Is sugar addicting?

By Kate Coughlan

Is sugar addicting?

Halloween begins what I like to call the triad of sweetness. With Halloween, the candy that we do not give out stays in our home for us to eat then we dive into November which taunts us with sweet pies for thanksgiving. Moving forward we head to Christmas, with candy, cookies and more sweet treats! Of course sugar is not only found in these sweet treats, but also the stuffing and bread we eat during these times.  But is sugar addictive? We know that the brain has pleasure centers that when activated makes us feel happy or content. With certain chemicals such as nicotine, it enters the brain and activates a multitude of neuronal pathways that end in the release of dopamine in what are known as our pleasure centers of the brain. As more nicotine is taken in, the pathway becomes desensitized hence more nicotine is needed for a desired effect.   There is biochemical data that supports the activation of this pathway and the desensitization of this pathway leading to nicotine addiction.  Other drugs work in the same manner. The model for addiction is also measured on certain behaviors such as using a specific drug despite the poor outcomes both mentally and physiologically as well as excessive consumption marked by a lack of control.  In addition to the aforementioned behaviors other behaviors associated with addiction include binging, craving and withdraw symptom’s (1).

Is food addiction real? Do you ever feel cravings for certain foods? Do you ever binge on food that is not deemed healthy? The question is do these feelings have a connection with brain chemistry.

Does sugar activate these pathways in the brain? The food addiction model has been accepted in the scientific world since the 50’s but there is some evidence that calls into question this model in humans hence separating scientific opinion on whether food addiction follows that of other addictions. Most of the models for sugar addiction come from work in animal models with few being derived from human subjects. For addiction to be validated there are 11 criteria based on the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). In mouse studies five of the eleven categories were supported by animal data. For example, mice will increase their sugar intake over time and develop cravings as measured in behavior tests for addiction (2). In 2008, the Yale Food Addiction Scale (YFAS) was developed to explain food addiction in humans (3).  The YFAS is a questionnaire to measure the addictive behavior of an individual with regards to processed foods, but does not include any biochemical data that show changes in brain chemistry.  This study was also modified to look at children’s addictive behavior to various foods (3). The study used a more simplified language in the questionnaire and the questionnaire was administered to 75 children ranging from lean to obese (see example questionnaire below). Despite the small sample size (75 children), the study demonstrated that it is a useful tool for assessing addictive-like behavior in children similar to adults model.

Questions from the YFAS include

In other words, our eating habits are based on both psychological and neurobiological factors. Whether eating certain foods cause changes in brain chemistry in certain people holds true will require further investigation, but the reliance on food as a source of comfort, pleasure and want is real. So how do we handle such urges with regard to foods that contain sugar? As with any addictive behavior the key is to ween away slowly from it. I will use soda as an example.  I am a soda fanatic, and it does not make me feel great in the long term!  But I want it, I crave it, however, as I reduce my soda intake over time, eventually I no longer have those urges, however, if I decide to drink it again then those urges come back.  It is about discipline, which for me is extremely hard as I enjoy soda. But in order to maintain a healthy lifestyle we must start with good habits when we are young.

Our book, Atherosclerosis Attack, uses a story to help children see how what they choose to eat, like sugar affects a real disease. If you have not yet obtained a copy for your younger loved one, we encourage you to obtain one from Amazon or Barnes and Noble.

  1. Hoebel BG, Avena NM, Bocarsly ME, Rada P. Natural addiction: a behavioral and circuit model based on sugar addiction in rats. J Addict Med. 2009 Mar;3(1):33-41. doi: 10.1097/ADM.0b013e31819aa621. PMID: 21768998; PMCID: PMC4361030. 
  2. Wiss, D. A., Avena, N., & Rada, P. (2018). Sugar Addiction: From Evolution to Revolution. Frontiers in psychiatry9, 545. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyt.2018.00545
  3. Gearhardt, A. N., Roberto, C. A., Seamans, M. J., Corbin, W. R., & Brownell, K. D. (2013). Preliminary validation of the Yale Food Addiction Scale for children. Eating behaviors14(4), 508–512. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.eatbeh.2013.07.002

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