No, You’re Not Addicted To Sugar

I recently gave a presentation on sugar at the Inland Empire Fitness Conference in Bro-kane, Washington.  My friend Tim Arndt, who put on the conference, posted one of my summary slides on Facebook…a summary slide that would cause quite a stir.  It was this line that caused the stir.

 

The post got shared around and people started to argue with this particular line, even throwing out studies they felt proved this line wrong.

Well, if you think you’re addicted to sugar, I’m going to tell you right now…

…YOU’RE NOT…

…and let me explain why.

MAINLINING SUCROSE

The easiest way to get my point across is to ask you this question:  do you find yourself consuming straight bags of sugar uncontrollably like Bret Contreras here?

If not, you’re not addicted to sugar.

Do you find yourself injecting your veins with pure C&H like Eric Helms here?

If not, you’re not addicted to sugar.

BUT…BUT…HOEBEL…

The point here is that sugar is not addicting in and of itself, certainly not in the way that truly addictive drugs are.  If sugar was addicting, you would be hoarding bags of sugar and spooning it straight into your mouth.

Of course, when I point this out, people are quick to cite research by Bartley Hoebel that supposedly showed that sugar is more addicting than cocaine in rodents.  However, Hoebel did not show that sugar is more addicting than cocaine.  He only showed that cocaine can increase dopamine levels in the brain in a manner similar to food rewardHe also co-authored a paper entited "Evidence for Sugar Addiction", outlining some behavioral similarities between drug self-administration in rodents, and intermittent access to sugar.  However, what people fail to realize is that the set of conditions which create addiction-like behaviors in sugar-consuming rodents is not applicable to humans.

THE CONDITION FOR ADDICTION

The fact is, addiction-like behaviors, such as bingeing on sugar, only occur when you give rodents intermittent access to sugar.  For example, I might deprive rodents of food for 12-16 hours, and then give them free access to sugar for 8-12 hours.  Under these specific conditions, using rodents that have been selected to have a preference for sugar (unlike addictive drug studies where rodents completely naïve to a drug are used), I can produce addiction-like behaviors.

But when I give rodents ad libitum access to sugar (meaning they can have it whenever they want), I don't get addiction-like behaviors.

Which do you think is more relevant to humans?  Of course the ad libitum condition is more relevant.  We can have sugar whenever we want to.  There's no giant Brad Dieter in a lab coat keeping the sugar from us.

 

And if the sugar is not in our house, we can run to the store to get some.  Our access to sugar is not intermittent.

NEGATING WITH NAUSEA

Another key distinction is that, unlike addictive drugs, rodents with prolong access to sugar remain susceptible to devaluation.  Basically, if I add something to sugar that makes rodents feel sick, they will stop eating it.  This is not true with addictive drugs; rodents will continue to seek out a drug even if I add a nauseating agent to it.

You think you're addicted to Oreos?  I guarantee you would stop eating them if I added something to them that made you vomit each time you ate them.

So, no, you're not addicted to Oreos.

CRAVING CONTRAST

Another distinction between drugs and sugar is that the cravings are different.  Food cravings are very different from drug cravings; they are different in terms of intensity, frequency, and duration.  Food cravings are relatively short-lived compared to drug cravings; cravings can actually subside with fasting, but drug cravings persist and do not reduce in intensity even with prolonged abstinence from the drug.  Food cravings are not a reflection of addiction to a particular food.  Rather, food cravings are related to a certain attitude towards a food.  Let's use chocolate as an example, a food that some people might call "addictive".  For some people, chocolate is a highly desirable food...it tastes extremely good.  However, we think that chocolate is something that should be eaten with some restraint.  When you try to restrain your intake of chocolate, it magnifies the importance of it, and you become preoccupied with it.  This is experienced as craving, and people start making comparisons to addiction.  But this is not addiction.

SUGAR...NOT ADDICTING SINCE THE 1940'S

Research published all the way back in 1940 demonstrated that sugar is not addicting.  Scientists looked at how sugar concentration in water impacted how much rodents drank.  They found that rodents would drink more as sugar concentration increased, but only up to a certain point.  Once the sugar concentration got too high, they would drink less.  In fact, at very high sugar concentrations, they would drink less than if the water was plain.  This is not what would happen if sugar was addicting; rather, they would continue to consume more as the concentration increased.

So what's going on here?  It's simply an issue of palatability.  Sugar enhances the palatability of water; it makes it taste better.  However, if the sugar concentration starts to get too high, it no longer tastes as good, so you won't drink as much.  At a really high sugar concentration, it tastes so bad that you'd rather have plain water.  That is not the hallmark of an addictive substance.  This leads me to my next point...

IT'S THE PALATABILITY, STUPID

Sugar is not addictive.  However, it can make our food taste damn good, which encourages us to eat more.  For example, if you knock out sugar taste receptors in rodents so that they can't taste sugar, they are resistant to fat gain when you give them sugar water.  If you then add fat to the sugar solution to enhance the palatability, the rodents will get fat, even if they can't taste the sugar.  Thus, overeating food is highly related to its palatability, not due to any unique addictive property of sugar.  In fact, people on a high sugar diet will lose a lot of weight if the diet is very bland so that they don't want to eat much.  Also, palatability, not sugar content, is a predictor of how much people will eat.

The fact is, highly palatable, highly rewarding foods can override our natural appetite signaling mechanisms, and pleasure/reward can share some of the same brain pathways as addiction.  Thus, highly palatable, highly rewarding food can have some addictive-like qualities, and can be very tempting and easy to overeat, but it is not truly addictive.  Sugar is a component of food that can enhance its palatability and reward value, which increases the likelihood of us overeating a food that contains it.  But this doesn't mean sugar is addicting.

So, no, you are not addicted to sugar.

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Paula
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Paula

But by sugar… don’t they mean anything that may turn to sugar in your body? Bread, crackers, candy bars etc? So why would we eat sugar out of a packet or a spoon when candy cookies and breads are so much more pleasant to eat… So saying if it was addictive we would be eating it out of packets and storing up sugar packets is a bit silly when we can get sugar from so many things.

pass
Guest

physical addiction vs psychological

Rhian
Guest

Thanks for this article. It’s thought provoking. As someone who is a recovering food addict, has reversed a Type 2 diabetes diagnosis and lost 70kb of fat to date I’m really interested. For me a low carb, processed sugar free approach is great. And I totally get your point on palatability. BUT…. when I initially started my journey I eliminated all sugars for 8 weeks. And during the elimination phase – the first 24-72 hours were hell! I’m talking the sweats, the shakes, the mood swings, the headaches and diarrhoea….. symptoms of withdrawal. So I very much believe from my… Read more »

Nathaniel Brown
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Nathaniel Brown

Great article as always James.

Yaffa
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Yaffa

I really enjoyed reading this. It was humorous and to the point. There are people who go on an anti-sugar detox who report blurry vision, shaky hands, etc. What is your response to that?

Matt
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Matt

A few interesting, challenging queries yet to be answered. Will be watching intently 🙂

Harry
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Harry

Do you have any resources explaining the sugar crashes myth part james?

Aly
Guest

Saw something on the BBC where it was actually the combinations of sugar and fat (butter) that made food so tasty that people wanted it, craving or what not.

Eat a spoon of sugar? Yuck

Eat a sooon of butter? Gross.

Mix them together – ok, spread on toast it’s pretty yummy (as a child I used to eat this!)

I live for science based outcomes!

Josh Isaac
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Josh Isaac

This seems like a distinction without a difference.

If thousands of people lose limbs every year from Diabetes, and there are endless andecdotes of people driving to 7-11 at midnight for candy, does it really mean anything if it’s not clinically addictive?

How about talking about what is happening, and solutions to the very real problem, whatever you want to call it?

Meg
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Meg

Interesting But I did hoard and search out sugar. I would plan my next fix. I would get irritable if I didn’t have my next “hit” accessible. I got angry if someone interrupted my fix, if someone took my fix, or tried to talk to me while I was enjoying my fix. I spent tons of money on my fix. I would go out in the middle of the night to search for a fix. I would drive place to place to get a fix. And I hid the extent of my use from loved ones. It interfered with my… Read more »

Julia
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Julia

I don’t have withdrawal symptoms, but do find that too much sugar causes depression and irritability. Everyone’s bodies work differently, we aren’t rats, alas, and the placebo/nocebo effect is extremely strong with some of us. Some love the taste of sugar and others can easily live without it. But when ones biome is off kilter, then I believe the craving to feed that biome can be quite intense. I think with body builders eating some sugar might be fine. You have so much else going for you in your body that it’s not a huge issue. I do think you… Read more »

Bri
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Bri

How do you change your taste for sugar?

Henry
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Henry

Hey James, I did read an interesting narrative review on “sugar addiction” although I have to admit I did skim through it. The authors used bingeing, withdrawal, craving & sensitization as the diagnostic criteria for addiction or dependency. They went talked about several rat studies that demonstrate this (again, no time for an in depth lit review so i’m assuming no bias). They essentially concluded that “rats with intermittent access to food and a sugar solution can show both a constellation of behaviors and parallel brain changes that are characteristic of rats that voluntarily self-administer addictive drugs”. With this one… Read more »

Richard Howarth
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Richard Howarth

Great article. Been reducing sugar for a while now and find it beneficial to my mood and general feeling of well being. Have cravings occasionally but in comparison to my rehab experience for substance abuse there is absolutely no comparison. Being force fed so much sugar in processed food probably isn’t the best for health but the palatability explanation for Tim tam necessity makes a lot of sense. Thanks

Matt
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Matt

Johnny come home, you’re done mate.

Johnny Brennan
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Johnny Brennan

Exactly my point, go from high carb to low carb and you will see a incredible difference in how your mind and body respond to carbs. And you will see how much they had a hold of your diet. All the low carb studies that have been done have been too short term to show the true benefits of a lower carb diet. So all we have left is anecdotal evidence to show it’s true benefits, not just in sustainable weight loss but in overall better health. I find it ironic that eating sugar is preached by you guys so… Read more »

Johnny Brennan
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Johnny Brennan

Good god this is idiotic. Don’t eat sugar or chips for a week and see how much withdraw you have. It isn’t like heroin, but of course the body, especially the taste buds, become addicted. I am so tired of people like you that say “if it can be proved in a lab, then it’s not science” that is incredibly short sighted.