This article was written by Associate Registered Nutritionist (ANut) Sophie Gastman, and reviewed by Registered Dietitian Maeve Hanan.
Put simply, sugar is found in all foods containing carbohydrates in some shape or form (yes, even in broccoli!). However, it isn’t the naturally occurring sugar in broccoli and other fruit and veg that most people are worried about. The true cause of many people’s concern is around ‘added sugars’.
Added sugars are those that are added to our foods either during the cooking or processing stage, or before eating. They include everything from white table sugar to honey and maple syrup (and everything in between).
Since the focus on low-fat diets has shifted, the media has turned to demonising sugar instead. This has led to an extensive range of low or no sugar products being churned out onto our supermarket shelves. Coupled with sugar taxes and messages from governments and health promotion bodies about the harms of sugar, it’s understandable why many people feel fearful of sugar, while at the same time feeling out of control or even ‘addicted’ to it.
But is sugar really that bad? And can it really be considered as addictive as drugs?
This article will present the facts and evidence around sugar addiction as well as providing you with some tips on how to start feeling in control around sugar.
What Is an Addiction?
Since the term ‘sugar addiction’ is so freely thrown around, an important place to start is to define what an addiction is.
The DSM-5 (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) now uses the term ‘substance use disorders’ instead of ‘addiction’ and differentiates between the severity of the substance use disorder – mild, moderate, or severe (1).
It’s important to note that neither sugar or any food for that matter is on the DSM-5 list of addictive substances.
The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) defines Substance Use Disorders as: “…when the recurrent use of alcohol and/or drugs causes clinically and functionally significant impairment, such as health problems, disability, and failure to meet major responsibilities at work, school, or home. According to the DSM-5, a diagnosis of substance use disorder is based on evidence of impaired control, social impairment, risky use, and pharmacological criteria.” (SAMHSA, 2015)
We may feel like sugar can affect our daily functioning and is therefore a problematic substance, however, it’s important to think about how severe this is and whether it’s the sugar itself or is it our relationship with sugar that’s problematic?
How Do Drugs Work?
Drugs work by interacting with chemical messengers called neurotransmitters and interfering with the way cells in the brain and nervous system (neurons) send, receive and process signals.
Some drugs, like heroin and cannabis, will work by mimicking the brain’s own chemicals and activating neurons.
Whereas other drugs, like cocaine or amphetamines work by sending signals to the neurons to release abnormally large amounts of neurotransmitters which can activate the dopamine system and cause feelings of pleasure or euphoria. However, these surges are much greater than the natural amount of neurotransmitters that are released in response to pleasurable activities such as eating, listening to music or socialising (2).
Can Sugar Act Like a Drug?
The argument that sugar addiction exists relies on research stating how sugar can light up the same reward pathways in the brain as drugs (3).
One study has even concluded that sugar is more addictive than cocaine as they found lab rats addicted to cocaine will almost always choose sugar over cocaine when given the choice (4).
However, what these studies fail to highlight is that getting a hug, petting a puppy and listening to music are just a few of the wide range of positive experiences that stimulate these very same reward pathways (5). Have you ever heard someone say they’ve got a problem controlling their addiction to petting puppies or receiving hugs?
Just because sugar is tasty and known to release dopamine in reward pathways, it’s not enough to label sugar as ‘addictive’ as addiction is not defined by tastiness and pleasure alone.
Another issue that is common in the majority of this research is the use of rats as participants (and last time I checked, humans are not just giant rats…).
On top of the simple fact that humans are not the same as rats, the methodology for these rodent studies is often poor. For example, Avena et al. looked to answer the question ‘can sugar be a substance of abuse and lead to addiction?’. They analysed four components of addiction in rats (bingeing, withdrawal, craving and cross-sensitisation). To do this, they deprived the rats of food daily for 12 hours, then after a 4-hour delay into their normal active period based on their body clock, they were given 12 hour access to a sugar solution and chow.
Unsurprisingly, during the first hour of access, there was a large intake of sugar, which the researchers defined as a ‘binge’ and the rats also displayed withdrawal symptoms. After repeating this schedule for an entire month, they concluded the animals showed signs of addiction (6).
By looking no further than the results of this study, it’s easy to see how people can draw parallels between drug addiction and sugar addiction, however the key thing to focus on here is the restriction element.
We know that restriction of anything can often result in the urge to binge and in fact, in the same study, they found that the rats who were given unlimited access to sugar consumed the same amount of sugar as the restricted rats, but across the entire day rather than all at once. Interestingly, they also discovered that the rats given unlimited access offset their sugar consumption by consuming less chow to regulate their caloric intake, resulting in weight maintenance.
So, it appears the true culprit may actually be restriction rather than the sugar itself.
And let’s not forget that the urge to eat foods high in energy (like sugar) in response to starvation and restriction is a rational and important survival mechanism built into the biology of both rats and humans.
Why Do We Feel Addicted to Sugar?
If sugar isn’t technically ‘addictive’, then you may wonder why it feels like it’s so hard to stop eating it. There are many reasons why we might feel ‘addicted’ to sugar, a simple one being that it undoubtedly gives us a boost in energy, even though this can be short-lived depending on what was eaten.
This is why you may find when you are tired or sleep deprived, you’re drawn towards sugary foods. Similarly, if you haven’t been eating enough carbohydrate or you are overly hungry the body is likely to crave sugar.
Going deeper into this point, it’s in our human physiology to seek out sugar. It was once a survival mechanism that kept us alive by promoting the intake of energy and nutrients, which is why it may feel so difficult to go against this innate response (7).
Or, for example, if you’ve ever tried to restrict sugary foods you may have experienced feeling out of control or obsessed with sugar. This is because, as with any food group, the more you restrict or set rules around it, the more you think about that food and the more you want it.
Thinking about sugary food as ‘bad’ or ‘off limits’ or a very occasional ‘treat’ also puts it on this pedestal, making it into a bigger deal than it really is.
As we know, our feelings towards certain foods are also often more complex than taste alone. A lot of sugary foods (and food in general) are linked to certain memories, or are used as a source of comfort. For example, eating an ice cream may be reminiscent of your favourite holiday in Italy or chocolate may be what got you through a bad breakup. This attached meaning to food makes it far more complicated than we allow ourselves to believe when we talk about sugar in the context of addiction.
We may also feel like we are addicted to sugar simply because we are bombarded with messaging around how sugar is this ‘toxic’ and ‘addictive’ or even ‘deadly’ substance, feeding into the narrative that we should quit sugar cold turkey in order to prevent the addiction from progressing any further. Luckily for us, this is not the answer.
How to Feel More in Control Around Sugar
If you do feel like once you start you can’t stop around sugar, here are some top tips to help you navigate gaining that control back without setting any rigid rules.
Make Sure You’re Eating nough throughout the day
If you’ve ever dieted before or simply had a day where you’ve been too busy to eat, you’ll be familiar with the feeling of just wanting to shove any food you can get your hands on into your mouth – and it’s normally likely to be something sugary. If you make a conscious effort to eat enough satisfying foods and balanced meals during the day, you’re unlikely to feel as preoccupied by sugary foods, particularly in the evening.
Try Eating Mindfully
This means eating in a way where you are able to recognise your hunger and fullness cues without experiencing any guilt. It can also involve really focusing on the taste, texture and temperature of the food as well as limiting any distractions, such as phones, tablets or the television.
Challenge the Inner Food Critic
Notice when black and white guilt-ridden thoughts about sugar and sugary food arise. Can you let these thoughts go? Some people find it helpful to challenge these thoughts or have an affirmation or reminder ready in response to this like: “no foods are simply ‘good or bad’, I deserve to enjoy sugary foods as part of my overall diet and trying to avoid these only leads to obsession“.
Incorporate Sweet Foods Into Your Day
This may sound counterintuitive but as soon as you allow yourself to eat sugary foods on a regular basis and honour your cravings, they will lose some of their shine because they are no longer off-limits. By doing this, you are way less likely to feel the urge to binge on something you already allow yourself to eat.
If you struggle with binge eating or a difficult relationship with food you may benefit from support from a dietitian in how to reintroduce sugary foods in a way that feels safe and appropriate for you. You can find out about our support services here.
Overall, it’s important to remember that all foods fit into a healthy balanced diet and food does not have a moral value attached to it. Once you stop thinking about sugar in black and white terms, e.g. as toxic or addictive or ‘a treat’, it will stop feeling like an out of control guilty pleasure and will start to feel much more neutral.
- Martin Guha (2014), “Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders: DSM-5 (5th edition)”, Reference Reviews, Vol. 28 No. 3, pp. 36-37.
- NIDA. 2022, March 22. Drugs and the Brain. Retrieved from https://nida.nih.gov/publications/drugs-brains-behavior-science-addiction/drugs-brain on 2022, July 28
- Hajnal, A., Smith, G. and Norgren, R., 2004. Oral sucrose stimulation increases accumbens dopamine in the rat. American Journal of Physiology-Regulatory, Integrative and Comparative Physiology, 286(1), pp.R31-R37.
- Ahmed, S. H., Guillem, K., & Vandaele, Y. (2013). Sugar addiction: pushing the drug-sugar analogy to the limit. Current opinion in clinical nutrition and metabolic care, 16(4), 434–439.
- Blood, A., & Zatorre, R. (2001). Intensely pleasurable responses to music correlate with activity in brain regions implicated in reward and emotion. Proceedings Of The National Academy Of Sciences, 98(20), 11818-11823.
- Avena, N. M., Rada, P., & Hoebel, B. G. (2008). Evidence for sugar addiction: behavioral and neurochemical effects of intermittent, excessive sugar intake. Neuroscience and biobehavioral reviews, 32(1), 20–39.
- Drewnowski, A., Mennella, J. A., Johnson, S. L., & Bellisle, F. (2012). Sweetness and food preference. The Journal of nutrition, 142(6), 1142S–8S.