Sugar is not an addictive substance

The concept of “sugar addiction” is an increasing societal concern today. The hypothesis is that sugar might cause ‘addiction-like’ behavior, like substance dependence, and in turn be a cause of increased body weight. However, is the supposed addiction to sugar real or a just an urban myth?

Defining sugar addiction in humans remains challenging. To date, there’s little evidence to support sugar as an addictive substance, and the animal neuroscience literature suggests sweetness or taste property to be the main reason of excessive food intake. A combination of High-fat and high-sugar foods seems to be the most outstanding candidates for food addiction.

A cross-sectional study with 1495 participants used a scale that measures food addiction, with added questions to reflect “sugar addiction” as well. The result showed that addiction was largest, 30%, when eating high fat- combined with high sugar-containing food. Only 5 % of the participants experienced addiction with only sugar-containing food.

Similar studies conclude that the brain does not appear to respond to sugar in the same way as to drugs. Addictive-like overeating also seems to be distinct from drug addiction disorders. Instead, the addiction to sugar might be better explained by ‘eating dependence’, a behavior that originates from the individual experience with food and eating.

Most studies don’t separate the behavioral and neural effects of sweet or palatable food consumption when examining sugar addiction. These studies are often conducted in such a way that the participants (mostly rats) are given intermittent access to sugar. Intermittent access to sugar, in some circumstances, may lead to behavioral and neurochemical changes that can resemble the effects of a substance of abuse.

Intermittent access to sugar can, in turn, promote overeating. The rewarding value of sugar can become emotionally comforting or stress-releasing and may alter brain reward system.

The current evidence does not support the validity of sugar as a purely addictive substance. Instead, the individual experience of eating may play a more important role in determining the reward value of food and thus promoting excessive energy intake.

Post provided by @maria_ekblom, a member of #teamEBT. Licensed physiotherapist and personal trainer.

1. Markus C, Rogers P, Brouns F, Schepers R. Eating dependence and weight gain; no human evidence for a ‘sugar-addiction’ model of overweight. Appetite. 2017;114:64-72.

2. Westwater M, Fletcher P, Ziauddeen H. Sugar addiction: the state of the science. European Journal of Nutrition. 2016;55(S2):55-69.

3. Avena N, Rada P, Hoebel B. Evidence for sugar addiction: Behavioral and neurochemical effects of intermittent, excessive sugar intake. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews. 2008;32(1):20-39.

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