Is Sugar Addiction Real?
In 2007 a study was published giving rats a choice between consuming sugar water versus intravenous cocaine. The results? 94% of rats preferred the sugar water- even ones who previously had been addicted to cocaine. The study was conducted by Dr. Serge Ahmed- a French researcher who spent his career studying drug addiction. We here at PeerWell have spent time reviewing and summarizing the literature about sugar addiction.
So in order to talk about sugar addiction, we first must understand addiction as a concept. Addiction is a primary, chronic disease of brain reward, motivation, memory and related circuitry. Put simply - with other behaviors you are in control of your choices, with an addiction you are not. You cannot stop behaving in a certain way despite your knowledge that your actions are harming you.
Understanding how this happens requires an understanding of the way your brain perceives reward. In nature, rewards come through effort, so when we achieve a goal like eating or drinking our body releases chemicals like dopamine that allow us to achieve pleasure. In today’s world, the brain can be tricked into allowing us to experience an unnatural level of reward for a marginal amount of effort. With repetition the brain becomes less sensitive to normal rewards leading to a compulsion to find what works and take more of it.
Binging is taking a lot of something at once and taking more over time. This occurs because the stimulus produces intense reward. Intense reward makes you simulatenously sensitive to finding the signal and toleratant of it over time.
Withdrawal occurs when that substance is no longer available. It leads to a sense of anxiety or distress.
Craving usually occurs after a period of abstinence and manifests itself as enhanced motivation or effort to acquire the stimulus.
Evidence for Sugar Addiction
In 2008 there was a study in which rats were given intermittent access to sugar to get them to binge and start the addiction cycle. After a month these rats were showing behavioral and biological signs of withdrawal and craving just like what is found in drug addiction.
In withdrawal phases these rats exhibited teeth chattering, paw tremors, head shaking and anxiety. To test for craving researchers removed the sugar solution for two weeks. After reintroducing it the rats consumed an average of 23% more sugar than they had prior to the forced “on the wagon” period.
Additionally, these rats were shown to have changes in dopamine levels, dopamine receptor binding, and gene expression that mimicked changes seen with drug addiction.
Now, obviously sugar is not as psychologically toxic as drugs, but it has been shown to produce reward and craving of the same magnitude. For a collected review of the literature on this topic please go here.
Wait a Minute...
So just because something is addictive doesn’t mean I am addicted right?
True. The issue is that today’s food environment is pretty tough to navigate. 74% of packaged foods have added sugar. Sugar isn’t just in cakes and cookies, it is in pasta sauce and granola. And - if you read nutrition labels - notice the conspicuous absence of a recommended daily value for sugar making it tough to gauge whether or not you are overconsuming. FYI, For an adult at a normal BMI, WHO recommends roughly 25 grams of sugar- or six teaspoons- or half a soda.
The other issue is that we consume a lot of very pure sugar. Remember addiction is kicked off by binge consumption. When sugar is consumed in a fruit like an orange your body needs to work through a bunch of fiber to unlock the sugar which evens out how fast your body absorbs it. Drinking a soda gives you a big slug of sugar that is absorbed all at once.
Think about it this way- a beer and a shot of vodka both contain the same amount of alcohol, but imagine how much quicker you can drink a shot vs. a beer. Now think about this, a can of coke has roughly 2x the amount of sugar vs. an average naval orange, so not only are you taking a shot, you are downing a double.
You Had My Curiosity, Now You Have My Attention
So what does this all mean? 75 cents on the dollar spent on healthcare in the US is spent on chronic disease and a growing body of research shows that overconsumption of sugar leads to heart disease, liver disease and diabetes. Given the pervasiveness of sugar in today's food supply it is probably in anyone's best interest to take a look at their sugar consumption patterns.
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Good evidence that sugar is addictive. Do an inventory and cut back if you need to.