Just Because Sugar Tastes Good Doesn't Mean You're Addicted. Here's What the Science Says
How many times have you heard someone say that they were addicted to sugar (or felt that way yourself)? Chances are high, that it's been more than once. Sure, sugar tastes good, but can it really be addicting?
Here's the definition of addiction: "The state of being enslaved to a habit or practice or to something that is psychologically or physically habit-forming, as narcotics, to such an extent that its cessation causes severe trauma."
While eating sugar can be a habit—every night after dinner you want something sweet or when 3 p.m. rolls around you want a little treat—the research doesn't support that it's something you can be addicted to. Here's a closer look at the science around sugar addiction, plus tips on how to reduce your sugar cravings.
The history of sugar addiction
Yes, it lights up reward centers of your brain (the same one as cocaine!). But the headlines on these animal studies have been overblown. A 2016 review study published in the European Journal of Nutrition found "very little evidence" to support the idea that sugar is addicting. The rats used in sugar addiction studies were in a fasted state (so, very hungry) and then proceeded to binge on sugar. The behaviors of rats seeking sugar have not been shown in rats that had access to food and sugar, just rats that were deprived for a long time of food and sugar.
There are other problems with trying to measure food addiction, specifically sugar addiction. The Yale Food Addiction Scale, which is what we use, relies on self reporting and that can be unreliable. People are more likely to report "bad" foods as being addicting compared to "good" foods—think cupcakes vs. bananas—even if their blood glucose response was the same to those foods. (FYI—there are no "bad" and "good" foods and all foods can fit as part of a healthy diet, regardless of what diets, like keto, say.) It can be hard to separate out personal feelings that surround these foods when we are asked if certain foods are addicting.
Plus, none of us are gobbling up sugar by the spoonful (another sign that it's probably not addicting), we are eating foods that contain sugar. Cupcakes have flour, sugar, eggs, butter, salt and a few more ingredients, so it's impossible to say whether it's the sugar, the sugar combined with the fat or something else that makes them taste desirable.
What really happens when you eat (or don't eat) sugar
What we do know about sugar is that when you eat a lot of it at once, your blood sugar spikes, then crashes—that's what can leave you wanting more. Let's say you eat a bag of gummy worms, your blood glucose levels will rise and your body will release insulin to help your blood glucose levels go back down. Because the sugar you're eating doesn't have fiber or protein to help slow down digestion, this reaction happens quickly, and your blood sugar drops again. That can make you feel hungry and want to eat more sugar. You may feel an energy boost initially after eating gummy worms and then you'll start to feel a little tired. It doesn't really feel good and can feel like a cycle of eating sugar and then wanting more. That still doesn't make it addicting.
That's why, we separate natural sugars from added sugars. Natural sugars are found in fruits, vegetables and dairy and often come packaged with other nutrients, like fiber, protein and fat, which help slow down digestion. Eating some added sugar, say a drizzle of honey on peanut butter toast, with other foods or as part of an overall meal or snack won't cause the same blood sugar spikes as soda or sugary candy. It's fine to eat sugary foods sometimes, but pairing them with other foods and choosing naturally sweet foods like fruit and dairy more often, will help reduce sugar highs and crashes and provide you with more lasting energy.
You know when you tell a child that they can't have something, and then that's all they want. Guess what? Adults are pretty much the same way. As soon as something is off limits or restricted, it becomes more desirable—and sugar is no exception. Since sugar has become so demonized as a food, we often ban it from our diets or make efforts to restrict it, and all of a sudden we want it more. Relaxing any food rules around sugar and giving yourself permission to eat it can help make it less desirable and reduce your cravings for sugar.
The science doesn't currently support that sugar is addicting. It's possible to eat sugar, without being addicted to it. If you feel "addicted," you may need to give yourself permission to eat it and see what happens.
Pay attention to how you feel after eating sugar. If you're feeling tired or hungry, you may have overdone it. No need to feel guilty. Move on. Try and pair sugar with other filling foods, so that your body feels better the next time you eat it.
Welcome to The Beet. A weekly column where nutrition editor and registered dietitian Lisa Valente tackles buzzy nutrition topics and tells you what you need to know, with science and a little bit of sass.