Have you ever wondered if you or someone you know is addicted to sugar? Have you ever felt ‘withdrawal’ symptoms after cutting out sugar from your diet? Have you felt like the more sugar you eat, the more you crave it? If you answered yes to one or all of these questions, you probably would agree that sugar is addictive. However, ‘addiction’ is a strong word and it’s best not used unless supported with evidence. In that case, what does science tell us about the matter?
Risks of Excessive Sugar Consumption
We know that excessive calorie and sugar intake leads to weight gain, and eventual obesity if left uncontrolled. The estimated costs of caring for the consequences of obesity-related illnesses in 2008 was $3-6 billion dollars in the U.S. alone (Trogdon et al., 2008). In a 2012 study by Maersk and colleagues, it was found that drinking 1 liter of sugar-sweetened beverages for 6 months led to similar findings of metabolic syndrome (Maersk et al., 2012). This is alarming to think in only 6 months of excessive sugar intake, we could increases our chances for diabetes!
We have also seen that gaining an excessive amount of weight in pregnant women can increase the chance of delivery via c-section, develop pre-eclampsia, retain weight after delivery, and have a greater chance of being overweight or obese later in life (Stuebe, Oken, & Gillman, 2009). For the child, they are more prone to be preterm, macrosomic, and become overweight/obese later in their life as well. Many have also proposed that the foods consumed during pregnancy are the foods that the child will have more liking to – including sugar (Harvard Medical School, 2011).
Research on Sugar Consumption
Research For Sugar Addiction
For over 40 years, researchers have investigated both the obese population and the non-obese population to better understand the effects that this seemingly addictive substance may have on the human brain. The most studied aspect of the matter has been looking at the pleasure and reward systems of the brain. Much like drugs activate the release of dopamine and opioids, sugar has been found to do the same. Alarmed yet?
For adolescents, research has also shown that fructose created greater releases of pleasure and reward in the obese youngsters than their lean peers (Avena, Rada, & Hoebel, 2008). Some have even said that sugar is possibly more addictive than drugs like cocaine. Yikes! But we need to be careful before we take this as gospel truth. Read on!
Research Against Sugar Addiction
Bear in mind that a lot of the studies done showing sugar as addictive were largely done with animals. For those studies involving humans, it’s difficult to say that sugar is truly the reason for the results because consuming sugar in isolation is near impossible, making conclusions hard to draw. In a recent review of sugar-related research (2016), scholars said there really is not enough evidence to say that sugar is addictive.
The More Sugar You Have, the More You Want
Another reason why sugar may be consumed seemingly all the time is the role our physical taste buds have in connecting with the flavors of our food. There is an age-old thought that the more you eat something (salt, sugar, fat, etc.) the more your taste buds are acquired to it. You will often hear from those who have gone on a ‘sugar fast’ or crash diet that eliminates added sugars that they no longer care for sweets because they don’t eat them as much. There is certainly some evidence supporting this – enough that it would be worth trying an elimination of sugar in your diet if you struggle with consuming too much sugar. Think of it as an experiment for a few weeks to see if you still desire it as much (Harvard Medical School, 2011). You may even find that foods you used to eat frequently taste far sweeter than they used to, and you might not eat as much as you may have before.
Besides the responses in the pleasure/reward center of the brain and our taste buds, what we do understand very well is the rise and fall of blood sugar can cause sugar to be more desired (which can sometimes easily translate to “addictive”). When someone consumes a lot of sugar at once, their blood glucose will spike and energize the consumer, and then fall rapidly, causing a crash. The body naturally desires to return to the energized state, causing a craving for more energy, which some might translate to meaning more sugar which will then put them back into the same situation. In this way, we may be training our bodies to want more sugar the more we consume it. Conversely, we can avoid this viscous cycle by having small amounts of sugar in moderation and aiming for a gradual rise and fall in blood sugar levels, and eating a more well-balanced meal or snack rich in heart-healthy fats, proteins, and complex carbohydrates when our body is requiring more energy.
The Bottom Line on Sugar Consumption
There is research showing that sugar may be addictive because of the type of responses it causes in the brain which are similar to those released with drug use. However, there’s not enough to really say “yes, sugar is addictive”.
We absolutely do need to be mindful of how much sugar we have a day. We know that too much sugar can lead to weight gain, and excess weight increases the risk for many complications. The recommendation from the American Heart Association is no more than 6 tsp added sugar/day for women and 9 tsp added sugar/day for men. Obviously, there are days when you should let loose a little, but not every day.
At CHI Health helping our patients understand the best practices to wellness is always at the top of our priority list, for more education and services concerning diabetes, please reach out to our CHI Health Nutrition Services.
Ahmed, S. H., Guillem, K., & Vandaele, Y. (2013). Sugar addiction: pushing the drug-sugar analogy to the limit. Current Opinion in Clinical Nutrition & Metabolic Care, 16(4), 434-439.
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. https://doi-org.proxy1.ncu.edu/10.1016/j.neubiorev.2007.04.019
Bray, G. A. (2016). Is sugar addictive? Diabetes, 65(7), 1797–1799. https://doi-org.proxy1.ncu.edu/10.2337/dbi16-0022
Harvard Medical School. (2011). Controlling what--and how much--we eat. Taste preferences can be changed so that we crave salty and sugary food less and learn to like vegetables and whole grains more. Harvard Health Letter, 36(12), 1–3. Retrieved from https://search-ebscohost-com.proxy1.ncu.edu/login.aspx?direct=true&db=mdc&AN=22121556&site=eds-live
Maersk, M., Belza, A., Stødkilde-Jørgensen, H., Ringgaard, S., Chabanova, E., Thomsen, H., … Richelsen, B. (2012). Sucrose-sweetened beverages increase fat storage in the liver, muscle, and visceral fat depot: a 6-mo randomized intervention study. The American Journal Of Clinical Nutrition, 95(2), 283–289. https://doi-org.proxy1.ncu.edu/10.3945/ajcn.111.022533
Stuebe, A. M., Oken, E., & Gillman, M. W. (2009). Associations of diet and physical activity during pregnancy with risk for excessive gestational weight gain. American journal of obstetrics and gynecology, 201(1), 58-e1.
Trogdon, J. G., Finkelstein, E. A., Hylands, T., Dellea, P. S., & Kamal-Bahl, S. J. (2008). Indirect costs of obesity: a review of the current literature. Obesity Reviews, 9(5), 489-500.
Westwater, M. L., Fletcher, P. C., & Ziauddeen, H. (2016). Sugar addiction: the state of the science. European journal of nutrition, 55(2), 55-69.