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Everywhere you look, someone seems to be talking about “sugar addiction.” They’re either talking about doing a sugar detox to help get over their “addiction”, or they’re talking about how they don’t keep sweets in the house because they’re “addicted” and can’t control themselves around it. Many people also completely forbid their children from having sugar because they don’t want to raise little sugar addicts. This idea is EVERYWHERE! Somehow, society seems to have really internalized this message that sugar addiction is a real thing.
But it’s NOT.
Look… neurology, behavior, and addiction are complex things, and a blog post is never going to be able to cover the full extent of the body of research in this area. But when we’ve been so bombarded by the idea of sugar addiction that we’ve all just assumed it’s a legit thing, I feel like I need to be the voice of reason to reassure you that it is NOT actually true.
It’s fairly easy to see the parallels between drug addiction and “sugar addiction” at first glance. Drug addiction is characterized by “loss of control of drug consumption, increased motivation to consume, and a persistence of drug taking despite negative consequences.”1
The concept of sugar addiction sounds pretty similar: feeling out of control around sweets, experiencing “withdrawal” when we suddenly stop drinking soda or some other sugary thing we used to have all the time, and the cravings we experience for sweet foods – the “increased motivation to consume.”
And that’s just the anecdotal “evidence.” There is also research that seems to suggest sugar addiction is real, and it sounds super convincing!
It’s one thing for sugary stuff to taste good, but start throwing around words like “dopamine” and “neurology” and suddenly it sounds like science is backing up our idea that sugar is addictive.
Sugar stimulates the mesolimbic dopamine system2, known more casually as a “natural reward system” in the brain. This basically means that it makes us feel good, and also makes us want to stimulate that system again, because who wouldn’t want to feel good?
Know what else stimulates that rewarding mesolimbic dopamine system? Drugs of abuse.
And thus, the idea of addictive substances and sugar being similar was born. (Gee thanks, sensationalist media headlines!)
There are some scientific findings that have contributed to the idea of Sugar Addiction:
Sugar actually does this independently from its sweet taste, in addition to the taste receptor (ie: yumminess) pathways you’d probably think of first. Fun fact: When researchers give people sugar directly into either their stomach or bloodstream (bypassing the taste-buds), it still produces a dopamine/reward response.2
Bingeing behaviors have also been seen in laboratory animals given sugar, which seems to suggest a link to addictive behaviors.3
When a previous supply of sugar is taken away, lab animals will engage in cravings, or “sugar seeking behaviors”, similar to how they will seek out drugs after having been exposed to them before.2
In both drug addiction and obesity, a decrease in certain specific dopamine receptor availability has been seen, which is connected to impulsive behaviors. Impulsivity is something seen in both groups of people.2
So it seems to make total sense on the surface right? Sugar “lights up” the same parts of our brain that drugs do, and can prompt addictive-like behaviors similar to what drugs do, so obviously sugar is addictive too. (Plus, we all know that once you take a bite of cheesecake, it’s hard to stop after just one bite. Our taste buds and our reward system go haywire and we end up feeling like we want ALL the cake!)
While dopamine release IS triggered, the effect is not the same as drugs. After the initial exposure, dopamine response decreases quickly in the case of sugar, but not with drugs of abuse, which increases the stimulation of the system. Additionally, repeated exposure to drugs causes neurochemical sensitization, an increase in the stimulation response. This doesn’t happen with sugar.2,4
“We conclude that sugar has a strong direct influence on the dopamine system, which underlies its profound reinforcing qualities. However, at present there is limited evidence to suggest that sugar intake induces plasticity changes comparable to those induced by drugs of abuse. Thus, based on current literature we propose that it is probably that the long term effects of sugar on the brain are both qualitatively as well as quantitatively different from those of addictive substances.”2
And oh, by the way, other enjoyable stuff triggers the dopamine system too… like shopping, sex, video games5, and listening to music.6
Addictive behaviors in lab animals, like bingeing, happen more under certain conditions.3 More specifically: food deprivation, followed by access to ONLY sugar.
“We find little evidence to support sugar addiction in humans, and findings from the animal literature suggest that addiction-like behaviours, such as bingeing, occur only in the context of intermittent access to sugar.”1
These intermittent access diets are also called “binge” diets. Telling name!
“[T]he animal models used in these studies employ stringent ‘binge diets’ that involve prolonged periods of food deprivation or other stressful stimuli, as mere sucrose exposure is apparently not sufficient to induce these behaviors.”2
Tell me… when you’re super hungry and haven’t eaten all day, does a brownie looks EXTRA tasty to you, especially if it’s the only thing available? Yeah. Thought so. I’d probably come across looking like a rabid raccoon too if you’d starved me for 12-24 hours and then put only brownies in front of me.
In animal testing, cravings are studied by looking at “seeking behavior.” After a period of allowing the animals to self-administer something (a drug, or sugar), they then test how much they seek the substance out after it’s been removed. If seeking increases between an early time point and a later one, it’s called “incubation of craving.”4 This has been seen for both drugs and sugar, which seems to suggest that cravings for both are similar.
But again, when we look closer, the responses are actually different.
“[I]ncubation of cocaine seeking is more robust and lasts longer (>3 months) than incubation of sucrose seeking and it is associated with gene expression changes… not observed after sucrose exposure.”2
Something called “punishment-resistant” seeking, a behavior thought to be indicative of addiction since it happens consistently with drugs of abuse, has also been seen occasionally with sugar. This means that the lab animals will seek out the sugar (or cocaine), even in the face of adverse obstacles – like electric shock. However, when sugar and cocaine are compared, the sugar doesn’t seem to produce the punishment-resistance that cocaine does.2 In regard to the few studies that have documented punishment-resistance with sugar “these results are arguably not as robust as the cocaine findings, which are regularly replicated.”2 The sugar seeking behavior is also much more transient and short-lived.2
“There is no support from the human literature for the hypothesis that sucrose may be physically addictive or that addiction to sugar plays a role in eating disorders.”7
“On the basis of the current literature it is therefore not tenable to characterize sucrose addiction as a substance use disorder.”2
“Given the lack of evidence supporting it, we argue against a premature incorporation of sugar addiction into the scientific literature and public policy recommendations.”1
As you can see, there are a lot of problems with extrapolating the animal research to humans and saying that it proves Sugar Addiction exists. Yes, it’s a complex topic, absolutely. But we need to look deeper than just the fancy headlines.
Now, this is important to discuss. At this point, I’m sure there is a small angry mob ready to hunt me down for saying that sugar addiction isn’t a thing. So hear me out…
There ARE enjoyable behaviors that can become disordered.
“Extensive data suggests that eating, shopping, gambling, playing video games, and spending time on the internet are behaviors that can develop into compulsive behaviors that are continued despite devastating consequences.”5
It is possible for a person’s relationship to food and eating to become disordered as well, and that includes feeling uncontrollable around sweets. But it is probably not sugar alone that creates the problem in this small sub-set of individuals.
“The alternative is that ‘food addiction’ (or rather ‘eating addiction’) is not a substance use disorder in the sense that people are addicted to any specific substance or component of food [like sugar], but rather an addictive disorder involving disinhibition of food intake in general that shares similarities with behavioral addictions such as problem gambling.”2
That quote makes an important point. Seriously, read it again. It’s that good.
Now, “sugar addiction” gets thrown around as if it’s something everyone could potentially have. People selling detoxes will surely convince you that sugar MUST be the problem, because they will sell you something to “cure” that. But even IF someone has a disordered relationship with food and sweets, they are very likely in the minority, just like gambling addicts are in the minority of people who gamble. And if the problem really is bordering on compulsive, it is no longer a nutrition issue, but one which would benefit instead from therapy.
You are NOT addicted to them just because they taste good and it can sometimes be hard to stop. You are NORMAL! Sure, having a lot of sugar in our diet isn’t exactly the healthiest approach, and taking steps to reduce sugar consumption is a worthwhile endeavor. But there are many ways you can approach it moderately, rather than trying complete abstinence in the name of “sugar addiction.”
They won’t. Kids make choices primarily on taste, and yes, sugar tastes good! They also need more carbs than adults do (those growing brains need glucose!), so that can come across like sugar cravings. Take a moderate approach to the offering of treats/sweets. Don’t outlaw them, but don’t give free access either. Find a middle ground that works for you and your family. (And check out Maryann Jacobsen’s awesome book How to Raise A Mindful Eater. She gives some great ideas in there for flexible sweets policies! You can read my in-depth review of the book HERE.)
This was so spot on, I wanted to put it here for you as a closing statement. If you have time, the whole paper is a very in-depth read on this topic. But this little summary is pretty epic:
“Given the multitude of interacting factors that increase one’s risk for eating disorders and obesity, we argue that support of sugar addiction as a primary causal mechanism of weight gain represents an extremely narrow view that fails to capture the complexity of these conditions, and one that may hamper more coordinated and appropriate responses. Furthermore, while there is a pressing need to address these important concerns, we argue that it is dangerous to draw strong conclusions about the validity of sugar addiction based on the current evidence. There are many strong arguments for cutting down the consumption of sugar and reformulating food products accordingly, yet these arguments will all stand or fall according to the scientific case that supports them.”1
Aaaaand, mic drop.