Is Sugar ACTUALLY Addicting?

You hear it all the time. The sugar addiction hiding as the innocent "sweet tooth". The soda addiction that hides as the "I just need something carbonated." The fast food addiction that is "easy in a busy world." I mean, sure, there's truth behind these claims and excuses, but is there something more? 

Working as a Nutritionist, I saw the struggle of giving up or cutting back of foods and how time and time again clients would fail. And that's using a very, casual, easy-going approach! 

So, I thought, "Maybe, just maybe if we know WHY it is so difficult to cut back on sugar or skip the soda, we'll have a fighting chance at a solid solution to these... dare I say, addictions?"

I "quit" sugar years ago and it was the best decision I ever made. In fact, eat whatever sugary treat you want in front of me and I hardly BUUTTT, not long ago, I dug deep into my freezer and pulled out the top of my wedding cake and WENT TO TOWN. Like, I couldn't stop. I even put it away and then got it back out for "one last bite"... which we all know turned into way more. That just begged the question, "What the heck is in this thing that makes it so addicting?"

AH. Just that. Foods can be addicting. Pringles slogan "once you pop, you can't stop" is not incorrect. I have a laundry list of foods I don't buy at the grocery store because if I do, they never last more than a day in the house. 

So, in order to make us all feel a bit better about ourselves, below I've outlined the comparisons betweens foods and drugs. If we look at junk food more like a drug, maybe we'll be more likely to quit it. Or, at the very least, not be so hard on ourselves after a serious binder. (but seriously, we should probably quit it.)

And if my babble is boring you, then watch this video for a similar message. 

Hormones are signals within the body that regulate every existing biological and physiological pathway. Hormone pathways are extremely complex, requiring many different hormones, signals, receptors, etc. There are a number of ways in any given pathway that can cause your system to not work properly. Some diseases that you are familiar with that are caused by malfunction of hormonal processes are: diabetes (insulin), depression (dopamine), hypothyroidism/hyperthyroidism (TSH, T3, T4, etc), and so many more. And most systems are regulated by MANY hormones!

Hormone Pathways

One of the first things mentioned in the video is the hormone Leptin. Leptin and ghrelin. These two hormones work together to control hunger. Leptin is the hormone that tells your stomach that you are full. Grehlin is your hunger hormone and lets you know that it's time to eat. If either of these hormones are "off", it will affect your eating. Unfortunately, leptin's pathway can be destroyed by overeating, excess sugar, and genetics. This is one of the culprits leading to binging, overeating and thus obesity. 

Rewards Center

This is depicted well in the video and gives great animation to what happens during the intake of sugar, nicotine, drugs, etc and why we come back for more. 

Simply put, we have a rewards center in our brain that releases dopamine when we consume high sugar foods (in the same way that it does with drugs and alcohol). The more we consume, the more the pathway is inhibited (therefore, down regulated) causing us to need more and more in order to illicit the same response. Hence, not feeling satisfied after a few bites of something.

While scientists are hesitant to claim that food or specifically sugar is addicting, they have been able to provide evidence that sugar does illicit the same responses as drugs, alcohol and nicotine.

What this review demonstrates is that rats with intermittent access to food and a sugar solution can show both a constellation of behaviors and parallel brain changes that are characteristic of rats that voluntarily self-administer addictive drugs.

Let this article be the fuel to the fire to finally take the steps to cut back on sugar. Based on the evidence outlined, we know the journey won't be easy, but I've seen it be done time and time again. Go easy on yourself, seek advice and help, and lastly, understand that the process will not be linear.

The American Heart Association suggests no more than 37 grams of added sugar per day for men and 25 grams of added sugar for women. THIS IS EXTREMELY HARD TO DO! I always suggest start by simply calculating where you are today on your sugar grams and slowly decrease them until you reach your goal. 

If you're the "cold turkey" kind, set yourself up with a nice detox so when you withdrawal from sugar, you're body can properly eliminate the toxins. Most importantly, find someone to hold you accountable! 

Making a LIFE CHANGE is a PROCESS. Do not expect to snap your fingers and succeed over night. Be patient!


Peer Reviewed Articles Referenced In This Post:

Obesity: An overview on its current perspectives and treatment options

Evidence for sugar addiction: Behavioral and neurochemical effects of intermittent, excessive sugar intake


Tess Chupinsky, BS Pre-med Biology, Precision Nutrition