find it, and suffer severe withdrawal when they go without.
When they search for “sugar addiction” online, they find plenty to whip up their worries, with countless articles comparing sugar to cocaine or heroin.
Is sugar addiction a real disorder, though, or is it simply an exaggerated metaphor?
Or perhaps a scapegoat for people who struggle with self control?
And if sugar is so addicting, why are there so many people who are able to enjoy it in moderation?
You’ll learn the truth about sugar addiction in this article.
Table of Contents
A substance use disorder, commonly referred to as an “addiction,” is a condition in which a person persistently, compulsively, and uncontrollably uses a substance despite its harmful consequences.
Substances that people commonly become addicted to include alcohol, nicotine, opiates such as heroin and codeine, stimulants such as cocaine, painkillers, and sedatives. In recent years, some scientists studying the potential underlying causes of the global obesity crisis have also suggested that it may be possible to become addicted to sugar.
Supporters of this idea suggest sugar addiction is characterized by strong cravings for sugar-rich foods and “sugar-seeking” behaviors, bingeing on or compulsive eating of sugary food, and withdrawal when an addict deprives themself of sugar.
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Despite being extensively studied, there’s no consensus in the scientific community about whether sugar addiction is a diagnosable disorder.
This is primarily because whether you believe sugar addiction exists or not depends on your reading of the research.
Most of the debate centers around whether or not sugar . . .
- Causes hallmark behaviors of addiction, including bingeing, substance-seeking, and withdrawal
- Alters brain chemistry in the same way that highly addictive drugs do
Let’s dig into the research and see what it says about these points of contention.
Uncontrolled consumption of a substance, also known as “bingeing,” is often caused by addiction.
People looking to prove the existence of sugar addiction often point to the fact that research shows people binge on sugar in the same way they binge on other addictive substances such as hard drugs.
This, however, isn’t strictly true.
Research doesn’t show people binge on sugar like they binge on other addictive substances—it shows rats do.
Although we share a lot of DNA with rats, we aren’t just big rodents, which means the results of rat studies can’t be perfectly extrapolated to humans.
Even then, rats only show signs of bingeing under certain conditions.
Specifically, they only show signs of bingeing when they’re deprived of food for 12-to-16 hours first. If rats are allowed to eat ad libitum (as much and as often as they want), however, they don’t binge in the same way when presented with large amounts of sugary rat treats.
This has led some researchers to suggest that it’s the intermittent feeding schedule that causes the bingeing behaviors that resemble drug addiction in rats, rather than the sugar, per se. The logic here is that if food is not always available, they’re more likely to binge when they have the opportunity to eat, but if food is plentiful, bingeing isn’t necessary.
It’s also worth noting that in studies that show rats exhibit bingeing behaviors, the rats are typically allowed access to food around four hours into the “dark cycle” (at the time of day when a rat’s appetite is at its highest and it’s most likely to seek food).
The researchers also select rodents that are known to have a high “sucrose preference.” That is, rodents that have been fed sugar previously and have shown a preference for it are used to increase the likelihood they’ll eat sugar during the sugar addiction study.
Both of these points raise the possibility of these animals having a vulnerability to developing addiction-like symptoms. If instead of choosing these rats, researchers fed rats with no sugar preference, at a different time of day, that had been eating on a normal meal schedule, the results would likely be very different.
“Substance-seeking behavior” is a behavioral pattern that involves compulsively searching for a substance when it’s not readily available, even when you know finding it will have negative consequences.
Substance-seeking is another hallmark of addiction, and it’s often used in arguments to silence sugar addiction deniers because substance-seeking behavior has been observed in sugar addiction studies.
A salient detail that’s often overlooked, however, is that the only studies that show sugar causes substance-seeking behavior are animal studies.
For example, research shows that rats will work tirelessly to get their paws on sugar (normally measured by how many times a rat is willing to press a lever to get a sugary reward).
In fact, in one study conducted by scientists at University Bordeaux, researchers found that rats were more motivated to seek sugar than they were to seek cocaine. This led to a slew of headlines in the lay media suggesting that “sugar is the new crack cocaine” and “Oreos are as addictive as cocaine to your brain.”
What reporters failed to mention in those articles was that rats were also more motivated to seek saccharin (an intensely sweet artificial sweetener) than cocaine, which suggests rats just like sweet things more than they like cocaine.
It doesn’t suggest that there’s anything inherently addictive about sugar in humans, though.
“Substance withdrawal syndrome” is the name given to the group of symptoms you experience when you abruptly stop using a medicinal or recreational drug.
In the context of sugar addiction, “withdrawal” is used to describe the unwanted symptoms such as cravings, headaches, lethargy, and irritability that some people experience when they abstain from sugary foods for a prolonged time.
As with other symptoms associated with sugar addiction, withdrawal has only been observed in studies on rats.
For example, in one study conducted by scientists at Princeton University, researchers found that when “sugar-addicted” rats were given drugs that altered their brain chemistry in such a way that it was as if they hadn’t had sugar for a long time, the rodents showed symptoms of withdrawal, including anxiety, teeth chattering, forepaw tremors, and head shakes.
However, further research also conducted by scientists at Princeton University found that rats showed similar withdrawal symptoms following eight days of access to saccharin, which suggests it’s perhaps the sweet taste the rats suffer withdrawal from, rather than sugar specifically.
Whenever we do something important for our survival, such as eating, socializing, or having sex, our brains release a burst of dopamine. This makes the experience pleasurable and encourages us to repeat the behavior whenever we can.
Hard drugs “hijack” this system.
Despite not being important for survival, drugs cause a surge in dopamine which makes drug-taking highly pleasurable and “teaches” you to seek drugs at the expense of everything else.
The problem is . . .
1. Only studies on rats show dopamine responses similar to what you’d find in human drug addiction studies.
This means there’s another plausible explanation for the large dopamine response: the brain makes eating energy-dense food more pleasurable when you have limited access to food because this ensures you eat as much of it as possible when it becomes available.
3. Just because foods and drugs have shared brain reward pathways doesn’t mean they’re identical in every way—there are plenty of ways to differentiate the two.
For example, food intake is controlled by numerous other systems not currently recognized as related to drug addiction, such as hormone levels, gastric distension, and palatability.
So, does sugar elicit a dopamine response? Yes.
Does sugar elicit a dopamine response akin to what you’d see in a human drug addiction study? Only in rats and under certain conditions.
Does any of this mean sugar alters brain chemistry in humans the same way hard drugs do? No, and anyone that says it does is making several logical leaps.
Over the past few decades, several studies have looked at whether or not humans can develop a food addiction. While the results are somewhat split, one thing that’s generally agreed on is that no single molecule or taste can cause binge eating or weight gain more than other foods.
That said, some studies have used a technique known as functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to link highly-palatable and sugary foods with physical signs of addiction.
Unfortunately, these studies tend to be fraught with methodological shortcomings that make their results difficult to apply to real life.
For example, most studies have participants look at images of food or smell food rather than eat it, while others have participants drink food replacement drinks rather than consume solid food. Thus, the responses measured by fMRI may not reflect what would happen when actual food is consumed.
This isn’t necessarily “proof” of sugar addiction, though.
fMRI measures increased blood flow in different areas of the brain, and although it’s widely accepted that increased blood flow means increased activity, fMRI cannot indicate what kind of neurotransmitter activity is occurring.
Since some neurotransmitters are excitatory (which would indicate addiction) and some inhibitory, we can’t assume that increased blood flow means more excitation. In other words, we can’t guarantee that increased brain activity is a sign of addiction.
This doesn’t completely invalidate the results from fMRI studies, of course, but it does mean we should use caution when assessing their results.
After all, food doesn’t just nourish us—nice food is fun to eat. As such, food (and especially highly palatable foods that contain a lot of sugar) can be a hefty natural reward that may activate some of the same pathways that addictive drugs do, and may make animals behave in ways that resemble drug-addicted animals (at least under some circumstances),
None of this “proves” the existence of sugar addiction—at least not by any reasonable scientific standards, though.
It simply suggests there are some commonalities in terms of the body’s response to very tasty foods and addictive drugs or other behaviors, which isn’t all that surprising.
There’s very little compelling evidence that sugar addiction exists in humans. This is why the American Psychiatric Association excluded it from the most recent edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, and why it remains an undiagnosable mental disorder to this day.
That doesn’t mean that sugar isn’t moreish (and more so than many other foods), or that some people don’t struggle to eat less sugar, especially if they’re used to eating a lot of sugar regularly.
It also doesn’t mean that you won’t experience “symptoms” that are similar to what you might expect withdrawal to feel like when you kick your sugar habit.
What it does mean, though, is that the cravings you have for sugary foods can be beaten, and far more easily than if you had an addiction to something like nicotine, alcohol, or cocaine.
You may have to endure some discomfort, you may have to retrain your appetite and palate, and you may have to work on your relationship with food, but you can do it.
Taking responsibility for your sugar intake is often the best first step. Instead of blaming your woes on sugar, reframe your habit in a way that makes beating it a less daunting prospect.
For example, tell yourself that sugar doesn’t have the hold over you that something truly addictive like heroin or cocaine would, and while you may like its flavor, you’re capable of overcoming it.
There’s very little compelling evidence that sugar addiction exists in humans, so there’s no science-based way to stop sugar addiction.
However, if you feel like you’re consuming too much sugar and you’d like to cut down, the best strategies are:
- Remove sodas and fruit juices from your diet, or opt for sugar-free versions instead.
- Check the label on any “fat-free” foods in your diet. Fat makes many foods taste good. When companies remove fat from their food and drinks, they often add sugar to make their products palatable.
- Limit your intake of breakfast cereals. Breakfast cereals tend to contain a lot of sugar, so substitute them for eggs, Greek yogurt, or overnight oats instead.
- Limit sugary condiments, such as ketchup, sweet chili, and barbecue sauce.
- Substitute milk chocolate for dark chocolate. Dark chocolate normally contains about half as much sugar as milk chocolate.
- Sweeten foods with artificial sweeteners such as stevia, erythritol, and luo han guo fruit extracts when possible.
Some “clinics” offer sugar addiction help, but since addiction to sugar isn’t considered a diagnosable disorder, it can’t be treated in the same way that real addictions can.
The best first step toward helping yourself deal with your sugar habit is taking responsibility for your sugar intake. In other words, instead of blaming your woes on sugar, reframe your habit in a way that makes kicking it a less daunting prospect.
For example, tell yourself that sugar doesn’t have the hold over you that something truly addictive like heroin or cocaine would, and while you may like its flavor, you’re capable of overcoming it.
The idea of “sugar addiction” isn’t supported by research, and thus there are no scientifically recognized signs of sugar addiction.
Despite this, many people report that the most common sugar addiction symptoms are:
- Cravings for sugary foods
- “Sugar-seeking” behaviors
- Bingeing on or compulsively eating sugary food
- Withdrawal when you deprive yourself of sugar for a prolonged time. Sugar withdrawal symptoms purportedly include cravings, headaches, lethargy, irritability, anxiety, nausea, gastrointestinal distress, and muscle aches.
A “sugar addiction detox” is a trendy way of breaking “sugar addiction” and involves cutting sugar out of your diet entirely (this doesn’t include the sugar that’s naturally found in fruit and vegetables).
To do this, simply abstain from consuming any food or drinks that contain added sugar, such as desserts, candy, and sodas.
While the idea of a sugar addiction detox might sound like an effective way to get a handle on your sugar intake, there’s no scientific evidence it can help, and it can often backfire by encouraging some people to overeat.
That said, some people prefer to quit sugar “cold turkey” because it decreases the length of time you experience any unwanted side effects associated with eliminating sugar from your diet.
There are no sugar addiction treatments because there’s very little evidence that sugar addiction exists in humans.
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