Non-diet nutrition

Is sugar addiction even real?

You probably know someone, or even are someone, who feels totally and completely addicted to sugar. But is sugar addiction a real thing, according to science?

The Flourish team

You probably know someone, or even are someone, who feels totally and completely addicted to sugar. From the after-dinner sweet tooth to a constant craving for sugary snacks, this phenomenon isn't uncommon. It’s actually so common that it has a name: sugar addiction. But is sugar addiction a real thing (like, according to science), or is this sensation caused by something else entirely?

The OG sugar addiction study

Back in 2007, food addiction was floated in the scientific community as a possible explanation for rising “obesity” rates across the US and the rest of the world. They thought that easy access to unhealthy food led to consumer addiction, and sugar was one of the substances often cited to explain this data—after all, it does light up the same parts of our brains as opioids.

At Princeton, Bart Hoebel, Nicole Avena, and Pedro Rada conducted a study to quantify sugar’s addictive qualities. They wanted to see how sugar affected rats in four different aspects of addiction: binge-eating, withdrawal, craving, and cross-sensationalism. All of those behaviors are commonly found in users of addictive drugs.

The researchers prevented one group of rats from having access to sugar for a long period of time, and found that when sugar was allowed again, the rats binged on it. That’s the piece most people latch on to, but it wasn’t the whole study. Another group of rats were given normal access to sugar and weren't found to exhibit any binge-eating behaviors.

In the end, the researchers decided that it was possible sugar was an addictive substance, not only in rats, but in humans.

This is the study people reference when they talk about sugar addiction. The media widely reported the findings as proof that sugar addiction is real, even though the researchers actual conclusion was simply, “under certain circumstances, rats can become sugar dependent.” That’s far from a ringing endorsement of the idea.

Your brain on sugar

It’s hard to avoid the prevalence of this claim online. You’ve probably seen article after article about how a donut releases dopamine and lights up the “pleasure centers” of your brain, just like cocaine does. All of this comes from the results of that Princeton study.

And it’s hard not to believe it to a certain degree. You’ve experienced a sugar rush and the crash that comes after it. That could be like a high and withdrawal, right? Then there’s all that brain scan evidence where they show that brains on drugs and brains on sugar look pretty similar.

You know what else affects those areas of our brains? Spending time with someone you love, listening to music, hearing a joke, or going for a run. So while those areas of the brain are definitely stimulated when on drugs, not everything that lights them up is addictive.

Other sugar addiction research

For a while, people seemed comfortable with accepting the conclusions of the Princeton study. Like, to this day, only a few studies have been done on it, despite the popularity of sugar addiction in pop culture.

Other studies looked into sugar addiction in a similar manner as the Princeton study. Nicole Avena and Pedro Rada went on to do another study and review of the scientific literature with David Wiss at UCLA years later. This one concluded that food, and sugar specifically, addiction does exist, but it doesn’t show up like someone using addictive drugs. It’s more like a caffeine or nicotine addiction. They also included the caveat that a lot of research can’t account for societal factors like social eating cues.

There’s also plenty of researchers who don’t buy into sugar addiction. Margaret Westwater, Paul Fletcher, and Hisham Ziauddeen reviewed the Princeton study and concluded that there isn’t evidence of sugar addiction in the study—the binge-eating and withdrawal symptoms only happened when the rats were given intermittent access to sugar. That probably means the results were due to “sweet tasting or highly palatable foods, not the neurochemical effects of sugar.”

One review of the research by David Benton concluded that there isn’t a strong enough correlation between rats and humans to claim that sugar addiction in rats could even tell us if humans could be addicted to sugar.

So what’s the truth about sugar addiction?

Honestly, there isn't enough conclusive scientific evidence to say that sugar addiction does or doesn’t exist. There haven’t been any studies done on humans that control for dieting or deprivation, a key component in understanding the impact sugar has on the brain. And, while a lot of sugar addiction research was created to address worldwide “obesity” rates, the rates of the self-reported feeling of being addicted to sugar have also increased with the widespread restriction of carbs.

But that doesn’t mean that feeling like you’re addicted to or out of control around sugar is wrong. You aren't alone in that. This sensation is likely—at least partially—driven by something deeper you’re dealing with.

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