SUGAR: are you addicted?
Julia J Kirkpatrick, MS, CSCS
It’s 6 PM: You just had a healthy meal of grilled chicken, brown rice and some sautéed veggies. “Ohhhh I’m doing so good.” *Pats self on back*
Half an hour later: Back to the kitchen you go, your tummy is giving signals that it wants some ice cream, or maybe a few cookies, ooh or maybe that leftover chocolate cake from the other night.
Five minutes later: Cake is being consumed.
The next day out with your girlfriends: “Ugh guys, I really need to stop eating sweets. If I just cut them out, I would probably lose those few pounds…..the problem is I’m addicted to sugar.”
Does this conversation sound familiar to you?
In today’s world, sugar is demonized and chastised for many of our health-related problems or extra weight we are carrying around. It feels like everyone – social media, magazines, maybe even your doctor – is claiming that sugar is addictive.
I mean, who doesn’t love tasty treats filled with deliciousness? It’s hard to break away!
So, are you really addicted to sugar?
First, what is an addiction?
As it relates to food, addiction is most commonly evaluated using a self-questionnaire called the Yale Food Addiction Scale (YFAS), that’s based on substance dependence guidelines in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders .
However, many researchers agree that this questionnaire cannot diagnose whether someone has a food addiction, rather it assigns them a score based off of answers they give on the questionnaire! . Furthermore, it can often be confused with: liking, reward, wanting, and craving .
So here’s what the science says:
The scientific hypothesis: Sugar addiction may occur through a similar neurobiological mechanism to that of being addicted to drugs . Uh-oh?
BUT there is more you need to know:
There is LITTLE to no evidence that supports sugar addiction in humans .
Plus, there are lots of differences between drug addiction and how food reward mechanisms occur in the brain .
The vast majority of research that investigates the potential of sugar addiction and its similarity to drug addiction is performed with animals. This poses a few problems 
- Animals in the lab are NOT fed in the same way that humans typically eat food, meaning humans don’t typically consume sugar by itself! We typically eat food that has other components (such as fat and salt….)
- The animal studies that have demonstrated evidence for animals developing binge-like behavior when given access to sugar used rats that were already trained to have a preference for sugar!
- The rats only developed binge-like behaviors during intermittent eating periods (food was restricted for a period of time). When the rats had normal access to consume at their leisure, they did not develop these tendencies!
Why do we think SUGAR is the culprit anyhow?
Scientists have hypothesized that there are certain properties of sugary, fatty, and salty foods that lead to overindulgence.
However, they have not been able to isolate that sugar is the root cause of ‘addictive’ behavior.
For example when you’re eating that delicious cake – are you addicted to:
- Sugar itself?
- The taste of sweet food?
- The combination of a high glycemic food paired with fat that makes the whole treat very tasty?
- Is it just a habit? (You enjoy eating something sweet at nighttime because you’ve been doing it for the past 5 years!)
- Is it just a food craving?
The research is very complex when it comes to pinpointing WHY humans indulge in specific eating behaviors.
The term, “food addiction” offers a superficially attractive explanation, and potentially an excuse, for…unhealthy behavior at an individual level.” .
Instead, the underlying cause is likely a MIXTURE of environmental, genetic, and neurobiological factors that still need to be examined! .
Interestingly enough, public policy changes (ex: sugar tax) are developed from the assumption that sugar is addictive, even though the scientific community generally agrees that there is little evidence that supports sugar addiction in humans . (Sounds pretty much like the concerns on GMOs…..)
While the food and beverage industry continues to be shamed for unscientifically based assumptions, and the idea of sugar-addiction fear-mongers the lay public, leaving them to believe sugar as the evil source and main cause of our obesity pandemic .
When in fact, the scientific facts regarding this “addiction” is:
The consumption of tasty foods (think cheesy snacks, chips, pizza) “has the potential to alter behavior and activate the neural circuitry implicated in food reward” .
BUT… we have to remember that this is NOT a statement of fact (just a potential idea), and a change in behavior or nervous system does NOT mean you are addicted to something!
Main Takeaway Points:
- First off, a ton of people love foods that have sugar in them!
- Sugar is not necessarily the culprit – there are many other factors to consider!
- “Individual experiences and genetic variation underlie differences in how the brain responds to rewarding properties of food” 
Happy eating – but be careful who you blame 😉
- Alonso-Alonso, M., Woods, S. C., Pelchat, M., Grigson, P. S., Stice, E., Farooqi, S., … Beauchamp, G. K. (2015). Food reward system: current perspectives and future research needs. Nutrition Reviews, 73(5), 296–307. https://doi.org/10.1093/nutrit/nuv002
- Hebebrand, J., Albayrak, Ö., Adan, R., Antel, J., Dieguez, C., de Jong, J., … Dickson, S. L. (2014). “Eating addiction”, rather than “food addiction”, better captures addictive-like eating behavior. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews, 47, 295–306. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neubiorev.2014.08.016
- Long, C. G., Blundell, J. E., & Finlayson, G. (2015). A Systematic Review of the Application And Correlates of YFAS-Diagnosed ‘Food Addiction’’ in Humans: Are Eating-Related “Addictions’’ a Cause for Concern or Empty Concepts?”’ Obesity Facts, 8(6), 386–401. https://doi.org/10.1159/000442403
- Westwater, M. L., Fletcher, P. C., & Ziauddeen, H. (2016). Sugar addiction: the state of the science. European Journal of Nutrition, 55(S2), 55–69. https://doi.org/10.1007/s00394-016-1229