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Sugar addiction: As bad as Hard Drugs

Sugar addiction is a complicated concept. Biological, psychological, behavioral, nutritional and social factors can all play a role, affecting both brain and body. The sugar-drug addiction similarity is also related to the neuro-biology of relapse, including persistent drug-seeking, increased motivation to obtain the drug, and reverting to bad habits under other lifestyle stressors or exposure to food cues in ads, shopping and social events.

Consumption of sugar causes in a release of substances like opioids and dopamine in our bodies. This is what relates sugar consumption to sugar addiction.

Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that is a crucial part of the “reward circuit”, often associated with addictive behaviour. When a certain behaviour causes an excessive release of dopamine, you feel that you are inclined to re-experience a pleasurable “high,” and so repeat the behaviour.

When you continually replicate the action the brain learns to produce less dopamine. The only way to experience the same “high” as before is to repeat at increasing quantities and frequency the conduct. This is called substance misuse.

Cassie Bjork, RD, LD, founder of Healthy Simple Life, states that sugar can be even more addicting than cocaine.

“Sugar activates the opiate receptors in our brain and affects the reward centre, which leads to compulsive behaviour, despite the negative consequences like weight gain, headaches, hormone imbalances, and more.”

Bjork adds, “Every time we eat sweets, we are reinforcing those neuropathways, causing the brain to become increasingly hardwired to crave sugar, building up a tolerance like any other drug.”

Research-Based Evidences

A 2008 study by Princeton found that rats have become sugar-dependent and this dependency could be linked to many forms of addiction: cravings, binging, and withdrawal.

Researchers in France agree that the causal link between sugar and illegal drugs doesn’t just make for dramatic headlines. Not only is there truth to it, but also they determined the rewards experienced by the brain after consuming sugar are even “more rewarding and attractive” than the effects of cocaine.

Greene says, “Medical addiction changes brain chemistry to cause binging, craving, withdrawal symptoms, and sensitization.”

Sugar is therefore much more abundant, accessible, and socially acceptable than amphetamines or alcohol, and thus more difficult to avoid.

Yet if sugar is more addictive than cocaine, scientists and nutritionists believe that sugar has addictive properties and we need to get less of it.

“The drug analogy is always a tough one because, unlike drugs, food is necessary for survival,” says Andy Bellatti [MS, RD], strategic director at Dietitians for Professional Integrity.

Evidence suggests that sugar can activate the reward processing center of the brain in a way that mimics what we do with other recreational drugs. It may manifest as an addiction to sugary foods in certain persons with certain predispositions.

What is added sugar?

Since 1989, the World Health Organization (WHO) has been urging people to limit their sugar consumption to less than 1/10th of their daily calorie consumption. They say that doing so will reduce the risk of being obese or overweight, or experiencing loss of the tooth.

“Natural or Free sugars” include all sugars that are naturally present in honey and fruit juice, and added sugar to food and beverages. Added sugars on food labels contain terms like glucose, corn syrup, brown sugar, dextrose, maltose, and sucrose, as well as many more.

In 2015, the WHO further suggested reducing the daily sugar consumption, to less than 5 per cent of daily consumed calories, about 6 teaspoons.

Common sources can be soft drinks, fruit juices, tea/coffee, sweets, and snacks. These don’t just include the obvious, like brownies, cookies, doughnuts, and ice cream. You can also find large quantities of added sugar in bread, salad dressings, granola bars, and even fat-free yoghurt.

In fact, one survey found that high-calorie sweeteners are in over 95 per cent of granola bars, cereals, and sugar-sweetened beverages, most often in the form of corn syrup, sorghum, and cane sugar.

To help consumers, the Food and Drug Administration has developed a new food label that lists added sugars separately, which manufacturers are required to use (though some smaller manufacturers have until 2021 to comply).

Alcohol and tobacco have long been accepted as harmful substances, as have illicit drugs like cocaine and heroin. Now, for the first time in human history, we are approaching a consensus on adding sugar to this list of dangerous, addictive drugs.

Caffeine, though safer, also is a drug used by millions daily. And many people use over-the-counter and prescription drugs without a thought about their potentially dangerous side-effects.

Which is also the case with sugar, it can be just as dangerous and addicting as any other drug.

Substance use disorders involve impaired control of consumption such as strong social use, continued abuse despite harm, and pharmacological actions associated with tolerance and withdrawal.


Sugar addiction is a complicated concept. Biological, psychological, behavioral, nutritional and social factors can all play a role, affecting both brain and body. While there is not yet an official definition or diagnosis of sugar addiction, its immediate and potent effects can act like a drug as defined by the DMS. Side effects include significant metabolic health impairment. And we all know how difficult it is to avoid it.

Moreover, sugar is defined here as sweets, sugar-containing food and beverages, processed carbohydrates such as flour, and other foods that quickly convert to sugar after eating.

While food addiction has been described and researched for many years, sugar may be the most addictive ingredient in foods. Like drug dependence, sugar disrupts the brain areas of pleasure and self-control. This complex dopamine reward system includes endorphins, endocannabinoids, oxytocin, and opioid-like chemicals playing a key role in the addiction process. This system is activated every time sugar is consumed, making the amount needed for abuse very little. Relatively small amounts of sugar can also have significant and immediate adverse metabolic effects.

Studies show that food addiction is associated with a reward deficiency, as part of the impaired dopamine system, being responsible for, among others, intense cravings and withdrawal symptoms. Carbohydrate intolerance — excess insulin production following carbohydrate intake, insulin resistance, and higher amounts of foods converted to stored fat — is one of the metabolic associations.

Scientists are still unravelling this complex biochemistry, but it’s clinically clear that sugar consumption can adversely affect the dopamine system to maintain the vicious cycle that includes, among others, increased body fat, sugar craving and impaired glucose metabolism.

Sugar also appears to have strong relationships to binge-eating and other disordered eating, including serious conditions like anorexia nervosa. In addition to impaired glucose (diabetes develops at twice the rate in former/current drug addicts) and mental dysfunction, the dopamine mechanism also has strong relationships with poor fat metabolism.

Food addiction is more prevalent in those with excess body fat, typically caused by excess sugar intake. The overfat pandemic now affects most of the world’s population, and is also a primary cause of chronic disease and physical impairment. This would make the prevalence of sugar addiction potentially massive, and it could be among our most serious global issues — regardless of whether we call sugar a drug or not.

The healthcare costs of sugar addiction, which may exceed that of all other drugs combined, is strongly connected to a weakening global economy. In forecasting sugar’s effect in the U.S., Morgan Stanley Research says by 2035, annual economic/GDP growth could decline from about 2.8 per cent (2015) to below 0.3 per cent.

Addiction Hierarchy

Since the late 1970s, my clinical research with addicted patients demonstrated what I called an addiction hierarchy — abusing certain substances leads to increased use of others. Of the various common drug-dependent substances, from alcohol and caffeine to tobacco and illicit substances, when individuals regularly consumed two or more, sugar appeared as the primary addiction. And, when treatment was directed at eliminating sugar, eventually addressing other addictions was more successful. In addition, without sugar consumption addiction itself appeared significantly reduced, and eventually eliminated.

Over time, other research demonstrated cross-sensitization, the abuse of one drug leading to abuse of another. This typically begins with sugar, leading to “soft” drugs like caffeine and cannabis, to alcohol and tobacco, and sometimes to illicit and prescription drug abuse. Along the way, sugar abuse worsens. This vicious cycle is shown below.

Research Results Backing Addiction Hierarchy

  • Opiate use increases the desire for sugar consumption.
  • Once off heroin, methadone patients develop strong desires for sweets and can increase sugar intake significantly (in one study, sugar increased to 31 percent of dietary calories).
  • Sugar-dependent rats show cross-sensitization to drugs of abuse and the other way around.
  • It promotes drug abuse behaviour — sugar-dependent rats forced to abstain intensified their intake of alcohol, so sugar seems to act as a gateway to alcohol use.
  • Abstinence of one drug increased addiction sensitivity in the brain, which can be satisfied by other drugs — in alcohol abstinence, this may include sugar, caffeine, tobacco or combinations.
  • As such, a successful reduction, control or the elimination of addiction itself may not occur while sugar maintains that addiction. Elimination may, therefore, be the most effective first step in treating any addiction.

Other relevant studies addressing the addiction include:

  • Addiction transfer to the newborn due to maternal exposure of sugar can influence neurodevelopment.
  • Maternal sugar intake can impair hormones, especially insulin, impairing fetal metabolism.

The sugar-drug addiction similarity is also related to the neuro-biology of relapse, including persistent drug-seeking, increased motivation to obtain the drug, and reverting to bad habits under other lifestyle stressors or exposure to food cues in ads, shopping and social events. For example, it’s not easy being around smokers or in a bar if you’ve recently given up cigarettes or alcohol.

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