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Sugar Addiction

What's the difference between a harmless treat and the development of a sugar addiction? The common ingredient has a lot in common with drugs in the ways it affects the brain.

What Is Sugar Addiction?

For years there has been a debate on whether sugar addiction should be considered a “real” addiction. It is hard to resist the office donuts or the candy at the supermarket check-out, but when does enjoying a sweet snack become a serious addiction? Researchers at Princeton University tested to see if binging on sugar could leave lasting effects on sugar addicts’ brains. When lab rats were deprived of sugar, their craving increased drastically, and they binged on more sugar than they had before once it was reintroduced.

A binge of sugar releases a surge of dopamine in the brain, and after a few months the rat’s brains adjusted to the increased dopamine levels. This is similar to how the brain is affected by cocaine and heroin use. When sugar was taken away again, the rats showed withdrawal symptoms of anxiety and teeth chattering.

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Unlike drugs, food is necessary for survival, so a person cannot go cold turkey on all sugars. However, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) researchers studied the brains of sugar addicted rats and found that the compulsion to binge on sugar is brought about by a different neural circuit of the brain than healthy eating. Some people may have a difficult time comparing sweets to drugs like heroin, because the effects on people do not seem as dangerous and life altering. However, sugar addiction is a contributing factor to the second leading cause of preventable death in America.

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Obesity Epidemic and Sugar

Over 160 million Americans are overweight or obese, and the number is expected to continue rising. People who are 40% overweight are twice as likely to die prematurely and are put at risk for a plethora of health problems. Some conditions obesity is linked to include:

  • Diabetes
  • Cancer
  • Heart Disease
  • Stroke
  • High Blood Pressure
  • Gallstones
  • Asthma
  • Sleep Apnea

Physical health is not the only detriment. Medical costs for overweight people are on average $1,429 higher than people with a normal weight. A high body mass index (BMI) is associated with higher odds of depression. People with mental health issues are at a higher risk for obesity, and those who are obese are more likely to develop mental health issues. In simple terms, obesity is caused by eating too many calories and not burning enough calories through exercise. With so many calorie dense foods being popular in American culture, people are consuming far too much sugar, saturated fats, and sodium. Unfortunately, not reading or understanding food labels puts people at risk for not knowing what they are consuming.

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The American Heart Association recommends women have no more than 6 teaspoons of sugar per day, and men no more than 9. The average American consumes 17 teaspoons of added sugar a day, and for many it is much higher. A 12 ounce can of soda contains 39 grams of sugar, sweetened coffees contain around 21 grams, and most breakfast pastries contain 18 grams of sugar. Excess sugar is not only in the obvious sweets; a serving of baked beans has 13 grams, and a cup of ketchup has 52 grams of added sugar.

Clearly, sugar is hard to avoid. However, dedicated people can still have sweet snacks while being health conscious. It becomes a problem when a sugar addiction starts to take emotional and physical control over someone’s life.

What Is Emotional Eating?

Emotional eating is when a person overeats based on feelings rather than physical hunger. Typically, this food is unhealthy and in large quantities. Emotional eaters may desire to numb their feelings with food, eat alone to hide from others, have intense cravings for specific food, eat during or after a stressful situation, and feel emotionally relieved while eating.

Similar to emotional eaters, binge eaters feel guilt, disgust, or depression after they consume a large amount of food. Binge eaters eat until they are uncomfortably full and are at a higher risk for obesity. This is different from eating disorders such as bulimia who purge after consuming a lot of food. People with binge eating disorder do not purge.

Sugar Withdrawal

In the Princeton study, sugar-addicted rats showed sugar withdrawal symptoms including tremors and head shakes. And in a study with humans, when participants quit eating junk food, they reported feeling sad, irritable, tired, and having cravings in the first 2 to 5 days. This timeline of withdrawal is similar to drug withdrawal.

The Link Between Substance Use Disorder and Sugar Addiction

There is a link between recovering from a substance use disorder and eating habits. People are more likely to relapse when they eat a lot of unhealthy food, and people in recovery are more likely to overeat. It is suggested that those in recovery avoid sugary sweets. Binging with sugar triggers brain responses that are similar to the same response drugs trigger. Repeated sugar binging can even have a gateway effect and lead to an increased risk for abusing drugs.

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There is a link between alcohol intake and sugar. When lab rats had their sugar supply taken away, they started consuming more alcohol. In humans, the same dopamine receptors in alcoholic’s brains that light up for a drink are the same receptors that light up when people consume sugar.

Get Help with Sugar Addiction Today

If you are struggling with an alcohol, drug, or sugar addiction, there is help available for you. Reach out to a treatment provider to get answers.

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