Is Sugar Addictive?

I’ve heard it time and time again as a dietitian – “I’m just addicted to sugar!”  Have you ever caught yourself thinking that your sweet tooth or chocolate craving is something more?  I think it’s about time for me to explain my stance on sugar addiction – what I know and how I think about this big debate.

The main question is…is sugar really addictive?  In short, no.  It would be hard to classify any food as addictive because food is not isolated into a single ingredient or component.  I would assume that (hopefully) you aren’t spooning sugar straight from the bag to your mouth.  Since pure sugar itself is not typically eaten, it’s a tough sell to say it’s an addictive substance because there are so many other ingredients in ice cream, cake, candy, etc.(1)

box of three donuts from voodoo donuts in austin texas

What IS true is that some foods are more palatable and more rewarding than others.  We, as humans, are wired to enjoy and seek out high sugar and high fat foods.  This natural biology allowed us to find food that would help us survive as a species while we evolved.  Now, it makes sense that it’s easy to love chocolate cake! (1)  

The Yale Food Addiction Scale is often used as a reference in talking about addictive foods, but this questionnaire really asks about behaviors rather than specific foods themselves.  The questions ask participants to answer while thinking about their behaviors related to any highly palatable food.  As mentioned above, of course we crave highly palatable foods! So when arguments for sugar addiction reference this scale, it’s really not applicable since not all respondents were referring to sugar when answering about their behavior.

girl eating fried donut biscuit at restaurant

The other thing that really irks me is comparing sugar to a drug.  Sugar and cocaine are often used together in click bait headlines but this is just not a fair comparison!  Drugs are chemical substances that affect the brain in a way that alters your mental state.  You won’t get a DUI for driving to the mall after eating a donut!  Sugar does not create an abnormal state in your body.  Yes, sugar is appealing and some studies show that the craving for sugar can be as intense as a drug craving, but there is not enough evidence to say whether this is a legitimate comparison. (2) Desirable does not mean brain changing and harmful…sugar is not cocaine.

In my opinion, one of the most interesting and commonly ignored pieces of this puzzle is restriction.  Many studies that seem to support sugar addiction not control for restriction!(3)  The rats in these studies go crazy for sugar when they don’t have free access to it.  THIS MAKES SENSE!  Humans often crave or overeat foods that are restricted (how many of you were, or know someone who was, the kid with the super healthy household who would go NUTS at a friends house on their snack cabinet?).  This is expected behavior due to the restrict binge cycle, and avoiding sugar even more is not the answer.

puppy jumping up towards dog cupcake
even the pups like sweets!

I notice that many people feel addicted to sugar due to imbalance in their overall diet. Sweets give you quick energy, and then a quick blood sugar drop if they are not paired with fat or protein to help satiate you. When you’re in a cycle of eating a lot of quickly burned foods, you will naturally have to keep going back for more because your body used that energy and needs more! What’s helpful is adding in variety. Yes, enjoy the sweets, AND make sure to also include proteins, fiber, and nutrient dense options to cover your bases and keep you full.

Do you struggle with your relationship to sweets?  Reach out to me for help in overcoming this!