- Withdrawal symptoms occur when ceasing to take an addictive substance causes a marked change in brain chemistry.
- Research shows that while eating sugar is pleasurable, it doesn’t impact our physiology nearly as significantly as addictive drugs like cocaine and heroin, and doesn’t meet the scientific definition of an addictive substance.
- Accordingly, “sugar withdrawal” is mostly a scapegoat for poor eating habits. The only way to take control of your diet, health, and behaviors is to accept responsibility for your actions—including your sugar intake.
“Sugar is the new crack cocaine!”
Yeah, people are actually saying that these days.
They’re telling us that sugar is as addictive as cocaine, and the more we eat, the more likely we are to get fat, sick, and, ultimately, dead.
It sounds bad. Really bad.
How true is it, though?
Does every dessert we eat push us a little further down the slippery slope of disease and dysfunction, and make it ever harder to claw our way back to optimal health and vitality?
Can we develop a “sugar dependence” in the same way we can become physically dependent on alcohol, cocaine, or heroin?
Can it get so bad that we can experience legitimate withdrawal symptoms if we stop eating sugar?
Well, the short answer is this:
The “addictive properties” of sugar are being grossly exaggerated by many mainstream diet and health “gurus.”
Yes, it’s tasty and pleasurable, and yes, many people might think they’re addicted to it, but as you’ll soon see, that doesn’t make for a valid medical condition.
Likewise, most discussions of “sugar withdrawal” are equally bogus.
In fact, the absence of genuine withdrawal symptoms, like those seen with hard drugs, is one of the dead giveaways that sugar doesn’t warp our brains in the same ways.
So, if you’re ready to learn the truth about sugar withdrawal, and what constitutes a real addiction and what doesn’t, then you want to keep reading.
In this article, you’ll learn . . .
- What sugar withdrawal is
- What “addiction” and “withdrawal” really mean
- Whether or not sugar withdrawal is real
- And more
Let’s get started.
- What Is Sugar Withdrawal?
- Is Sugar Withdrawal Real?
- The Bottom Line on Sugar Withdrawal
Table of Contents
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Withdrawal symptoms are defined as the negative physical and psychological reactions that occur when you stop taking an addictive substance.
To understand how this happens, let’s take a look at the highly addictive drug that sugar is being compared to: cocaine.
Cocaine interferes with your brain’s ability to regulate levels of a chemical called dopamine, resulting in the euphoric high that has made “booger sugar” so popular.
As the high wears off, your brain chemistry remains unbalanced, which can cause you to feel distressed and desiring another hit.
As you continue to use the drug, your body becomes more resistant to its effects, and the resultant chemical imbalances become larger and more prolonged.
This, then, means you have to take larger and larger doses to continue to achieve the same effects, which further builds your tolerance, and further aggravates the chemical disturbances.
Eventually, you need the drug just to feel normal, let alone “high,” and once you’ve gone that far, you’ll probably be willing to go to great lengths to feed your addiction.
This dependence cycle is the hallmark of addictive substances, and when people try to quit “cold turkey,” they often experience physical and psychological pain—withdrawal symptoms—including anxiety, agitation, muscle aches, insomnia, sweating, extreme fatigue, cramps, nausea, and vomiting.
It’s also worth noting that addiction and withdrawal exist on a spectrum.
Some drugs, like nicotine, are highly addictive but cause fairly mild withdrawal symptoms compared to something like heroin.
Other drugs, like MDMA, aren’t very addictive but can cause strong side effects that can feel similar to withdrawal symptoms.
That said, as a general rule, the more addictive a substance, the more likely it is to produce withdrawal symptoms.
Now, that’s how things work with a drug that we know is addictive, like cocaine.
What about sugar?
Can this simple little molecule ravage our brain in the same way, and eventually force us to endure the same types of withdrawal symptoms?
When people say sugar withdrawal, what they’re typically referring to is a collection of symptoms that supposedly occur when they stop eating sugar, including extreme fatigue, brain fog, migraines, dizziness, and sometimes even nausea, cold sweats, and tremors.
That’s what people claim happens, anyway.
What does the evidence say?
Summary: Withdrawal symptoms occur when an addictive substance causes a marked change in brain chemistry. In the case of sugar addiction, people claim ceasing sugar intake results in extreme fatigue, brain fog, migraines, dizziness, and other ailments.
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Many people think sugar withdrawal is perfectly legitimate, because they think sugar addiction is just as real as alcoholism or nicotine dependence.
If that doesn’t qualify it as addictive, what does?
Well, there’s a problem.
Yes, sugar spikes dopamine levels, but so do many other pleasurable things that are most definitely not medically classified as addictive, like . . .
- Driving a fast car.
- Listening to good music.
- Having good sex.
- Drinking green tea.
- And many more everyday enjoyable activities.
You see, anything that you find even slightly enjoyable temporarily changes your brain chemistry, including dopamine levels. Addictive drugs do this too, of course, but in much more powerful and consequential ways.
Now, in the case of sugar, research shows that they fail this litmus test of addictive substances.
Namely . . .
- People don’t build up a “sugar tolerance.”
- They don’t have to keep eating more and more to achieve the same pleasurable effects.
- They don’t physically and psychologically suffer if you stop eating it.
Scientifically speaking, depriving yourself of sugar is no different than depriving yourself of any of life’s little pleasures.
It can be disappointing and less immediately gratifying, but let’s not mistake that for the type of physical or mental distress that drug addicts experience.
Now, if sugar addiction isn’t real in the way that many people think, then sugar withdrawal is more fantasy than fact, too.
Really wanting to eat a donut is not a withdrawal symptom. It’s merely a desire.
This, then, brings us to the heart of the matter: personal responsibility.
Some people like to play the victim. They’d rather blame someone or something for their problems and shortcomings, rather than own up to the consequences of their choices and actions.
They’re not just weak-minded and weak-willed, they’re “addicted.” It’s not their fault.
This is a pathetic way to live.
No matter what you’re facing in life, once you surrender your sense of personal accountability, all is lost. It’s your only lifeline, the only leverage you really have to lift yourself out of the muck.
So, does a low-sugar diet result in less food-induced pleasure than a sugar-rich one?
And can that make it harder to follow?
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If you haven’t been able to do it, don’t go looking for a scapegoat, chemical or otherwise.
Just look in the mirror, and ask yourself if you really want to be the type of person that can’t even control what they eat. That can be conquered by a clutch of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen atoms.
And if you’re thinking that I just “don’t get it,” you’re wrong.
I like sugar as much as the next person, but I value my health, productivity, and happiness more, and so I limit my sugar intake.
What a concept.
You can do it, too.
It might require throwing away all those tasty treats in the pantry, learning to drink water and like foods that aren’t sickeningly sweet, and even falling off the wagon a few times, but so long as you refuse to go looking for excuses to fail, you’ll make it.
Now, if you’re feeling triggered at this point and you’d love nothing more than to smash your keyboard through your screen and into my face, I have an olive branch to offer.
While it may sound like I’m saying sugar is no different than any other food, I’m well aware of the physical and mental effects it can have on people. I agree that sugar can cause symptoms that feel addictive, and that going from eating a lot to less or no sugar can make you feel far worse than other foods.
I’m also not denying that giving up sugar makes some people feel awful.
What I’m objecting to is people using the terms addiction and withdrawal to shift responsibility away from themselves.
The bottom line is that even if giving up sugar is significantly harder for you than some other people, nothing is going to get better unless you first own up and hold yourself accountable.
That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s going to be easy, or even should be easy, but I’ll say this:
I’ve worked with thousands of people who’ve struggled with many unhealthy habits, including drug use, alcohol addiction, poor dieting, and more. One for one, the people who successfully beat their “demons” refused to make excuses or find reasons to accept failure, like “sugar withdrawal.”
These people were normal, everyday folk, not elite athletes or A-list celebrities, so if they can do it, why not you?
(And if you’d like specific advice about what diet to follow to reach your health and fitness goals, take the Legion Diet Quiz.)
Summary: Although sugar can trigger strong cravings and people often overconsume it, it doesn’t meet the scientific definition of an addictive substance.
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Too many people eat far too much sugar, and find it far too hard to stop.
This has given rise to the idea that sugar is addictive, like drugs, and that the reason it’s so hard to quit is it can produce legitimate withdrawal symptoms.
Stories like these are music to millions of people’s ears, because it absolves them of their dietary sins. They can breathe a resigned sigh of relief, because it’s just faulty brain chemistry that’s to blame, not their flabby willpower.
It’s also a lie.
Research shows that while eating sugar is pleasurable, it doesn’t impact our physiology nearly as significantly as addictive drugs like cocaine and heroin.
So, if you’re currently struggling to reduce your sugar intake, don’t buy into the siren song of sugar addiction and victimhood.
You’re choosing to eat it because it makes you feel good, and you can just as easily choose not to eat it, and look elsewhere for a pick-me-up.
What’s your take on sugar withdrawal? Have anything else to share? Let me know in the comments below!
+ Scientific References
- Onakpoya IJ, Posadzki PP, Watson LK, Davies LA, Ernst E. The efficacy of long-term conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) supplementation on body composition in overweight and obese individuals: A systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized clinical trials. Eur J Nutr. 2012;51(2):127-134. doi:10.1007/s00394-011-0253-9
- Benowitz NL. Nicotine addiction. N Engl J Med. 2010;362(24):2295. doi:10.1056/NEJMra0809890
- Koob GF, Volkow ND. Neurocircuitry of addiction. Neuropsychopharmacology. 2010;35(1):217-238. doi:10.1038/npp.2009.110