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.  In the following days, her daughter moped around, acting depressed and unmotivated.  She asked if her daughter was addicted to sugar or just 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.

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How Much Sugar Do We Actually Eat?

First, I wanted to know how much sugar the average person 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 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.  My findings were shocking!  Even my whole grain crackers contain added sugars!  Clearly, I am not immune to a marketing trap!

So, What’s With All the Sugar?

The food industry converts whole foods into high sodium, fatty, sugary processed foods to increase their 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







To illustrate, 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?

The Science Behind Sugar Addiction

Does scientific evidence support sugar addiction?  When we eat appetizing foods, *Dopamine (the pleasure chemical in our brains) is released.  Most researchers agree that dopamine is related to feeding behavior.  In short, severe restriction will lead to heightened pleasure when restricted foods are re-introduced.  Subsequently, this explains the consequence of extreme dieting behavior.  Yet, eating a doughnut every time you want one actually decreases your pleasure response. This is why you always hear dietitians say, “everything in moderation.”  

Human studies have used the term ” reward deficiency syndrome” to describe this fluctuating response to dopamine.  This “reward deficiency syndrome” leads to 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 and drug addiction are unrelated.  Additionally, science proves that the body has a system for gratification of food intake which does not occur with drugs.  This suggest that “eating addiction” is actually behavioral.  Note that study models for sugar addiction meet 5 of 11 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.  In one example, rats were trained for 28 days to drink a sugar solution, then deprived of the solution for 14 days.  During the denial period, rats displayed deprivation behaviors equivalent to Alcohol Deprivation Effect (ADE).  

In addition, rats allowed to self regulate sugar intake progressively increase their consumption.  This behavior is comparable to tolerance behaviors seen in drug abuse (the more you use, the more you need to feel good).  This response may be due to the natural release of opioids in the body when sugar is consumed. These opioids act 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.  You can read more about that here: cross-sensitization and here:  Is Sugar a Gateway Drug

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The Take Away

Research on sugar addiction connects high intakes of sugar to alteration in the reward center of the brain.  Animal science strongly indicates that when sugar is consistently provided then withheld, behaviors mimic tolerance and withdrawal seen in alcohol and drug addiction.

It is important to acknowledge that sugar intake alters the body’s dopaminergic system, or  natural reward system.  When sugar is restricted, this alteration causes negative feelings and behaviors.  For instance, anxiety, depressive behaviors, impulsivity, and preference for smaller, immediate reward as opposed to larger, delayed reward are common.  

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.  One cube of sugar is equivalent to four grams.

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 behaviors.  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.  These changes aren’t necessarily creating desirable results.  

*Despite associations throughout this post between sugar addiction and drug abuse, food-related addictions are more closely related to nicotine and caffeine addiction.

Most information obtained for this post has been gathered from Front Psychiatry Journal, “Sugar Addiction: From Evolution to Revolution


Additional contributions and important notes

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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  1. This is was really informative. I know I am so addicted to sugar. It is a constant battle for me, especially as I get older. I become more and more aware of my addiction. I am miserable without it. I have tried to detox from it and reduce the amount I consume. Nothing is permanent. I always go back. Thanks for the suggestions and the info. Very helpful

    1. That is interesting! Thank you for sharing! Instead of trying to swear it all off for good, allow yourself one small portioned sweet daily. You can even feel good about it if its a square of dark chocolate which contains phytochemical, antioxidants and is a natural mood booster!

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