Text Link

Learn more about the results we get at Within

Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit. Suspendisse varius enim in eros elementum tristique. Duis cursus, mi quis viverra ornare, eros dolor interdum nulla, ut commodo diam libero vitae erat. Aenean faucibus nibh et justo cursus id rutrum lorem imperdiet. Nunc ut sem vitae risus tristique posuere.

Learn more about the results we get at Within

Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit. Suspendisse varius enim in eros elementum tristique. Duis cursus, mi quis viverra ornare, eros dolor interdum nulla, ut commodo diam libero vitae erat. Aenean faucibus nibh et justo cursus id rutrum lorem imperdiet. Nunc ut sem vitae risus tristique posuere.

Can sugar and other foods be “addictive”?

Whether or not you suffer from an eating disorder or are simply trying to maintain healthy eating habits, a lot of people spend time thinking about food. We crave food and sugar in the same way that some people crave cigarettes, sex, or other drugs. So it begs the question, “Is sugar addictive?” Or, more generally, “Can certain foods be addictive?”

The answer depends in part on how you define “addiction.” While some rodent studies suggest that sugar stimulates similar pleasure and reward pathways in our brains as other "addictive" substances, determining a causal relationship is complicated.

Currently, “food addiction” is not a formal diagnosis in the DSM-5 but falls under the umbrella of Non-Substance-Related Disorders.7,8 

5
 minute read
Last updated on 
March 7, 2024
March 7, 2024
Is sugar addictive?
In this article

The history of sugar

The term and notion of “food addiction” has been around for decades, described in literature as early as 1956. In the 1980s, a wealth of literature came out about the connection between sugar-sweetened beverages and added sugars as largely contributing to the “obesity” epidemic.1

According to Dr. Michael Goran, PhD and Professor of Pediatrics at Children’s Hospital of Los Angeles, during the colonial period (1750), the average American consumed roughly 4 lbs of sugar each year. By 2000, this increased to nearly 150 lbs/year. Dr. Goran argues in his book Sugar Proof that Americans have lost the ability to self-regulate sugar consumption while enjoying good food and health.2

How did this happen? Can food and sugar become substances of abuse and addiction, similar to alcohol and drugs?

Sugar

The science of addiction: Is sugar addictive? 

Our current understanding of the science of addiction is still limited. Still, most in the medical community believe that substances that are potentially addictive are any substance that causes the release of dopamine in the brain, stimulating the reward and pleasure centers of the brain and reinforcing the behavior that gets the body more of that rewarding or pleasurable substance. 

Traditionally, we think of being “addicted” to substances like alcohol and drugs because of the negative life consequences that drug and alcohol addiction can have. Thus, the word “addiction” has come to have some negative connotations.

However, in reality, the neurochemistry of anything that creates pleasure is the same neurochemistry involved in “addiction.” For example, we know that exercise stimulates the release of dopamine in the brain, causing endorphins and other positive emotions. So, in theory, you can say that exercise can be addicting

We know that meditation and mindfulness release dopamine in the brain, causing pleasant feelings and incentivizing the individual to do more of the behavior of meditating. We also know that sex releases dopamine and stimulates pleasurable sensations, and therefore, one might also consider “sex” to be addicting. 

In the same way, food, particularly sugary foods, causes the release of dopamine in the brain and triggers a reward pathway. 

So yes, one could argue that many things—even positive things like exercise, meditation, healthy sexual relationships, and, within reason, food—can be “addicting.”

Research on sugar addiction

When researchers performed addiction studies on rats by analyzing binging, withdrawal, craving, and cross-sensitization behavior patterns, they discovered noteworthy changes in dopamine and opioid receptor binding.3 Sugar causes specific neurons in the brain to release natural opioids and dopamine, thus triggering the same pleasure center circuitry that is activated by drugs and alcohol. 

Another study demonstrated that fructose and alcohol follow a similar metabolism pathway in the liver, cause similar types of liver inflammation (fatty liver), both cause increased visceral fat tissue and activate the same hedonic pleasure pathway in the brain.4,5 Fructose tastes much sweeter than regular glucose (sugar) and has been found to stimulate parts of the brain that override the switch that causes the brain to feel full.6

A study

A study published in the journal Diabetes performed brain MRIs on adolescents after consuming sugar and fructose. The lean adolescents showed increased perfusion of the areas involved in executive function and control (prefrontal cortex). In contrast, those with obesity showed reduced perfusion in the prefrontal cortex and increased activity in the reward and pleasure centers of the brain.

Researchers speculated that the reduced response of the executive centers within the brain to sugar and fructose reduced the adolescents’ ability to control their sugar intake.5,6

These studies provide a strong case for supporting sugar as an “addictive” substance.4,5

But, as explained above, things that are “addictive” are not necessarily bad for us. Exercise, meditation, social interaction, sexual relationships, and food can all be healthy and positive activities, so long as they are done safely and in moderation. The problem arises when any of these things are done in excess, such as over-exercising, being overly promiscuous, or overeating.

Healing your relationship with sugar and food

Every human has to eat. And our relationship with food is highly complex. It is true that, to a certain degree, foods can be biochemically “addictive.” However, there is a huge component of our behavior around food that is affected more than a biochemical “addiction”—social norms, psychology, media, and underlying medical conditions such as stress, anxiety, depression, etc. 

Healing from an “eating addiction” includes learning to view overeating as partly a physical addiction but partly an emotional and psychological one as well. 

Food is a positive, life-sustaining force and doesn't have to be an enemy! Food blesses and sustains the body and can be a source of much joy when approached mindfully

Within can help

If you feel you have an “addiction” to certain foods, this may indicate a negative or unhealthy relationship with food, for biochemical or psychological reasons, or both. Contact us for professional assistance to help delve further into the reasons behind your eating behaviors. We are here to help!

Get help now

Disclaimer about "overeating": Within Health hesitatingly uses the word "overeating" because it is the term currently associated with this condition in society, however, we believe it inherently overlooks the various psychological aspects of this condition which are often interconnected with internalized diet culture, and a restrictive mindset about food. For the remainder of this piece, we will therefore be putting "overeating" in quotations to recognize that the diagnosis itself pathologizes behavior that is potentially hardwired and adaptive to a restrictive mindset.

Disclaimer about weight loss drugs: Within does not endorse the use of any weight loss drug or behavior and seeks to provide education on the insidious nature of diet culture. We understand the complex nature of disordered eating and eating disorders and strongly encourage anyone engaging in these behaviors to reach out for help as soon as possible. No statement should be taken as healthcare advice. All healthcare decisions should be made with your individual healthcare provider.

Resources

  1. Ng, M., Fleming, T., Robinson, M, et al. (2014). Global, regional, and national prevalence of overweight and obesity in children and adults during 1980-2013: a systematic analysis for the Global Burden of Disease Study 2013. Lancet, 384, 766–781.
  2. Empower your family to reduce sugar. (2022, March 11). SugarProof. Accessed May 19, 2022.
  3. Avena, N. M., Rada, P., & Hoebel, B. G. (2008). Evidence for sugar addiction: behavioral and neurochemical effects of intermittent, excessive sugar intake. Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews, 32(1), 20–39.
  4. Lustig, R. H. (2010). Fructose: metabolic, hedonic, and societal parallels with ethanol. Journal of the American Diet Association, 110, 1307–1321. 
  5. Bray, G. A. (2016). Is Sugar Addictive? Diabetes, 65(7), 1797–1799. 
  6. Jastreboff, A. M., Sinha, R., Arora, J., et al. (2016). Altered brain response to drinking glucose and fructose in obese adolescents. Diabetes, 65, 1929–1939.
  7. Hebebrand, J., et al. (2014). “Eating addiction”, rather than “food addiction”, better captures addictive-like eating behavior. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews, 47, 295-306.
  8. Randolph, T. G. (1956). The descriptive features of food addiction; addictive eating and drinking. Quarterly Journal of Studies on Alcohol, 17, 198-224.
  9. Sussman, S., and Sussman, A. N. (2011). Considering the definition of addiction. International Journal Of Environmental Research And Public Health, 8, 4025-4038.

FAQs

Further reading

Why the keto diet can be dangerous

The keto diet has risen in popularity over the last decade, being hailed not only as a method to lose...

19 tips for meal planning during eating disorder recovery

Returning home after an eating disorder treatment program can feel...

What is diet culture?

You’ve probably heard of the term “diet culture” if you’ve spent any time immersed in...

Understanding picky eaters

Many young children are very selective about which foods they will eat. Although...

Nutrition counseling in the treatment of eating disorders

Nutrition counseling, also referred to as nutritional counseling, food counseling, or nutrition therapy...

Meal planning in anorexia nervosa recovery

Treatment for anorexia nervosa (AN) is often multi-faceted, involving a combination of care techniques that...

Learning the intuitive eating principles

Intuitive eating is an approach to eating based on responding to the body’s...

Is it bad to eat at night?

You might have heard that it’s somehow harmful to eat late at night. Diet culture...

How to stop thinking about food

Food is an essential part of life. We need to have it every day, and we couldn’t live without it, so it’s...

Why do I feel sick and nauseous after eating?

“Every time I eat I feel sick” is something that is heard often by dietitians...

Can sugar and other foods be “addictive”?

Whether or not you suffer from an eating disorder or are simply trying to maintain healthy eating habits, a...

Why we should avoid labeling food as good or bad

Have you ever referred to certain foods as “bad” or “good?” Maybe you say things...

What is “normal” eating?

“Normal” eating is just as it sounds—it’s a pattern of food consumption in which...

What is intuitive eating?

Intuitive eating is an eating practice that involves listening to your body’s hunger...

Food cravings: How wanting certain foods impacts the way we eat

Food cravings are extremely common. Whether pining for a home-cooked favorite, dreaming of dessert, or...

Talking to your child about food, eating habits, and bodies

Parenting can be challenging—physically, mentally, and emotionally. You want to give your children the...

Strategies for grocery shopping in eating disorder recovery

After you’ve finished a higher level of care like inpatient eating...

Is intermittent fasting disordered eating?

Intermittent fasting is a relatively popular diet regimen involving periods of...

Further reading

No items found.