Is Sugar Addictive?
Updated: Dec 13, 2019
We often hear expressions like "Sugar is addictive", "Sugar has effects similar to cocaine" or "Sugar is a drug". Are these expressions founded in science or are they just extremist views used to peddle the sale of supplements, meal plans and pyramid schemes(MLMs)? First we need to look at the definitions of the terms above; What is the definition of being addicted?
"Definition of addicted. : having an addiction: a : exhibiting a compulsive, chronic, physiological or psychological need for a habit-forming substance, behavior, or activity addicted to heroin/alcohol/gambling addicted smokers." Merriam-Webster Next lets look at the definition of Drug; 1a: a substance used as a medication or in the preparation of medicationbaccording to the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (1): a substance recognized in an official pharmacopoeia or formulary (see FORMULARY sense 3) (2): a substance intended for use in the diagnosis, cure, mitigation, treatment, or prevention of disease prescription drugs for treating high blood pressure (3): a substance other than food intended to affect the structure or function of the body (4): a substance intended for use as a component of a medicine but not a device or a component, part, or accessory of a device
Lastly lets look at the definition of sugar, since people often think sugar and carbohydrates are separate molecules. Often times people think of sugar as representing white sugar or processed sugar, fruit sugar or candy. In reality these forms are simple forms of carbohydrates, all sugars are carbohydrates so lets define carbohydrate and take it from there. Carbohydrate; : any of various neutral compounds of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen (such as sugars, starches, and celluloses) most of which are formed by green plants and which constitute a major class of animal foods. Merriam-Webster
Ok so, is sugar/carbohydrates first off classified as a drug, by definition no, by function as well no, so can it act like a drug? Let's get to that below when we look at the research. Is sugar addictive? No, but let's look at the studies where they came to this conclusion. In most professionals opinion sugar is habit forming, like anything we enjoy or that makes us feel good, we will seek it out. Like any habit however, we can break that habit. Think about the drug addict who quits, one slip up can lead to a relapse, as someone who enjoyed sugar in my coffee when I was younger, I now prefer it black, if I was to take a taste of my wife's French vanilla, im not running to the kitchen to add sugar to my coffee. Lets take a look at the research and circle back to this thought train later.
In "Sugar addiction: pushing the drug-sugar analogy to the limit." Ahmed et. al. wanted to review research that tests the validity of the analogy between addictive drugs, like cocaine, and hyper-palatable foods, notably those high in added sugar. What they looked at was the available literature on this topic and compared the available rat data(no data in humans) that showed effects on reward centres of rat brains more robust than cocaine. In the journal Nature Kay Tye of the MIT and her colleagues genetically engineered mice so that the neurons in a brain circuit involved in reward processing would fire when exposed to light. What they found was that when the researchers activated these neurons, the animals sought sugar more frequently through a port in their cage, even when they received a mild electric shock to their feet in the process. What this demonstrated was that sweet treats could be habit forming and that subjects(mice) would seek out sweet even while in pain if these neutrons were activated. This research may be useful for helping people overcome poor habits but not addiction. No human studies have shown effects of drug-like dependence to sugar.
Often times brain imaging is used to show how "strong" the effects of sugar are. However these strategies ignore the fact we would see similar imaging for watching tv shows we like, pornography, thinking of a loved one or a promotion and other types of experiences that give us genuine pleasure. The reality is we enjoy palatable food, food that tastes good. This is biologically engineered into us, we seek out food that tastes sweet or fatty because it contains energy, our ancestors lived in times where energy resources were limited, having a keen taste for foods high in energy was important for survival. If we sought out food that tasted good, we lived. In our society we expend a lot less energy researchers say 100 years ago, people got five times more exercise every day, just in the course of daily living. Pair our reduced activity with readily availability highly-palatable food and you have a recipe for weight gain. So sugar as a drug, what's the deal?
Anyone who has battled addiction knows, quitting is the hardest thing they will ever do, smoking, alcohol, illicit drugs, gambling, sex addiction, pornography addiction these are behaviours have rewire the brain that then prioritize seeking out the addictive substance or activity. Lives are often ruined via poor decisions in the name of seeking out fuel for the addiction. As much as it would be convenient to label sugar as addictive, we are unlikely to see people kill, steal or commit fraud to fuel a sugar addiction. You're not about to raid the pantry at your neighbours house to steal their white sugar and eat it raw. In reality you crave delicious foods, that are easily accessible and try to rely on willpower to stop you from eating it. Food isn't only tasty it's often attached to social events and has a psychological or emotional component, it makes us feel good because we attach past experiences to it. We associate food with family, friendship and love. We often eat to feel better, to cope with pain and to manage stress. We don't eat because we are addicted to sugar, we eat because wed don't have a proper relationship with food.
In conclusion we can state that sugar is not addictive, it isn't a drug, but because its a component of highly palatable, tasty food, it can make us do things we may regret later when we act under impulse and emotion. If you want to have a better relationship with food, the first step is to acknowledge that sugar was never the problem. You need to determine why you eat the foods you eat. You need to develop healthier skills and strategies like understanding the CI/CO principle, calories in vs calories out. This principle states that for weight maintenance your energy intake and energy expenditure need to be close to the same on average, a reduction of intake or increase in expenditure is needed for fat-loss and the reverse for fat gain. Understanding that good food/bad food is a false dichotomy is important, what this means is there are not good/bad nutrients, rather appropriate and not appropriate amounts of said nutrients. Those looking to lose weight or prevent weight gain would be wise to reduce the availability of highly palatable foods by planning ahead, and avoiding situations where they may make poor decisions, learning that we all can make poor decisions occasionally and move on. Focus on whole foods and those high in protein and fibre to improve satiety, eat slower and eat more fruits and vegetables. We aren't condoning the mass consumption of junk food, but we do acknowledge that blaming a food doesn't help people lose weight and be happy, we need to give them sustainable and realistic skills to navigate the dietary landscape, food extremism isn't one of them.