Sugar Addiction: Myth or Disorder?

We all know we can be addicted to drugs, alcohol and gambling... Nowadays a new addiction has emerged : The Sugar addiction! Word on the street is that sugar is as addictive as cocaine?..

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With the holiday period behind us and into the New Year with the diet industry on high speed (maybe high on sugar? hihi), many will feel guilt and shamed associated to all the holiday treats. All the cookies, tarts, cakes, fudge and different type of desserts! (yumm I am totally salivating right now). However, can this indulgence in sweets lead us to become addicted to sugar?


Let's dive deep and see what science has to say about this!

What is an addiction?

An addiction can be physiological, psychological, psychosocial or any mixture of all these elements and is very complex (1). Developing an addiction a long process that usually leads the person to feel isolated from the people around them, and has a severe negative impact on physical, psychological and social aspects of their life (1). There are a two concepts behind addiction: the first being tolerance (needing a larger and larger amount of the substance to feel satisfied) and the second : withdrawal (discomfort with stopping the addiction) (1). Addiction is associated with craving the specific addictive behaviour and satiation, when the person has acted upon their addiction (1). Addiction is also linked with a loss of control and the person not being able to stop the addictive behaviour which can be an addiction to drugs, alcohol or other behaviours (1).


What is food addiction?

The model called the food addiction model associates certain foods with the same type of addiction as a drug addiction to foods (2). This model however is not accepted by all, as food is very different from drugs or other addictive substances (2). The foods that are mostly seen as having addictive potential in animals are foods high in fat and sugar. The food addiction model uses this to conclude that the foods that are the most likely to be addictive in humans are processed foods high in fat and sugar (2).

Is there a link between food addiction and eating disorders?

Binge eating disorder (BED) is characterized by an uncontrollable intakes of foods with a loss of control. Some experts believe that food addiction could be a symptom of BED or bulimia (2)(an eating disorder characterized by binging and purging episodes). A study actually found that almost half of the people suffering from BED meet the criteria for food addiction (3). If you think that you may suffer from an eating disorder such as BED or bulimia, please reach out to a health professional.


What is sugar?

Sugar (or sucrose) is a combination of a glucose and a fructose molecule. Glucose is the main source of energy for our body and is especially important for our brain. Our brain alone requires 120g daily. Sugar is found in simple table sugar but also in baked goods, sugar sweetened drinks and many other foods. It is also found in many forms such as syrups, honey, brown sugar, molasses, high fructose corn syrup, glucose syrup, dextrose and more. Sugar is a very important component in our foods and allows us to get energy quickly for our body and its proper functioning and gives food a sweet taste that we love!

What happens to our brains when we eat sugar?

As our brain relies on sugar to function, the increase in blood sugar levels following sugar intake can slightly improve our brain function (2). Fast lowering of blood sugar could cause what we call a “sugar crash” which can be linked to fatigue and a decrease in alertness (4).

Can someone actually be addicted to sugar?

The answer is *drumroll* It depends! The intake of sugar, especially for those of us who have a sweet tooth, does induce pleasure through pathways in our brain that release dopamine which is also involved in the opioid reward system (5). This, however, does not necessarily mean that the food itself is addictive, as this same pathway allows us to feel pleasure in our everyday lives, after listening to music, watching a movie, being with a loved one or anything else that makes us happy (5)! This response is definitely associated with emotional eating to manage stress and seek comfort (5), for more information about stress and nutrition, check out this article: https://www.thebalanceddietitian.com/post/stress-nutrition.


The fact that we derive pleasure from eating sweet foods does not mean that sugar itself is addictive, the experts lean more towards the fact that the act of eating itself and the comfort that that can bring is more explained by an “eating dependence” rather than addiction to an element in the food such as sugar (5). There is no real addictive substance in sugar that produces a physical addiction like a drug addiction or to the nicotine in cigarettes (2).


On another hand, there have been studies that found that in animals, there can be releases of dopamine in the brain (responsible for the pleasure response) similar to drug addiction in animals with a restricted access sugar (6). The rats who had restricted sugar intakes would then binge on sweet foods the next time they had access to them (6). This particular type of behaviour around sugar can lead to addiction-like brain activity in rats and may lead to a “sugar addiction” when their access to sugar is restricted. However, this effect is smaller than the effect of drugs such as cocaine or morphine (6). In these rats, sugar withdrawal can cause aggressive behaviour (6). Without this restriction to sugar, the changes brain’s activity is very similar to the normal response to pleasure (2). These results are not necessarily generalizable to humans, however, it is very similar to behaviours seen in BED and bulimia (2).

Is restricting sugar the solution?

Nope! As seen above, restriction of sugar could actually cause the opposite effect and possibly lead to addiction-like reactions in the body (2,6)! This concept has been seen many times... restriction leads to overeating/binge eating.


Binge eating cycle

Food is fuel. And food is also pleasure and social. Food can be associated with incredible memories and families and friends come together around food.Try to choose the foods that you really love and enjoy them as mindfully as possible. Try to prepare most of your sweet treats at home, you will likely add less sugar than they would in the industry. Try to not skip any meals in order to save calories, do your best to listen to your hunger and satiety cues and give your body the food that it needs to thrive and enjoy the holiday season. For more information, check out this article about intuitive eating: https://www.thebalanceddietitian.com/post/intuitiveeating

What about artificial sweeteners? Check out this article for more information: https://www.thebalanceddietitian.com/post/artificialsweetener

Conclusion

To conclude, sugar can induce pleasure by releasing dopamine, as can talking to a friend, playing a game or being with your loved ones. This does not make sugar itself addictive. It makes it pleasurable! All foods can fit and should be enjoyed in moderation- including sugary treats! If you feel ''out of control'' around sugar, please reach out. And remember, restriction is never the option!


Thank you for reading :)



Marie-Pier Pitre-D'Iorio, RD, B.Sc.Psychology

Thank you Céleste Bouchaud for article!



References:

1. ​Sussman S, Sussman AN. Considering the Definition of Addiction. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2011 Oct;8(10):4025–38.

2. ​Westwater ML, Fletcher PC, Ziauddeen H. Sugar addiction: the state of the science. Eur J Nutr. 2016 Nov 1;55(2):55–69.

3. ​Long CG, Blundell JE, Finlayson G. A Systematic Review of the Application AndCorrelates of YFAS-Diagnosed “Food Addiction” in Humans: Are Eating-Related “Addictions” a Cause for Concern or Empty Concepts? Obes Facts. 2015;8(6):386–401.

4. ​Mantantzis K, Schlaghecken F, Sünram-Lea SI, Maylor EA. Sugar rush or sugar crash? A meta-analysis of carbohydrate effects on mood. Neurosci Biobehav Rev. 2019;101:45–67.

5. ​Markus CR, Rogers PJ, Brouns F, Schepers R. Eating dependence and weight gain; no human evidence for a “sugar-addiction” model of overweight. Appetite. 2017 01;114:64–72.

6. ​Avena NM, Rada P, Hoebel BG. Evidence for sugar addiction: behavioral and neurochemical effects of intermittent, excessive sugar intake. Neurosci Biobehav Rev. 2008;32(1):20–39.

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