Does scientific evidence support sugar addiction? Recently, a friend of mine decided to reduce her family’s sugar intake.  She asked for my opinion about sugar addiction.  When she shared her decision with her family, her 12 year old daughter’s reaction was shocking.  She writhed on the floor crying.  She wailed that she couldn’t eat anything if she couldn’t have sugar.  Despite her response, my friend stuck with her decision.  She said that in the following days, her daughter moped around, acting depressed and unmotivated.  She asked if I thought her daughter could actually be addicted to sugar or if she was being a drama queen. Drama queen, yes!  But, I didn’t have an answer for the addiction part of the question.  I set out to find some answers for my friend. How Much Sugar Do We Actually Eat? First, I wanted to know how much sugar the average consumer actually consumes.  Dietitians have a lot of food facts in our heads.  I know which crackers contain fat.  I know what foods have artificial coloring.  In general, I already know what a serving size is and about how many calories are in a serving.  I know what foods count as protein, carbs, and which are high in fiber.  Nonetheless, I took a look at my pantry.  I have four kids, therefore, my share of snack foods.  I was shocked at the amount of added sugars I found!  Even the whole grain crackers I’ve been feeding my kids have added sugars!  Clearly, I am not immune to the label trap! So, What’s With All the Sugar? The food industry has taken nutrient dense foods and converted them into high sodium, fatty, sugary processed foods to increase attractiveness and flavor.  But, Why?  Fat, sugar, and salt taste good !   Fat creates a pleasurable mouth-feel, salt and sugar add flavor.  200 years ago, the average American consumed about 2 pounds of sugar per year.  Today, Americans consume, on average, 6 cups per week or about 152 pounds of sugar per year!! Here’s what 152 lbs of sugar looks like:
Visual of 150 lbs of sugar intake for 1 year
Average sugar intake for 1 year!
This is the amount of sugar that Americans eat in one year
152 lbs sugar in grocery cart
            To illustrate on a smaller scale, let’s take a look at the amount of sugar in a Coca Cola:
Sugar intake and sugar addiction
1 cube of sugar=4 grams of added sugar
 Yikes!  But surely, you’ll be fine if you limit yourself to 1 Coke a day, right?  

Think again, friends!

Can drinking this much sugar contribute to sugar addiction?
Let’s take a look at the research.  Does scientific evidence support sugar addiction? The Science Behind Sugar Addiction *Dopamine (the pleasure chemical in our brains) is released as a result of eating palatable foods, i.e. fatty, sugary, salty foods.  Most researchers agree that dopamine is related to feeding behavior.  For example, after restricting a palatable food, such as a doughnut, the dopamine response increases during its consumption. This explains the consequence of extreme dieting behavior.  For example, when you eat an Oreo after a month of refusing yourself cookies, you will experience more pleasure and reward.  On the other hand, eating a doughnut or two every time you want one will decrease your pleasure response to doughnuts.  Human studies have used the term ” reward deficiency syndrome” to describe this fluctuating response to dopamine in obese rats and humans.  This “reward deficiency syndrome” leads to substance (food and drug) seeking behavior in humans.  *PET scans in drug abusers and obese subjects have repeatedly identified weakened dopamine activity and decreased *dopamine receptor availability.  Sugar Addiction vs. Drug Addiction Some argue that food addiction should not be compared to drug addiction, as there is no evidence that food withdrawal exists.  Additionally, science proves that the body has a natural system for satiety in response to food intake which does not occur with drug use.  These arguments suggest that “eating addiction” is actually behavioral.  It is interesting to note, however that study models for sugar addiction meet 5 of the 11 clinical criteria used to identify substance abuse disorder. Read more by clicking this link: DSM-5 Rats studied for behaviors related to sugar intake exhibit similar behaviors to those given alcohol and drugs of abuse.  To illustrate, rats trained for 28 days to drink a sugar solution were then deprived of the solution for 14 days.  During the denial period, rats displayed deprivation behaviors equivalent to Alcohol Deprivation Effect (ADE).   Likewise, rats allowed to self regulate sugar intake will progressively increase its consumption.  This behavior is comparable to tolerance behaviors seen in the decrease of responsiveness to drugs of abuse (the more you use, the more you need to feel good).  Sugar intake releases naturally-metabolized opioids in the body, acting as an analgesic, or pain reliever.  Denial of sugar in sugar-trained rats results in withdrawal symptoms that mimic opiate withdrawal.   Can Sugar Be Classified as a Gateway Drug? We’ve all heard the term gateway drug.  The gateway hypothesis is founded on cross-sensitization.  In some studies, cross-sensitization occurs between high sugar intake and drugs of abuse.  This raises the possibility that sugar can act as a gateway “drug”.  Some argue that this increases the risk of drug addiction.  Read more here: Is Sugar a Gateway Drug The Take Away Research on sugar addiction connects high intakes of sugar to alteration in the reward center of the brain, impairing decision-making processes.  This alteration is proportionate to biochemical and secondary behavioral effects of drug abuse.  Animal science strongly indicates that when sugar is consistently provided then withheld, behaviors mimic tolerance and withdrawal symptoms seen in alcohol and addictive drug use.   Is is important to acknowledge that sugar intake can alter the body’s dopaminergic system, or  natural reward system, causing negative feelings and behaviors when sugar is restricted.  For instance, negative results may include anxiety and depressive behaviors, impulsivity, and preference for smaller, immediate reward as opposed to larger but delayed reward.   How Much Sugar Is Okay? According to the American Heart Association, children between the ages of 2 and 18 should eat fewer than 6 tsp of sugar or about 25 grams per day (1 cube of sugar is equivalent to 4 grams of sugar). High intakes of sugar by my friend’s daughter may have resulted in biochemical changes in her brain.  Consequently, these biochemical changes may have also influenced her behaviors. What Can We Do? Attempting to restrict sugar intake may cause high-sugar foods to become more appealing.  Sudden and complete abstinence may create heightened desire, resulting in binge-like behavior.  My best advise is to allow moderate intakes of sugar.  Aim to meet recommended daily intakes, allowing occasional exceptions.  Consider replacing desserts with fruit salad.  Read labels and choose foods with no added sugars.

In conclusion, the excess sugar in foods we commonly eat are changing us and these changes aren’t necessarily creating desirable results.  

*Despite the associations made throughout this post between sugar addiction and commonly abused drugs, food-related addictions are more closely related to nicotine and caffeine addiction. Most information obtained for this post has been obtained from Front Psychiatry Journal, “Sugar Addiction: From Evolution to Revolution Additional contributions The Neurobiological and Behavioral Overlaps of Nicotine and Food Addiction” Nicotine and highly palatable foods are capable of altering dopamine release within the mesolimbic dopamine pathway (the brain’s reward system).  This alteration induces addictive like responses in susceptible individuals.  Journal of Preventative Medicine Preclinical Evidence for the Addiction Potential of Highly Palatable Foods: Current Developments Related to Maternal Influence” The current food landscape is inundated with food engineered to contain artificially high levels of sugar and fat.  Overconsumption of these types of foods overrides the homeostatic mechanisms which under normal circumstances regulate appetite.  Evidence has illustrated that disturbances that occur within the dopamine pathway influence nutrition and behavior.  Appetite.  A peer-reviewed scientific journal Natural Addiction: A Behavioral and Circuit Model Based on Sugar Addiction in Rats” Low basal dopamine may lead to “eating for dopamine“.  Opioid involvement relates to the withdrawal caused by the deprivation of sucrose after a 10% sucrose binge. J Addict Med Evidence for Sugar Addiction: Behavioral and Neurochemical Effects of Intermittent, Excessive Sugar Intake” Sugar is noteworthy as a substance that releases opioids and dopamine and thus might be expected to have addictive potential.  Neuroscience Biobehavioral Rev  *dopamine=neurons activated in the “reward circuit” area of the brain *PET scan=positron emission tomograph, an imaging test that helps reveal how your tissues and organs are functioning *dopamine receptor availability=availability of the dopamine D2 receptors in the basal ganglia—the brain region that includes key components of the reward system. The consequences of decreased availability may include addiction-promoting alterations in cognitive functioning and decision making.   

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