Maybe you have heard that sugar is as addictive as cocaine. Well, don’t sign up for rehab just yet! In this post, we will explore what the research says about the power of sugar and what we can do to reverse it—so we have the power over sugar.
Sugar Vs. Cocaine
In a recent documentary about the American diet (titled Fed Up), a featured doctor claims that food addiction is not a myth, but instead is very real. He says “studies show that your brain lights up with sugar just like it does with cocaine or heroin.” He then goes on to say that sugar is 8 times more addictive than cocaine. You can watch this excerpt from the film.
This doctor makes it seem like regularly consuming sugar is as bad or worse than being a cocaine addict.
But first, let’s look at some major differences between sugar and cocaine:
|Legal substance||Illegal substance|
|Required for human survival||Not required for human survival|
|Most everyone has tasted||Many people have not tried (which is good!)|
|Very accessible and inexpensive||Difficult to access and expensive (since it’s illegal)|
This clip is discussing pure sugar. Pure sugar, such as: granulated sugar, brown sugar, maple syrup, honey, corn syrup, dextrose, etc. are simple sugars, and they are NOT required for human survival. But what these sugars break down into—glucose—is required for our survival.
Our bodies derive energy from glucose. Glucose is the simplest form of sugar and the one we use to fuel our bodies. All foods we eat, even the ones that don’t taste sweet, turn into glucose in our bodies at some point. Oatmeal, broccoli, salmon, chicken, black beans—all eventually break down into glucose. However, these foods take much longer to turn into glucose than simple sugars.
Sugar in Our Body
Sweet foods and drinks that are high in simple sugar are digested more easily in our bodies. Therefore, these foods increase our blood glucose rapidly; making blood glucose levels very high.
Whenever glucose rises to a certain level in the blood, our bodies (or more specifically, our pancreases) release a hormone called insulin. Insulin removes a lot of this glucose from our blood and provides it to the cells of our body that need the energy from glucose. Insulin’s removal of glucose leaves our blood with a much lower level of glucose—all within only an hour’s time. When we eat foods high in simple sugars, our bodies go from a very high glucose level to a low glucose level, and this quick switch can surprise our bodies.
However, when we eat balanced meals and snacks that aren’t too high in simple sugars, the switch from high to low glucose is not as abrupt. In this case, the blood doesn’t become as high in glucose as quickly, so it is easier for insulin to provide our cells with glucose more steadily. Our bodies prefer this more consistent supply of glucose.
We feel better if our blood glucose level is more like this:
When our blood glucose level plunges abruptly (as in the second line), our bodies tend to crave more sugar to get those glucose levels back to where they just were. This is why sugar is described as addictive. Our bodies are more stable and experience fewer sugar cravings when our blood glucose levels look like the first line.
As mentioned, a great way to get our blood glucose levels to look like the first line is simply to eat fewer concentrated sweet foods (soda, candy, cookies, ice cream) and eat more balanced meals and snacks. Balanced meals contain a variety of food groups and provide much more than just sugar. The digestion of these meals is more complex, so the blood glucose doesn’t rise as quickly. For example, eating a sandwich with turkey breast, lettuce, and tomato on whole grain bread creates a flatter, more desirable line because of the mixture of foods (protein, starch, and vegetables) and lack of simple sugars.
Here are some tips for maintaining more stable blood glucose levels:
- Eat fiber-rich foods
- Vegetables, fruits, grains, and legumes
- Eat consistent meals and snacks
- Breakfast, lunch, dinner, and 2-3 snacks in between
- Include some protein at each meal and snack
- Nut butter, seeds, fish, chicken, Greek yogurt, cheese, eggs
So can I ever have ice cream again?
Yes! Following these tips doesn’t mean that you have to abstain from sugar. Completely cutting sweets and sugar out of our diets is a very difficult thing to do. We’ve all had sugar before and know it tastes great and brings us pleasure. And sweet foods are everywhere: at the work potluck, our friend’s birthday, holiday parties. Having something sweet every once in a while, or even a little every day, is just fine.
Contrary to the featured doctor’s claims, the research on so-called “sugar addiction” is not at all conclusive. A 2009 research article from the Journal of Addictive Medicine does indeed state that, “repeated, excessive sugar intake can lead to changes in brain and behavior that are remarkably similar to the effects of drugs of abuse.” However, much of the research that shows that sugar can be addictive is from studies using rats, not humans. This study included. Humans are much more complex than rats, so for us, many additional factors play a part other than how the brain lights up.
By considering the typical model of substance addition, a 2009 Journal of Clinical Nutrition literature review found no evidence from human studies linking sugar to physical addiction.
- Addiction would mean that abstaining from a substance creates an increase in craving. But with sugar, abstaining leads to a decline in craving rather than an increase.
- Substance addiction develops when the consumption of the substance is limited. However with food, avoiding or reducing consumption is not associated with cravings.
- Addictions involve a need for the active chemical content of a drug. But with food, humans respond to and crave the taste and texture of foods more than the chemical content.
Most sugar-consuming humans are not trying to get potent C6H12O6 (glucose) in any form they can get their hands on. Instead of snorting sugar or injecting it into our blood, humans prefer to get sugar from foods and drinks that provide other desirable flavors and textures. Cakes, cookies, ice cream, and even sodas are much more than just straight glucose. With addictive drugs, other “ingredients” are usually looked down upon since they decrease the strength of the active chemical. This is not true with food. The other ingredients in sweet foods and drinks are often just as or more important than the sugar component.
In addition, a 2014 article from the Journal of Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews suggests calling food cravings “eating addictions” rather than “food addictions.” Because with food, the “addiction” is more related to the overall behavior of eating rather than simply the food itself.
Even though there is some research that shows that sugar may be physiologically addictive, many other human factors play a part in keeping us from having to be worried about becoming true sugar addicts.
Good to hear, but I still feel like I’m constantly craving sugar!
It’s best to avoid having large amounts of sugar very frequently. For example, having a doughnut, soda, or Frappuccino every day greatly increases our blood glucose on a daily basis, which makes us accustomed to consuming large amounts of sugar. It’s at this point that we start to experience cravings towards sugar.
But cutting back on this sugar can help these cravings. We can retrain our palates to crave less sugar, simply by having less of it.
Distinct from cocaine, sugar is pretty easy to give up. As previously stated, it goes against the typical addiction model, so abstaining from sugar creates a decrease, rather than an increase, in craving.
Maybe you put 4 packets of sugar in your coffee. If you try, you may be able to get it down to 3 packets of sugar. Try to stick to this for a few weeks. Then, maybe challenge yourself again to reduce the packets to 2. Try this for a few more weeks. Eventually, try putting only 1 packet in your coffee. By this point of this slow transition, you may realize that you no longer crave all 4 packets of sugar. In fact, it’s likely that if you put in all 4 packets after weaning yourself down to 1 packet, you would not even enjoy all that sugar anymore. You may find it too sweet for your liking.
Also, by the time you’re down to 1 packet, your body won’t be accustomed to such high blood glucose levels anymore. So, simply by consuming less sugar, you’ll crave less sugar throughout the day, and notice fewer cravings!
So I don’t have a sugar addiction?
Though sugar and cocaine may create some similar brain patterns when consumed, they do not create synonymous addictive tendencies. You do not need to go to rehab because you crave sugar. While complete abstinence is necessary to be cured of a drug or alcohol addiction, complete abstinence is never necessary for sugar. A sugar detox would likely decrease calorie intake and would help with weight loss, but detoxing is not necessary. And for most of us, completely eliminating sugar from our lives is very unrealistic. If you feel like you are “addicted” to sugar, don’t fret! Slowly reducing the amount of sugar in your diet can greatly lessen these cravings over time.
- Benton D. The plausibility of sugar addiction and its role in obesity and eating disorders. Clin Nutr 2010;29: 288-303.
- Hebebrand J, Albayrak O, Adan R et al. “Eating addition”, rather than “food addiction”, better captures addictive-like eating behavior. J Neu Bio Rev 2014;47:295-306.
- Hoebel BG, Avena NM, Bocarsly ME, & Rada P. A behavioral and circuit model based on sugar addiction in rats. J Addict Med 2009;3: 33-41.