Let’s face it: sugary foods are delicious. And as a society, we do eat too much of them. But is sugar really addictive?
I’m wading into the fray and taking a look at the science – or not – of sugar addiction.
The entire ‘sugar is as addictive as cocaine’ narrative ramped up in 2017 after an article in the BMJ about the evils of sugar and how some rodent studies ‘proved’ its addictive properties. Since then, a lot of people are talking about sugar addiction as though it’s a proven fact.
Is Sugar Addiction Real?
One of the BMJ article’s authors and head honcho of the ‘sugar is addictive’ proponents, James DiNicolantino, is known to be a radical low carb high fat advocate and in general, a crazy person who posts stuff like the following recent tweets:
It’s really sad when we can’t trust medical professionals to give us credible, unbiased information, but here we are. He also calls himself ‘doctor,’ but don’t be fooled: he’s a doctor of pharmacy, not a medical doctor.
And then there’s this:
Oh hello, co-authoring a keto book with the king of charlatan BS, Dr. Mercola.
Way to ‘boost’ your ‘credibility.’
But DiNicolantino isn’t the only person to claim that sugar is addictive. Let’s take a closer look at the studies he and others commonly use to back up their assertions.
How Addictive is Sugar Compared to Other Drugs?
The first study was done in 2007 and published on PLoS One. In this study, rats were given a choice of saccharine solution and cocaine. The rats chose the saccharine 94% of the time, even when the dose of cocaine was escalated (presumably to provide more of an incentive to that rats).
Both cocaine and saccharine caused a dopamine release in the rats’ brains. Dopamine makes us feel good, and is secreted in response to many things – including eating a food we like, being praised for doing something, having sex, being in love, and even meditation. The dopamine release that the rats got from the sweetened choice presumably led them to press the level for more, even over cocaine.
The researchers concluded from this result that rats have a preference for sweetness that surpasses cocaine.
But wait! Can we extrapolate that hypothesis from this data?
Nope. What we can extrapolate is that rats prefer sweet over the taste of cocaine, which tastes horrible.
In fact, researchers apparently chose certain rats with natural preferences for sweets, for this study.
Another study that’s often used to validate the sugar-addiction link involved researchers restricting food from rats, then giving them access to sugar, then starving them for 36 hours.
The researchers noted that when the rats had access to sugar, they overindulged in it. When they were restricted from the sugar for 36 hours, the rats showed ‘anxious’ behavior, which the researchers noted was consistent with the anxiety of drug withdrawal.
Or maybe the rats were anxious because the food source was removed??
Interestingly, when rats are allowed to access sugar whenever they want, the binging and anxiety seen in this study don’t occur.
Rat Intuitive Eating!
How about over time?
In a 2015 interview, Di Nicotantino said, “”You get this intense release of dopamine upon acute ingestion of sugar. After you chronically consume it, those dopamine receptors start becoming down-regulated — there’s less of them, and they’re less responsive,” he said. “That can lead to ADHD-like symptoms … but it can also lead to a mild state of depression because we know that dopamine is that reward neurotransmitter.”
Is what DiNicotantino saying true? If we eat enough sugar over time, do we essentially become more tolerant to it, leading to ADHD-like symptoms and depression because our dopamine receptors develop too high of a tolerance?
This is a fairly accurate portrayal of how drugs like heroin and cocaine hijack the brain by causing a ‘mix-up’ of sorts between ‘want’ and ‘need.’ Drugs flood the brain with so much dopamine, so quickly, that the brain gets overwhelmed. It then reduces the dopamine receptors and/or produces less dopamine as a result, in order to control the surge, according to this Harvard Mental Health Letter. But does this actually happen with sugar, too?
There is no evidence that that’s the case, in humans or rodents. At least, not the way he makes it seem. But then again, twisted evidence makes for a more compelling scare-tactic, right? And in DiNicolantio’s case, it fits his narrative.
The Research Behind Sugar Withdrawals
People have argued with me online about evidence of ‘withdrawal’ symptoms from sugar as an indication that it is truly addictive. Here’s the 2012 study they cite, funny enough by the same authors as the similar one above with restriction and refeeding of food. This time, researchers noted that the rats had symptoms of opiate withdrawal when glucose was withheld. They then injected rats with naloxone, a drug that blocks the effects of opioids, while the rats ate the sugar. Again, the rats had symptoms of withdrawal.
Does this prove that sugar is addictive? Not really.
We rarely eat sugar in isolation, or within the constraints seen in the controlled experiments above. Nobody is starving us in a cage and then feeding us a 25% sugar solution then starving us again, then injecting us with Naloxone. Also, we aren’t rodents. We have environmental, physical, and emotional conditions that rats don’t. All of these things can impact the extrapolation of study results to us, and in fact, the same results haven’t been replicated in humans.
So while some people may feel as though they’re addicted to sugar, it may not be a true addiction.
Sugar is Not Addictive
The DSM-5 Diagnostic and Statistical Manual), characterizes addiction by several things: withdrawl symptoms; tolerance; risky use, meaning use despite negative outcomes/damage to physical and mental health; impaired control; social problems.
If sugar was addictive, people would be going straight for the corn syrup right out of the bottle. But they’re not,
And to automatically assume that sugar is addictive because we eat too much of it, neglects the fact that our food choices are a lot more complex than that.
People eat for a lot of different reasons, and definitely, some people have a higher preference for sweets than others. So if you’re one of those people. you might be more susceptible to overeat sweets. And for whatever reason – be it preference, impulsivity control issues, emotions, or accessibility, overeating sweets all the time may feel as though it’s an addiction. I hear you: it really can. In some ways, it doesn’t even matter all that much if sugar and overeating in general qualify as ‘addictions.’ If you feel that you’re addicted, then those feelings and those behaviours are very real to you.
When somebody tells me that they’re ‘addicted to sugar’ or to any food, I understand that they’re verbalizing their true feelings about their experience. I respect that, and instead of lecturing them about sugar addiction’s dubious existence, I help them figure out what’s behind those feelings and choices.
The thing I object to is what DiNicolantino and others are doing: making the concept of ‘sugar addiction’ into a thing to further their agenda. Using fear and a false narrative to push people to change their behaviour. The studies they refer to in attempts to prove sugar’s addictive qualities are more than flawed, they’re embarrassing.
This 2016 article published in the European Journal of Nutrition sums up the state of the science on sugar and addiction right now:
“Given the multitude of interacting factors that increase one’s risk for eating disorders and obesity, we argue that support of sugar addiction as a primary causal mechanism of weight gain represents an extremely narrow view that fails to capture the complexity of these conditions, and one that may hamper more coordinated and appropriate responses. Furthermore, while there is a pressing need to address these important concerns, we argue that it is dangerous to draw strong conclusions about the validity of sugar addiction based on the current evidence.”