10 Science Facts of Sugar Addiction

lady on a beach considering her sugar addiction recovery

How the Addictive Nature of Sugar Parallels a Drug Addiction:  a brief survey and summary of the science facts.

The term sugar addiction often stirs up a storm of debates among scientists and health enthusiasts. While some firmly acknowledge its existence, others dismiss it as a mere media hype. Hmmm. But recent scientific studies shed new light on this moot point, revealing startling parallels between sugar consumption and drug addiction. This article explores the concept of sugar addiction, its mechanisms, and implications on human health.  The references to each scientific paper are included at the end of this article.

1. Understanding Sugar Addiction: The Basis

Sugar addiction, in essence, refers to a compulsive craving for sweet foods or drinks, driven by the brain’s reward system. This addictive behaviour is akin to substance abuse disorders, where individuals compulsively seek drugs despite knowing its harmful consequences12.

1.1 The Dopamine Connection

Just like addictive drugs such as cocaine, sugar is also known to stimulate the release of dopamine, a neurotransmitter associated with pleasure and reward. The euphoric “high” from consuming sugar reinforces the behaviour, leading to repeated consumption1.

1.2 The Role of Opioids

Similar to drug addiction, sugar consumption also triggers the opioid system, contributing to the addictive potential. The system is associated with the perception of pleasure, pain, and reward. Opioid antagonists, drugs that block opioid receptors, have been shown to reduce sugar consumption, indicating a strong opioid-sugar connection1.

2. The Sugar-Drug Analogy: An In-depth Look

The analogy between addictive drugs and hyperpalatable foods, notably those high in added sugar, is a fascinating area of research. Studies suggest that sugar and sweetness can induce reward and cravings comparable in magnitude to those induced by addictive drugs1.

2.1 Substitution and Reward

Interestingly, sugar and sweet reward can not only substitute addictive drugs like cocaine, but they can even be more rewarding and attractive. This phenomenon could be traced back to our evolutionary past, where seeking high-sugar foods was crucial for survival1.

2.2 The Neurobiological Perspective

At the neurobiological level, the neural substrates of sugar and sweet reward appear to be more robust than those of cocaine. This robustness could explain why many individuals find it challenging to control their sugar consumption when continuously exposed to it1.

3. Sugar Bingeing and Anxiety: A Link

Research indicates that bingeing on sugar could lead to psychological distress, such as anxiety2. This is particularly evident in rats that have been bingeing on sugar and subsequently fasted. These animals displayed anxiety-like behaviour, suggesting a state of withdrawal similar to opiate withdrawal2.

3.1 The Accumbens Dopamine/Acetylcholine Imbalance

Along with anxiety, fasting after sugar bingeing led to alterations in the balance of dopamine and acetylcholine in the nucleus accumbens, a brain region associated with reward and pleasure2. This imbalance could be a contributing factor to the anxiety observed during sugar withdrawal2.

4. Sugar Addiction: A Factor in Eating Disorders?

The findings discussed so far suggest that a diet of bingeing on sugar followed by fasting can create a state that involves anxiety and altered dopamine/acetylcholine balance in the brain2. This state is similar to the effects of opiate withdrawal, suggesting that sugar addiction could potentially be a factor in some eating disorders2.

5. A Look at the Evidence: Key Studies

Several studies have shed light on the addictive potential of sugar. Here, we delve into some of the key findings.

5.1 Sugar and Dopamine Release

A study reported that daily bingeing on sugar repeatedly releases dopamine in the nucleus accumbens3. This repeated dopamine release is a hallmark of many addictive substances, suggesting a similar mechanism in sugar addiction3.

5.2 The Impact of High-Fat High Sugar Diet on Sugar Addiction

Another study explored the impact of a high-fat high-sugar diet on sugar addiction4. The research indicated that a high-fat diet weakens the prefrontal cortical control of activity in the nucleus accumbens, an area involved in reward and pleasure4. This weakened control could potentially enhance the addictive potential of sugar4.

5.3 Sugar Addiction and Obesity

Research also suggests a link between sugar addiction and obesity5. Overconsumption of sugar, leading to sugar addiction, could potentially contribute to the development and maintenance of obesity5.

6. Sugar Addiction: The Consequences

The consequences of sugar addiction extend beyond weight gain and obesity. It can also lead to a range of health issues, including diabetes, heart disease, mental health issues including anxiety and depression and even neurological problems6. It’s essential, therefore, to recognise and address sugar addiction to prevent these health complications.

7. Dealing with Sugar Addiction: Strategies and Solutions

Overcoming sugar addiction may not be an easy task, but it’s certainly achievable. For the sugar addict, abstinence combined with support groups such as 12 step programmes have a proven track record in sustainable change. Strategies like gradual reduction of sugar intake (although total abstinence is the ultimate goal), seeking professional help, and adopting a balanced diet and regular exercise can also go a long way in combating this addiction7.

8. The Role of Nutrition Education

Education about the potential harm of excessive sugar consumption and the concept of sugar addiction can play a crucial role in its prevention and management8. Universities and other educational institutions could include this in their health and nutrition curriculum8.

9. The Need for Further Research

While existing research provides valuable insights into sugar addiction, more studies are needed to fully understand this complex issue. Future research should aim to explore the neurobiological mechanisms underlying sugar addiction and its long-term health effects9.

10. Conclusion

Sugar addiction is a complex but significant health issue. Drawing parallels with drug addiction, it poses a considerable challenge to public health. Recognising and addressing sugar addiction is critical to prevent associated health complications and improve overall wellbeing and taking personal action is the best way to empower recovery, personal growth and ultimate transformation.

Find someone who can ask you the right questions about your addiction.  So often we can feel caught in the mire of shame and guilt around our inability to control our cravings and the urge to consume despite our total recognition of the harmful consequences of doing so.  The truth is there is no shame in being a sugar addict.  In truth, developing this chronic, progressive primary disease was never our fault but it is our responsibility to move our whole selves into recovery, one day at a time.

If you would like to find out more about our services for sugar addiction or for relapse prevention  book a free 30 minute discovery session here

And …..keep going

Footnotes

1. 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. https://doi.org/10.1097/mco.0b013e328361c8b8  ↩2 ↩3 ↩4 ↩5 ↩6

2. Avena, N. M., Bocarsly, M. E., Rada, P., Kim, A., & Hoebel, B. G. (2008). After daily bingeing on a sucrose solution, food deprivation induces anxiety and accumbens dopamine/acetylcholine imbalance. Physiology & Behavior, 94(3), 309–315. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.physbeh.2008.01.008  ↩2 ↩3 ↩4 ↩5 ↩6 ↩7

3. Rada, P., Avena, N. M., & Hoebel, B. G. (2005). Daily bingeing on sugar repeatedly releases dopamine in the accumbens shell. Neuroscience, 134(3), 737–744. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neuroscience.2005.04.043  ↩2

4. Morgan, C., Sáez-Briones, P., Barra, R., Reyes, A., Zepeda-Morales, K., Constandil, L., … & Hernández, A. (2022). Prefrontal Cortical Control of Activity in Nucleus Accumbens Core Is Weakened by High-Fat Diet and Prevented by Co-Treatment with N-Acetylcysteine: Implications for the Development of Obesity. International Journal of Molecular Sciences, 23(17), 10089. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijms231710089  ↩2 ↩3

5. Witek, K., Wydra, K., & Filip, M. (2022). A High-Sugar Diet Consumption, Metabolism and Health Impacts with a Focus on the Development of Substance Use Disorder: A Narrative Review. Nutrients, 14(14), 2940. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu14142940  ↩2

6. Lustig, R. H. (2013). Fructose: it’s “alcohol without the buzz”. Advances in Nutrition, 4(2), 226–235. https://doi.org/10.3945/an.112.002998 

7. Benton, D. (2010). The plausibility of sugar addiction and its role in obesity and eating disorders. Clinical Nutrition, 29(3), 288–303. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.clnu.2009.12.001 

8. Santana, I. P., Scapin, T., Rodrigues, V. M., Bernardo, G. L., Uggioni, P. L., & Proença, R. P. D. C. (2022). University Students’ Knowledge and Perceptions About Concepts, Recommendations, and Health Effects of Added Sugars. Frontiers in Nutrition, 9(896895). https://doi.org/10.3389/fnut.2022.896895  ↩2

9. Westwater, M. L., Fletcher, P. C., & Ziauddeen, H. (2016). Sugar addiction: the state of the science. European Journal of Nutrition, 55(Suppl 2), 55–69. https://doi.org/10.1007/s00394-016-1229-6 ↩

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