You’ve probably heard someone say they have a ‘sweet tooth’, or that they’re ‘addicted to sugar’. Basically, meaning if given the choice they’d pick sweet food over savoury. Being addicted to something is no joke though. The word addicted means you are “Physically and mentally dependant on a particular substance”. I’m no expert on addiction, but from the little I do know it’s like you have lost control.
What Causes Addiction?
When we do something that not only feels good but is also essential for the human race to survive, like eating food, drinking water, exercising and having sex, our brain produces Dopamine. Dopamine is linked with the Basal Ganglia, a part of the brain also referred to as the reward circuit.
Whenever the reward circuit is activated by one of these healthy pleasurable experiences a burst of Dopamine signals that something important is happening and that it needs to be remembered. This ensures we continue doing these things. The problem starts when you take something like cocaine, or other addictive drugs, which mess with this reward circuit (other parts of the brain).
You initially get this amazing high because loads of Dopamine is released, way more than usual. Of course, you want to repeat this sensation, but you won’t be able to. You’ll end up having to take more and more drugs to feel anything because your body will start reducing how much dopamine it produces. This means the natural pleasurable things like eating, drinking, exercising and sex will not feel as good because there will be even less dopamine produced. It’s like if you are put on strong pain medication. If you’re on them for a long period of time you might find you have to increase the amount you take to get the same result.
Does Sugar have The Same Affect As Drugs?
So now back to sugar. Does it act the same as drugs and alcohol? The overconsumption of sugar sweetened food and drink has been compared to drug addiction, but it’s mostly based on anecdotal evidence, which as you know I don’t really count as evidence. There was a study carried out on rats where the rats were basically forcefully addicted to cocaine, then then cocaine was taken away and they were given sugar. They were then given the choice between Cocaine and sugar, and they chose sugar. The study concluded that sugar is more addictive than Cocaine. First off, I think that was an inhumane experiment. Second off THEY’RE RATS NOT HUMAMS!!! Our anatomy is different, so I would assume things affect us differently too. The rats were restricted and starved of food so they’re bodies were probably screaming out for some form of energy.
For our ancestors it was a matter of survival to recognise something sweet as a source of carbohydrate. Now back then they didn’t have energy drinks or skittles. Just plant, berries, and other fruits. Without this instinct many we would have starved. The problem now may be that there is WAY too much choice when it comes to carbohydrate sources, and food in general.
For over 8000 years people have chewed on cocoa beans as a mild stimulant, showing no sign of addiction, but then you take one part of the cocoa plant (the leaf) and make it into a concentrated substance such as cocaine…. then you have a problem (1). The original recipe for Coca Cola contained an extract of cocoa leaf, which was probably why people loved it so much. They were addicted to it. Fun fact, when Cocoa cola was invented back in 1886 Cocaine was legal and was used in small amounts in some medication.
Nowadays it no longer contains coca leaf extract, just sugar and caffeine as stimulants. Still, people can feel they are addicted to Coke and all they want to drink is Coke.
Do You Need To Cut Back On Sugar To Be Healthy?
If you haven’t already watched my video on how our Gut bacteria can affect the food, we crave then click here. Basically, if you eat a lot of sugary foods, then the gut bacteria that like sugary foods will grow and multiply. This means you will crave more and more sugary foods. It’s a vicious cycle, but it can be broken! Once it is and you cut back on sugary foods you should crave them less.
Therefore gut healthy is so important. It is directly connected ton our brain and effects almost every aspect of your physical and mental health.
The hard truth is there is a rise in obesity, and it is related to the food we eat. One study confirmed that PET scans on the brains of obese individuals showed decreased Dopamine sensitivity, like those of individual who are addicted to drugs or alcohol (2). This suggests that decreased Dopamine sensitivity (meaning you need more Dopamine for the same effect that much less would have provided before), is associated with addictive behaviours, be it with food, drugs, or alcohol.
But is sugary food as addictive as drugs and alcohol? More studies are needed to give a definite answer. A diet high in ultra processed food that is high in added sugar does affect our brain chemistry negatively. It’s not good for you and there is proof that it negatively affects your health in many ways such as dental hygiene, skin health, type 2 Diabetes (you don’t have to be overweight to be at risk for type 2 Diabetes), and more.
In conclusion I don’t think you can be addicted to sugar the same as with drugs and alcohol. I mean, I don’t think I’ve heard of people robbing their friends and family to buy a bottle of Lucozade or a chocolate bar. However, I do think some people have more of a preference for sweet foods. If this is you then it’s fine as long as you are aware that most of the time these foods are very energy dense, but eating them as part of a balanced diet should be no problem though!
1. Dillehay TD, Rossen J, Ugent D, Karathanasis A, Vásquez V, Netherly PJ. Early Holocene coca chewing in northern Peru. Antiquity [Internet]. 2010 Dec [cited 2022 Jul 5];84(326):939–53. Available from: https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/antiquity/article/abs/early-holocene-coca-chewing-in-northern-peru/6452FDEFF4B27959A376256AFCFAEECE
2. Volkow ND, Wang GJ, Fowler JS, Tomasi D, Baler R. Food and Drug Reward: Overlapping Circuits in Human Obesity and Addiction. In: Carter CS, Dalley JW, editors. Brain Imaging in Behavioral Neuroscience [Internet]. Berlin, Heidelberg: Springer; 2012 [cited 2022 Jul 5]. p. 1–24. (Current Topics in Behavioral Neurosciences). Available from: https://doi.org/10.1007/7854_2011_169