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The Not-So-Sweet Science Of Sugar Addiction

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One Lump Mechanism Of Addiction Or Two?

In Tuesday’s newsletter, we asked you to what extent, if any, you believe sugar is addictive; we got the above-depicted, below-described, set of responses:

  • About 47% said “Sugar is chemically addictive, comparable to alcohol”
  • About 34% said “Sugar is chemically addictive, comparable to cocaine”
  • About 11% said “Sugar is not addictive; that’s just excuse-finding hyperbole”
  • About 9% said “Sugar is a behavioral addiction, comparable to video gaming”

So what does the science say?

Sugar is not addictive; that’s just excuse-finding hyperbole: True or False?

False, by broad scientific consensus. As ever, the devil’s in the details definitions, but while there is still discussion about how best to categorize the addiction, the scientific consensus as a whole is generally: sugar is addictive.

That doesn’t mean scientists* are a hive mind, and so there will be some who disagree, but most papers these days are looking into the “hows” and “whys” and “whats” of sugar addiction, not the “whether”.

*who are also, let us remember, a diverse group including chemists, neurobiologists, psychologists, social psychologists, and others, often collaborating in multidisciplinary teams, each with their own focus of research.

Here’s what the Center of Alcohol and Substance Use Studies has to say, for example:

Sugar Addiction: More Serious Than You Think

Sugar is a chemical addiction, comparable to alcohol: True or False?

True, broadly, with caveats—for this one, the crux lies in “comparable to”, because the neurology of the addiction is similar, even if many aspects of it chemically are not.

In both cases, sugar triggers the release of dopamine while also (albeit for different chemical reasons) having a “downer” effect (sugar triggers the release of opioids as well as dopamine).

Notably, the sociology and psychology of alcohol and sugar addictions are also similar (both addictions are common throughout different socioeconomic strata as a coping mechanism seeking an escape from emotional pain).

See for example in the Journal of Psychoactive Drugs:

Sweet Preference, Sugar Addiction and the Familial History of Alcohol Dependence: Shared Neural Pathways and Genes

On the other hand, withdrawal symptoms from heavy long-term alcohol abuse can kill, while withdrawal symptoms from sugar are very much milder. So there’s also room to argue that they’re not comparable on those grounds.

Sugar is a chemical addiction, comparable to cocaine: True or False?

False, broadly. There are overlaps! For example, sugar drives impulsivity to seek more of the substance, and leads to changes in neurobiological brain function which alter emotional states and subsequent behaviours:

The impact of sugar consumption on stress driven, emotional and addictive behaviors

However!

Cocaine triggers a release of dopamine (as does sugar), but cocaine also acts directly on our brain’s ability to remove dopamine, serotonin, and norepinephrine:

The Neurobiology of Cocaine Addiction

…meaning that in terms of comparability, they (to use a metaphor now, not meaning this literally) both give you a warm feeling, but sugar does it by turning up the heating a bit whereas cocaine does it by locking the doors and burning down the house. That’s quite a difference!

Sugar is a behavioral addiction, comparable to video gaming: True or False?

True, with the caveat that this a “yes and” situation.

There are behavioral aspects of sugar addiction that can reasonably be compared to those of video gaming, e.g. compulsion loops, always the promise of more (without limiting factors such as overdosing), anxiety when the addictive element is not accessible for some reason, reduction of dopaminergic sensitivity leading to a craving for more, etc. Note that the last is mentioning a chemical but the mechanism itself is still behavioral, not chemical per se.

So, yes, it’s a behavioral addiction [and also arguably chemical in the manners we’ve described earlier in this article].

For science for this, we refer you back to:

The impact of sugar consumption on stress driven, emotional and addictive behaviors

Want more?

You might want to check out:

Beating Food Addictions: When It’s More Than “Just” Cravings

Take care!

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