Is sugar addictive?

Short answer: yes.

Sugar can play on the same neural systems as some commonly abused drugs, according to an article that reviewed 70 pieces of clinical literature in The Journal of Nutrition .

Binge eating is a prevalent behavior that is multifaceted.  Although we have diagnoses that define certain behaviors as eating disorders, there is a much larger population who binge that don’t fall into the clinical diagnosis criteria.  With obesity rates increasing, additional research is required to fully understand our body’s physiological and neurochemical response to food.

In laboratory animal models, rats that were offered both a sugar solution and standard rodent chow would consume more and more of their daily calories via sugar solution.

  • After 3 weeks, the rats were consuming twice the amount of their daily calories via the sugar solution.  Rats are interesting because they inherently limit their caloric intake based on their needs.  In other words, if they only need 200 calories to meet their needs, they only consume 200 calories.
  • When they consumed more and more of their calories via sugar solution, more calories were consumed in a shorter timeframe (bingeing behavior).  That led to longer times between meals and therefore a greater withdrawal period. 
  • Using brain imaging techniques during the withdrawal period, similarities between drug cravings and food cravings were observed.  Physical symptoms of withdrawal like teeth chattering, forepaw tremor, head shakes, and behavioral signs of anxiety were observed as well.

Another (potentially terrifying) observation is regarding cross sensitivity. 

  • Cross sensitivity is defined as sensitivity to one substance that predisposes an individual to sensitivity to other substances that are related in chemical structure. 
  • The animal model showed that the rat group with intermittent sugar solution access were cross-sensitized not only for amphetamine (potent central nervous system stimulant) but also with cocaine.

With all of the fat-hating labeling on our foodstuffs, it would be wise to research the flavor-enhancing alternative: sugar.  In terms of addictive quality, fat is definitely the lesser of the two evils.


Tony Scartozzi

Author: Tony Scartozzi

Tony Scartozzi was born and raised in a small town in Eastern Washington. After moving to Seattle in 2001, he attended Bastyr University and graduated with a degree in Nutrition. Driven by his passion for public health, his career has spanned the nonprofit sector, senior housing resources, food service training, and now works for a nutraceutical company that produces market-leading plant extracts used for supplemental health. Observing the severe disparity between advertisement spin and research-based knowledge, Tony has spent many years trying to identify and reconcile the difference. With Tony’s parents’ age beginning to show, his desire to investigate health-related topics has become a very personal one.

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