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The Science Behind Sugar Addiction

If you’ve ever felt that midnight urge to polish off a block of chocolate or felt yourself craving a sugary pick-me-up during that dreaded mid-afternoon slump, you’re likely familiar with the pull of that sweet, white stuff. We’ll be unpacking the science behind sugar addiction, including what makes a substance addictive and what sugar actually does to your brain’s reward system.

As we see rates of obesity continue to soar around the globe, the concept of sugar addiction has come into question. With many finding themselves feeling out of control around the sweet stuff and consuming it in excess, researchers have noticed a pattern around the addictive effects this stuff can have on our brain. Some theorise that sugar may promote those same neurological changes in the brain as drugs like alcohol and cocaine – so, you’re likely wondering, is sugar addiction possible? Here's what we know.

Is sugar addiction real?

While sugar addiction hasn’t been confirmed in the scientific community, it is generally accepted that highly palatable sweet foods can elicit addictive behaviours. We also know that sugar has a strong effect on the reward system in the brain. Research has shown sugar triggers this system, provoking a stronger reward response than cocaine in some animal studies. It works by prompting the release of dopamine, the “feel-good” hormone, into the brain and triggering a reward-seeking cycle which leads to a number of addictive behaviours around seeking out sweet foods and struggling to control consumption. Researchers also note that many experience withdrawal symptoms when quitting sugar, from headaches and mood swings to cravings and even anxiety. One study found people who consumed excess sugar had higher cortisol levels, the “stress” hormone, and this can cause distressing feelings that further encourage us to seek out sugar to get that reward system firing.

From this effect, it’s not hard to draw the conclusion that we crave the sweet stuff because it triggers that “feel-good” hormone. The concept of addiction to food entails that people may have similar brain activation to that which occurs with alcohol or other drug use as a result of excessive consumption of palatable foods like sugar. The elements of addiction outlined in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders include the following:

  • Loss of control of substance consumption
  • Growing motivation to consume the substance
  • Continued consumption of the substance in spite of health, social or other life consequences

In the case of excess sugar consumption, we can many people continue to consume this stuff to the point of obesity, along with the host of other health conditions that come with a sugar addiction – and this is why many researchers have reason to believe sugar may well qualify as an addictive substance, though there is a need for further research. Regardless of whether it’s officially accepted as such, we do know excess consumption of this stuff has a strong effect on the brain and does leave people craving more sugar, leading to catastrophic health consequences.

Another issue that drives these addictive behaviours around sugar includes the ultra-availability of these highly palatable foods, from $3.00 cakes at your local supermarket to cheap bags of chocolates that cab have upwards of five times the daily recommended limit of 6 teaspoons of sugar for women – men are recommended to keep to below 9 teaspoons. In Australia, on average, we’re clocking in at a whopping 17 teaspoons a day, and it’s little surprise when you see has fast the spread of highly-processed foods is taking place. Supermarkets look a lot different today than they did just a few decades ago – in fact, it was around the 1970s when we started to see a shift in the kinds of products sold, with palatable snacks gaining traction around this time. It’s no wonder then that we also saw a sharp incline in obesity cases in the years that followed – between 1980 and 2013 alone we saw a rise from a global obesity rate of 28.8% to 36.9%. The scary part? It’s not just adults, children are included in these growing rates too, and considering the hidden sugars found in muesli bars, yoghurt and bread, it’s not much of a surprise to see the consequences play out over the years. So, while the verdict isn’t officially in to classify sugar as an addictive substance, we do know that people exhibit addictive behaviour around the stuff – particularly with ultra-processed, high-sugar foods that are highly-palatable.  A study found that those who drank sweet drinks regularly had a stronger desire for ultra-processed food and had less functional appetite regulating hormones, proving that the consumption of sugar-laden foods can lock us into a cycle of craving more of these foods, while affecting our ability to regulate our appetite, leaving us vulnerable to weight gain and diseases like non-alcoholic fatty liver disease and heart disease, both of which are on the rise around the globe.

Emotional eating and sugar addiction

Many sugar addicts find themselves not only craving the sweet taste of sugar, but the feelings that come with it. They may find the quick burst of energy and the feel-good hormones a remedy for their stress or low mood, finding themselves snacking on sugary foods frequently – and when they’re not eating the stuff, they’re thinking about the next chance they’ll have to do so. The problem that arises is the inevitable crash, both in energy and in mood. This leads many to a cycle of eating sugary foods when they’re feeling down and then feeling worse after the temporary high. But if this is all sounding a bit too familiar, take solace in the fact that there is hope and you’re certainly not alone. The first step to making a change is acknowledging there’s a problem in the first place, so if you’re here, you’ve likely got that step under your belt.

What next? If emotional eating and sugar addiction are plaguing your life, therapy is often a good port of call to treat those underlying mental health issues. You may also want to take a practical step to shake the sugar off your back. It can help to join a program like ours – our 8-Week Program is based on accountability, support and providing the essential resources to set you up for success. We’ll help you change the way you look at food – and that doesn’t mean you have to follow restrictive diets or miss out on your favourite foods; we believe you can still enjoy delicious food without jeopardising your health. With celebrity chef Sarah Glover on our panel of experts, you’ll have an array of fun recipes at your fingertips, along with our own exclusive armoury of simple, tasty and healthy recipes for everything from daily meals to impressive entertaining. We’ve also got nutritionists, personal trainers and naturopaths in our team of experts, and they understand what our bodies need and how to best arm ourselves against those cravings. So, if you’ve been having a little trouble keeping that sugar addiction at bay, we’re here to help. We know it can be hard to stick to your health goals – especially when you’re trying to manage it alone. When you sign up with us, you’ll have access to clear-cut meal plans, community support and exclusive access to our sugar-free content. Here’s what’s on offer:

  1. 8 weeks of meal plans and shopping lists.
  2. 90+ member-only recipes.
  3. Community forums to share your journey.
  4. Support and guidance from the I Quit Sugar team.
  5. Exclusive content from our panel of experts.

So, if you’re ready to ditch sugar and the host of maladies that come with it, it’s not too late to join. We’d love to help you get started on your health journey. Sign up HERE today!

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