One of my roles as a Registered Dietitian-Nutritionist (RDN) is to sift through the overabundance of nutrition misinformation. It’s my job to provide solid, evidence-based facts about how food and nutrition can affect one’s health. A topic that I am asked about regularly, often multiple times a day, is sugar. I often see people who tell me that they “have a sugar addiction” or “are addicted to sugar.”
Contrary to popular belief – and some of the messages promoted by the mainstream media – sugar is not addictive like nicotine, heroin, or cocaine. At this time, no indisputable evidence exists that sugar, or any food for that matter, is addictive.
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Cutting the Sugar Cravings
There is, however, a part of the brain that does respond to the reward behavior that sugar creates. Consequently, while sugar is not addictive, people do crave it. This is made worse by the fact that the more sugar we eat, the more desensitized our taste buds become to it. This often leads to a desire for sweeter and sweeter foods. Thus, repeated exposure to strong, sweet flavors can stimulate cravings, but not addictions.
The difference between “craving” and “addiction” may appear just wordplay. But it is necessary to use the correct terminology when discussing any type of scientific information.
An “addiction” is defined as a psychological dependence on a substance or behavior. It is a cognitive as well as a physiological condition. In medicine, the word “addiction” is used to describe a situation in which a person’s brain chemistry has been altered to compel them to repeat a substance or activity despite harmful consequences. This tragic scenario is very different than the casual use of “addiction.” We often talk about someone being “addicted” to a video game, a television show, or a non-chemical product.
The most commonly used model to treat addiction is abstinence. That is the complete avoidance of an addictive substance, such as drugs or alcohol. Abstinence is neither a realistic nor sustainable model when it comes to treating self-reported “sugar addiction.” Adopting a model of abstinence means completely avoiding all foods and beverages with any sugar content.
Considering all the foods that contain sugar, this would be an extremely daunting task.
In addition, the body does not require substances such as marijuana or alcohol for survival. The body DOES require glucose (the building blocks of sugar and other carbohydrates) to fuel every cell in the brain.
Consequences of Eliminating Sugar
If abstinence were to be promoted as a “cure” for “sugar addiction,” how would we define sugar? If a food item is classified as high in sugar-based on it containing glucose, this would make an apple nutritionally the same as a cupcake.
As a nutrition expert, such an approach is also far too reminiscent of restrictive dieting. This is a common weight loss technique that most research has found to result in binge eating and weight cycling. When a food item is off-limits, it tends to take on power and value. Deprivation, or even the fear of deprivation, is directly correlated with overeating.
Scientific research indicates that when foods rich in sugar are consumed in a restrict-binge pattern, extracellular levels of dopamine, the neurotransmitter that controls the pleasure and reward centers of the brain, can rise. This prompts the body to reinforce the sense of reward associated with high-sugar foods. And that makes it increasingly difficult to break the cycle.
A Balanced Approached to Sugar Intake
I encourage caution in totally restricting foods and/or food groups, especially those perceived to be desirable. Ultimately, the militant restriction of food choices can have significant and harmful effects on the mind and the body.
Although sugar is not an actual addiction, some people use sugary foods in ways that are less than healthy. Americans have a major sweet tooth. That has contributed to the worsening of numerous health concerns and chronic diseases. The amount of sugar we crave is conditioned by the food industry, early family experiences, and usual food intake.
Yet it is possible to institute small changes into our diets that train the taste buds to enjoy foods that aren’t as sweet. For example, reduce the amount of sugar you add to your coffee or cereal. Experiment with unsweetened versions of naturally sweet foods, such as applesauce or canned fruit. While reducing your intake of concentrated sugars, you will find yourself more sensitive to and appreciative of smaller amounts of sweetness.
Check out our next blog to learn more about sweeteners!
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