Can sugar and other foods be “addictive”?

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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 clearly 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”. It is true that sugar stimulates many of the same pleasure and reward pathways as other “addicting” substances, and does eventually change our brain chemistry to encourage us to consume more and more of it, so in this sense, one could argue that we can in fact develop an “addiction” to sugar. 

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

This article will delve into the connection between food and addiction.

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A history of sugar

The idea of, 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-filled beverages and added sugars as largely contributory 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 lost the ability to self-regulate sugar consumption, while still enjoying the pleasures of good food and health. (2)

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

The science of addiction: Is sugar addictive?

Our current understanding of the science of addiction is still limited, but 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 really 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 also know that meditation and mindfulness practices 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, cause release of dopamine in the brain and trigger 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 certain 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 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) while 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 intake of sugar. (5,6)

These studies provide a strong case toward 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 with over-exercising, being overly promiscuous, or overeating.

Healing your relationship with sugar and food

Every human has to eat. And our relationship to 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, underlying medical conditions such as stress, anxiety, or 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. 

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

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.

Resources

  1. Ng M, Fleming T, Robinson M, et al. 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 2014;384:766–781. https://doi.org/10.1016/S0140-6736(14)60460-8.
  2. Empower your family to reduce sugar. SugarProof. (2022, March 11). Retrieved May 19, 2022, from https://www.sugarproofkids.com/about/ 
  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. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neubiorev.2007.04.019.
  4. Lustig RH. Fructose: metabolic, hedonic, and societal parallels with ethanol. J Am Diet Assoc 2010;110:1307–1321. doi: 10.1016/j.jada.2010.06.008. PMID: 20800122.
  5. George A. Bray; Is Sugar Addictive?. Diabetes 1 July 2016; 65 (7): 1797–1799. https://doi.org/10.2337/dbi16-0022.
  6. Jastreboff AM, Sinha R, Arora J, et al. Altered brain response to drinking glucose and fructose in obese adolescents. Diabetes 2016;65:1929–1939. https://doi.org/10.2337/db15-1216.
  7. Hebebrand, J., et al. (2014). “Eating addiction”, rather than “food addiction”, better captures addictive-like eating behavior. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews, 47, 295-306. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neubiorev.2014.08.016.
  8. T.G. Randolph. (1956). The descriptive features of food addiction; addictive eating and drinking. Q. J. Stud. Alcohol, 17,198-224.
  9. Sussman and Sussman. (2011). Considering the definition of addiction. Int. J. Environ. Res. Public Health, 8, 4025-4038.

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