Do you feel out of control around sugar and think that you might be addicted to it? If so, I've got you! It's time to separate fact from fiction and get to the bottom of this sugary puzzle. In this blog post, we'll be taking a closer look at what science has to say and if sugar is truly addictive (spoiler alert: it’s NOT). Let’s get started!
What sugar addiction advocates have to say
Sugar addiction advocates claim that sugar is just as addictive as drugs like cocaine or opioids and can cause serious harm to our health and wellbeing. They report that consuming sugary foods activates the same pleasure pathways in the brain as drugs like cocaine or opioids, leading to a cycle of cravings and addiction. Additionally, the anticipation of eating such foods activates the same brain pathways that are triggered in individuals with drug addiction when they engage in drug-seeking behavior. So let's take a deeper dive into that....
What triggers the brain pathway of addiction
The mesolimbic system, commonly referred to as the "reward system", is a complex network of brain regions that is responsible for the physiological and cognitive processing of rewards. Rewards are naturally linked to pleasurable stimuli by the brain, which leads to changes in behavior and a drive to seek out that positive stimulus (1).
While it’s true that pleasurable experiences, including eating highly palatable foods, can cause a release of dopamine and other feel-good chemicals and activate the reward center, it's important to recognize that sugar and drugs are two VERY different things. Drugs like cocaine and opioids have a much stronger impact on the brain and can lead to physical dependence. It’s also important to note that the reward pathway is not unique to food or drugs but can be triggered by a variety of pleasurable experiences, including exercise, hugs, and even listening to music (2).
Sugar addiction studies limitations
The vast majority of studies on sugar addiction were conducted on rats (NOT humans). But I found it very intriguing that they may not actually support the concept of sugar addiction. One study in particular showed that the rats were becoming “sugar-dependent”.3 Although it is true that when rats consumed sugar, the same neural pathways associated with addiction lit up just like they do for drugs, this only occurred when the rats were DEPRIVED OF SUGAR or adequate food (hello...dieting and restrictive behaviours?!). However, when the rats were given unlimited access to sugar, they did NOT exhibit addictive behavior.
This suggests that RESTRICTION and DEPRIVATION were the driving factors behind the addictive-like behavior, and actually supports a non-restrictive and intuitive eating approach towards sugar consumption.
What might be causing your sugar cravings?
It is not uncommon to crave sugar, however, these cravings are not necessarily a sign of addiction. Instead, they may be driven by other factors:
Hunger: When you go several hours without food, your body may signal the brain to crave high-energy foods like sugar since it provides a quick source of energy.
Imbalanced meals: Consuming meals that lack complex carbs, proteins or healthy fats can disrupt the body's blood sugar levels, leading to sugar cravings.
Stress: Stressful situations can trigger the release of cortisol, a hormone that increases the desire for sweet and high-energy foods like sugar in order to get some dopamine.
Hormonal changes: fluctuations in hormones, especially those experienced during the menstrual cycle and pregnancy, may lead to increased sugar cravings.
Bottom line: Sugar addiction can feel real but the science finds that it isn't a true "addiction" (if it was people would be chugging corn syrup in the grocery stores don't you think!). Know that sugar cravings are a normal part of human biology, so if you’re ready to have a better relationship with sugar, I’m here to help! Get ready to embrace a healthy lifestyle, treat yourself to your favorite sweets, and enjoy the many delicious foods that life has to offer!
This post is sponsored by the Canadian Sugar Institute https://sugar.ca/
Lewis, R. G., Florio, E., Punzo, D., & Borrelli, E. (2021). The brain’s reward system in health and disease. Advances in Experimental Medicine and Biology.
Greenberg, D., & St Peter, J. V. (2021). Sugars and sweet taste: Addictive or rewarding? International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health.
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