The Truth About "Sugar Addiction"
I’ll be the first to admit that I have a pretty major sweet tooth. It doesn't matter the time of day, day of the week, or time of the month; a meal is not a meal unless it’s followed by a sweet treat. Can anyone else relate?
From what I can tell, this is pretty common. So when headlines started circulating about how “sugar is more addictive than cocaine”, it was easy to take the bait. It was believable; it made sense.
Sweets are amazing after all.
Let’s unpack this one thing at a time.
Firstly, what is sugar?
You might think of sugar as the granulated white stuff that you put in your coffee, and that certainly is sugar; specifically, table sugar or sucrose.
From a chemical and nutritional standpoint, however, sugar is an entire subset of carbohydrates that includes monosaccharides and disaccharides.
Monosaccharides are also called simple sugars and are the building blocks of carbohydrates; carbs cannot be broken down any further than monosaccharides. They include:
Glucose (found in table sugar)
Fructose (found in fruit)
Galactose (found in milk)
Disaccharides are sugar molecules that have two monosaccharides joined together:
Sucrose AKA table sugar = Glucose + Fructose
Lactose = Glucose + Galactose
Maltose = Glucose + Glucose
Contrary to what diet culture wants you to believe, sugars are not evil. They are a quick source of energy and provide fuel to your cells and brain; they add flavour to food and bring pleasure to the eating experience.
Secondly, what is addiction?
Disclaimer: I am not an expert in the field of addiction or substance abuse disorders.
Addiction is complex and it comes in many forms, but a common feature is that it involves chronic dysfunction of certain brain systems, particularly the reward-motivation pathway.
Addiction is characterized by bingeing, withdrawal, and craving
Bingeing involves consuming a greater-than-normal amount of a substance in a short window of time. It may occur due to progressive tolerance, which is the experience of needing greater and greater doses to get the same response.
Withdrawal describes the unpleasant physiological changes that occur when abstaining from a substance. It also includes mental or psychological side effects, such as anxiety and depressive symptoms.
Craving, in the context of addiction, is the heightened motivation to consume a substance, particularly after a period of abstinence.
The stages of tolerance, withdrawal, and craving are experienced by a lot of us when it comes to relatively benign things like caffeine. What sets apart addiction is that it involves continuing to engage in using a substance in a compulsive or even uncontrollable manner, despite negative consequences to health, relationships, work productivity, etc. In addiction or dependence, the intensity of this pattern also increases with repeated and continued exposure.
So, what about sugar addiction?
Studies have been done using animal models, where rats are put on a strict feeding schedule with daily periods of food restriction. After a month of exposure to this restrict-permit cycle, the rats began displaying bingeing behaviours along with signs of withdrawal and craving.
Having intermittent access to sugar seems to trigger similar neurochemical responses (most notably, dopamine) to drugs of concern, like cocaine.
At this point, it’s important for me to reiterate that this study was done in rats. If you’re curious about where animal models fit into the hierarchy of research evidence, I highly recommend checking out my post on that very topic right here.
Spoiler alert: Animal studies are low on the hierarchy.
This isn’t to say that we should dismiss these studies completely; we just need to be cautious when applying the findings to humans.
So, what’s the verdict?
Based on the definition and progression of addiction described above, casually throwing around the term ‘addiction’ when it comes to food or sugar may be problematic.
Is it possible to be addicted to food or sugar? Probably. When most of us “crave” sugar or overeat sweets in a sitting, are we displaying signs of addiction? Probably not.
Our brains are wired to enjoy sugar-rich foods (along with high-fat foods) because they provide energy. We experience pleasure when we eat these foods, so it can certainly be reinforcing.
However, we need to keep in mind that in these rat studies, they were deprived of food for periods of time before being given access to sugar. It is also not clear how much of what we see in these small mammals is really translatable to human behaviour.
Food and sugar are not usually substances of abuse, but it is possible that deprivation and subsequent access or binges may change that.
The take-away here is that for most individuals, there is no reason to fear sugar. Like anything else, enjoy your sugar-rich foods in moderation!
Stay nourished my friends,