Is Sugar Addictive?

Taylor Larson, RD, CSSD, LD
McCallum Place St. Louis

Despite efforts to “eat better,” “get healthier,” and “stop eating junk,” many people find themselves drawn back to the sweet treats they are trying to eliminate. Some scientists have hypothesized that sugar has addictive qualities, similar to drugs like cocaine; that sugar ingestion lights up the pleasure centers of the brain, and more and more sugar is needed over time in order to produce the same pleasurable response. But does research support that sugar addiction is a real affliction?

Let’s examine this common diet cycle from the viewpoint of basic biology: when food is restricted, our brain circuitry changes and we experience more pleasure from food than we did when we had free access to it. In ancient times when food was scarce, this increased drive to eat helped us become more motivated to find food in order to survive, but in our current culture where food is generally plentiful, this phenomenon feels like a loss of control.

This idea parallels the current research on sugar addiction (most of which comes from animal studies), which has found that rats only developed signs of sugar addiction and binge eating after being forced to fast before being provided with food and sugar. Rats with unlimited, round-the-clock access to food and sugar did not develop these tendencies.

These findings tell us something really important: that limiting food intake, whether that be from a diet, an eating disorder, or a misguided “lifestyle change,” might disrupt our ability to self-regulate our intake of sweet foods and make us feel more out-of-control or “addicted” to them. It seems entirely possible that under periods of food restriction, our primal instincts drive us to eat more of the tasty, sweet foods that satisfy our taste buds and provide our brains and cells with valuable glucose to keep our organs running and our energy levels high. Our bodies have such incredible survival mechanisms! But this is very different than a food being physiologically addicting.

Instead of avoiding sugar, which often leads to increased desire, eating a variety of enjoyable and nourishing foods—including the sweets you enjoy— in adequate amounts is the best recipe to avoid feeling out-of-control around any food. When we listen to and honor our body’s needs, stop moralizing food as “good” and “bad,” and allow ourselves to enjoy any food within a balanced and adequate diet, we can be free to appreciate food as a valuable and delicious part of life instead of feeling trapped and consumed by it.

Of course, this is a very challenging journey to begin without proper support and guidance. If you struggle with food restriction, chronic dieting, binge eating, or feelings of being out-of-control around food, a Registered Dietitian with experience in eating disorders and disordered eating can help you restore your relationship with food and find balance and pleasure in eating again.

1. Carr, K. D. (2011). Food scarcity, neuroadaptations, and the pathogenic potential of dieting in an unnatural ecology: Binge eating and drug abuse. Physiology & Behavior, 104(1), 162-67. doi: 10.1016/j.physbeh.2011.04.023
2. Westwater, M. L., Fletcher, P. C., and Ziauddeen, H. (2016). Sugar addiction: the state of the science. European Journal of Nutrition, 55(Suppl 2), 55-69. doi: 10.1007/s00394-016-1229-6
3. Corwin, R. L. (2011). The face of uncertainty eats. Current Drug Abuse Reviews, 4(3), 174-81. doi: 10.2174/1874473711104030174

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