Since watching that episode, I’ve had a chance to look into the research on whether sugar addiction is real. Big thanks to dietitians like Marci Evans, who has dug deep into the research and made it accessible for more people. I’ve also had many, many years working with people who feel like those audience members, like they are completely controlled by sugar and their cravings for it. If you feel the same, or what you’ve heard about sugar addiction makes eating sweets feel scary, I hope this article is helpful for you.

Is Sugar Addiction Real?

What proponents of sugar addiction say:

Proponents of a sugar/food addiction model point to a few different similarities between how food and drugs act in the brain. Both food and drugs ignite similar neural pathways, specifically reward and pleasure pathways. Research has shown that eating food, in particular energy-dense foods that are high in added sugar and/or fats, triggers a release of dopamine, serotonin and opioids. We have also seen that anticipation of eating also lights up the same brain pathways that are ignited when people with drug addiction engage in drug-seeking behavior.

These are all very real neurobiological effects of eating food, effects that seem to be stronger with foods that are higher in energy, sugar and fats in particular. So that would make a pretty strong case for food addiction, right? Not so fast. Let’s take a look at some problems with the research.

Many things trigger the addiction neural pathway.

To simplify the addiction neural pathway, using drugs releases a flood of feel good chemicals, especially dopamine, which triggers the part of the brain that’s responsible for reward. Overtime, the brain builds a resistance to drugs, requiring greater and greater amounts to trigger a similar release.

Food also follows a similar pleasure and reward neural pathway in the brain. This fact is undeniable. But the thing is that food, especially sugar, is supposed to be pleasurable. Tasting something sweet was a sign to early humans that whatever random plant they had picked contained valuable energy and not bitter poison. If we didn’t experience this neural response to food, early humans very well may have starved.

Many other activities trigger the addiction pathways in the brain, especially activities that relate to how early humans survived. There’s obvious things like sex, but also activities like listening to music, exercising, holding hands, snuggling with a pet, playing games, and talking with other people. I even remember seeing a study that showed happily married people still experienced a flood of dopamine and serotonin when they were shown pictures of their ex – I read it with food addiction in mind and thought, “well, I am definitely not addicted to any of my ex-boyfriends!”

Most of the sugar addiction studies are conducted on rats

The vast, vast majority of research cited supporting sugar addiction, including the studies behind the headlines claiming sugar is more addictive than heroin, have been conducted on rats. To state the obvious, we are humans, not rats. Both physically and psychologically, we are different species. It’s practically a trope that rats are obsessed with food. Remember Templeton from Charlotte’s Web? Ratatouille? While animal studies may provide some interesting avenues for research and shouldn’t be dismissed outright, using rats to create a new diagnosis and then promote abstinence-focused treatments that do more harm than good is not it.

One thing that’s interesting about these animal studies is that they might actually provide evidence against sugar addiction. It is true that when rats ate sugar the addiction neural pathways lit up as strong as they do for drugs like heroin. However, this only happened when rats were deprived or sugar or adequate food. When rats were given free access to sugar, they did not display addiction-like behavior. Essentially, restriction fueled the addictive-like behaviors. This actually supports a non-diet, intuitive eating aligned approach to sugar. With full permission to eat sweets, people eat sweets in a pretty competent way.

Sugar addiction studies have also been conducted on humans, but these results have been much more mixed. Because these studies mostly do not control for caloric restriction, eating disorders or disordered eating, and use a screening tool (The Yale Food Addiction Scale) that is flawed to say the least (it’s the research equivalent of a Cosmo quiz), the studies that seemingly show support of food addition are problematic.

Research has been unable to identify any addictive substance in food.

Researchers have been unable to agree on what the addictive substance in food is. Is it sugar by itself? Sugar in combination with fat? Protein foods that are high in fat? Carbohydrates? Carbohydrates plus fat? Different people claim to be addicted to different things. Some people struggle with sweets, others with savory snack foods like chips or crackers, and still others struggle with higher fat foods, like cheese and nut butters.

In all drugs, there is a clearly identifiable chemical compound responsible for the addictive properties – think nicotine in cigarettes. This chemical compound has the same effect in the body, no matter what form it comes in, although there is a dose dependent effect.

All foods contain carbohydrate, fat, and/or protein in varying amounts or combinations. As I discussed in my recent post on macronutrients, they break down into glucose, fatty acids and amino acids. No matter what food is ingested, whether it’s a slice of cake or oatmeal with peanut butter or broccoli with cheddar cheese or a steak burrito, the body simply recognizes the influx of glucose, fatty acids and amino acids. Food doesn’t enter the bloodsteam, where any theoretical addictive effects would occur, until after it’s broken down into these chemical components. Depending on the type, amount and combination of food eaten, the body will receive glucose, fatty acids and amino acids in varying amounts and speeds, but the body isn’t able to distinguish where the glucose, fatty acids and amino acids are coming from.

If glucose, or glucose + fatty acid, or fatty acid + amino acid or whatever were an addictive combination, you would see addictive behaviors with all foods, not just foods we think of as “bad.” I would argue that how we think about foods plays a much greater role in eating behaviors than the chemistry of the food itself. A perfect example of this was a client of mine who frequently binged on entire jars of peanut butter, yet was able to keep almond butter in the house and eat it competently. Nutritionally, peanut and almond butter are pretty much the same, yet because she thought of peanut butter as being “bad” or “unhealthy,” and almond butter had been branded as a “good” food in her mind, that’s what she binged on.

Also, if sugar addiction specifically was a thing, you would see people binging on sugar in the purest forms they can get – table sugar or sodas. While certainly I am sure there are people who have included these foods as part of binges, it’s not nearly as common as binging on “forbidden foods” thought of as unhealthy, or “healthy” substitutes for the foods someone actually wants.

Binge eating decreases when given access to binge foods

One point that I’ve learned from aforementioned food addiction research guru Marci Evans, is that the Yale Food Addiction Scale is extremely effective at identifying binge eating disorder and bulimia. Anyone who works with eating disorders and disordered eating can review the questionnaire and immediately see how the questions would connect with someone who has disordered eating – a much more plausible explanation for addiction-like behaviors with food than food addiction itself.

Thankfully, we’ve got a ton of great research on ways to help people heal from disordered eating and eating disorders. One of the most common, and effective ways of treating eating disorders is through frequent exposure to trigger foods, which helps reduce the emotional response around them, and teaches skills for competently enjoying these foods. It’s well established that exposure to trigger food reduces binge eating behaviors. If sugar addiction was real phenomenon, that wouldn’t be the case. Can you imagine a rehab facility providing regular doses of alcohol or drugs as part of their treatment protocol? Probably not!

But I feel like I am addicted to sugar…

If you’re someone who resonates with the feeling of being addicted to sugar, I really want to validate that. I think it’s important that while we acknowledge the problems with the science behind sugar addiction, we also acknowledge that the feeling of being addicted to sugar is very real.

I think it’s also important to point out that for many people, labelling sugar as addictive can reduce some of the shame they feel over eating behaviors. Binge eating is often seen as a lack of willpower, so when someone can’t stop eating sweets, it feels like a personal failure. The addict label takes the blame and responsibility and puts it on the food and it’s “addictive” properties. But the truth is, neither of these explanations are accurate. It’s neither lack of willpower or addiction causing these behaviors with food – it’s the restrict-binge cycle, fueled by the shame of diet culture.

This post has already gone on pretty long, so I’ll keep this brief, but essentially restricting foods physically (by not eating them) or emotionally (by labeling it as bad/unhealthy) creates hunger and deprivation, triggering a primal drive to eat. This is especially powerful for anyone who has experienced the trauma of starvation, which may have come in the form of a diagnosed eating disorder. For others, especially those in larger bodies who are less likely to have their eating disorder diagnosed, it may be from what they recognize as a chronic dieting history. Trauma of starvation may sound hyperbolic, but when the brain has experienced inadequate food, it doesn’t know the difference between that and starvation, and it leaves a very real imprint.

At the end of the day, I’m not going to argue with anyone who feels food addiction is something that fits with their experience. While I have plenty of issues with the science supporting sugar addiction, it can’t account for every single persons lived experience, and certainly with all the humans in the world, I’m not going to rule out that there may be some people out there who are legitimately addicted to sugar.

However, when we make sugar addiction “a thing,” it immediately points to abstinence as the treatment. Even if you want to abstain from eating sugar or other supposedly addictive foods, it isn’t like drugs or alcohol. I don’t know that it is actually possible to abstain from eating sugar for the rest of your life – nor is it something I think most people want to do, even if they connect with the idea of sugar addiction.

You may feel out of control, but I promise there is a way to learn how to interact with sweets and other trigger foods and feel like you are in the drivers seat. Nutritionist Isabel Foxen Duke has said “you can’t be out of control around something you’re not trying to control,” and I really love that approach to sweets. When we label foods as addictive, and avoid or restrict it, we give that food the power. The food controls you. With permission and choice, you’re back in the drivers seat.

Of course, that’s much easier said than done! When we work with clients who are struggling with binge eating or feel like they are addicted to food, we set them up with the skills and tools to reintroduce sweets and other trigger foods in a way that builds confidence. If you feel like you would benefit from support from a non-diet dietitian as you make peace with food, please reach out! We work with clients in person in Columbia, SC, and virtually throughout the US and abroad.

This post on sugar addiction was originally posted September 2016. It has been updated to give you the best possible content.


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