Is Sugar Addiction Real?

As a nutrition specialist working with many people hooked on sugar, I chat with many others that are totally clueless on the subject. Some can see the point in wanting to give your body a break, but others feel like a world without sugar is unbearably dull.

My response to that is that clearly they either:

  1. don’t feel they’re hooked on it,
  2. don’t want to admit it,
  3. or have no medical need to get off it.
is sugar addiction real

The reason getting off sugar and refined carbs matters is that even if you don’t have a chronic condition you’re trying to manage, or need to lose weight, eating an anti-inflammatory diet will help prevent any of those things from happening. It’s one of the most amazing things you can do for your body to keep inflammation at bay.

That being said, quitting sugar and processed junk food is the very first step in going anti-inflammatory. Many people try to skip this step and go right on into eating an anti-inflammatory diet or jump into an elimination diet.

Neither of these options is possible if you can’t quit eating sugar or refined carbs.

Once I realized this, I strived to make healing my addiction to sugar and carbs my first order of business on my journey to live an anti-inflammatory lifestyle.

One of the lowest moments of self-loathing in my life was being about 25 pounds overweight, constantly ‘saying’ I wanted to lose weight, but hiding out in the pantry, terrified of being caught, while I shoved cupcake after cupcake in my face because I literally could not control myself.

So if you had asked me, personally… Hell yes, sugar addiction is real.

woman addicted to sugar holding measuring tape around her waist

If you ask my husband, who’s always been able to just have a bite or two and walk away… well, he doesn’t really know. But he can tell you that he feels that way about potato chips.

As a nutrition specialist with a Master of Science in nutrition under my belt, as well as countless hours doing deep dives into the newest peer-reviewed research on sugar addiction, I can confirm the research supporting ‘food’ being addictive, including sugar.

For some, sugar alone is what will get them. For others it could be the salt, or even the combination of the flavors like fat + sugar, or fat + salt. Food companies have spent billions of dollars figuring this out. And make no mistake: their interests lie in making sure you keep coming back for more.

As a nutrition specialist and recovered sugar addict (and mom), I get asked this question over and over: Is sugar addiction real? Like really real?

And although the answer has taken many forms over the past several years, my answer to the question is a resounding YES, sugar addiction is really real. And I’ll explain why.

My relationship with sugar started as a kid from the south whose family knew no bounds of cooking with sugar and white flour. This meant dessert after many a meal, and the biggest, sugary-est birthday cakes you’ve ever seen. I loved the sugar and butter combination (or sugar and shortening), and from the time I was a kid, I would always request the piece of cake with the absolute most icing flowers on it.

woman addicted to sugar binge eating a donut

I never knew the damage all the sugar was doing to my gut bacteria, nor that it could have an effect on my moods, hormones, skin, metabolic markers, and definitely not my neurotransmitters or immune system.

I developed asthma around 12 and had terrible hayfever that I never really shook. By my teen years, I had terrible acne, was constantly irritable, and forever anxious.

It wasn’t until adulthood when I started studying nutrition that I really took a step back and thought through my constant depressive symptoms as a teen and young adult, and put a few pieces together for the ups and downs of my moods, skin, and hormones.

But it wasn’t until after having gestational diabetes for 2 out of 3 pregnancies (type 2 diabetes runs in my family) that I noticed that I felt a thousand percent better when I nixed the sugar.

But quitting sugar wasn’t as easy as just saying ‘no thank you’.

Every birthday and holiday was a struggle. I’ve been in the throes of postpartum depression 3x where I would hide in the pantry to stuff as many cupcakes in secret as I could into my face before anyone could see.

woman addicted to sugar binge eating in secret

I’ve binged for hours, alternating sugary and salty snacks, in secret when my husband was out of town for work.

And I knew that there was never any circumstance that could keep ‘just one bite’ from turning into 75 bites.

So I can attest first-hand what it feels like to be addicted to sugar. No matter what kind of logic your brain tells you about how crappy you’ll feel the next day (physically and emotionally), that addict part of your brain takes over and mutes the logic.

The Science behind sugar addiction

While in my master’s program we had to do many projects on various topics that all require peer-reviewed studies to support our answers (which is how the medical community and medical organizations formulate their recommendations of things for public health.) Part of the studies I sought out revolved around sugar addiction.

At the time one professor pointed out that the only study supporting sugar addiction thus far involved rats that preferred sugar over cocaine. This boggled me, so I veered on a tangent toward addiction itself to try and get more answers.

Addictive behavior toward substances has these criteria:

  • Strong cravings or desire to use a substance
  • Failed attempts to quit using the substance or even lessen the frequency
  • Using that substance even when you know it’s causing harm
  • Tolerance of the substance (you need more to get the same feeling or effect)
  • Withdrawal symptoms (if attempts are made to quit using the substance)

At the time I was in my master’s program, the International Classifications of Diseases (one of 2 books used to give diagnostic codes so insurance can decide if they will or will not cover medical services) contained mental health diagnoses for food addiction, but not specifically sugar.

The reasoning was that they, at the time, couldn’t definitively prove that sugar itself was physically addicting, further confusing the ‘Is sugar addiction real?’ question altogether.

I personally have a problem with this, because many people (including myself) have felt the withdrawal symptoms of coming off sugar. These side effects are definitely not imagined, and some have described them as feeling like having a mild case of the flu.

The clincher of sugar is that when consumed, it occupies the same receptors in the brain as drugs like cocaine and heroin. It gives a dopamine hit, which makes you feel good. So it activates those reward systems in the brain and essentially ‘programs’ the brain to want more and make you think you need it.

And once you keep eating it, cravings will start for it.

From that point, it can be very difficult to satisfy the craving and keep yourself from seeking anything to replace it until you completely get off it, and for long enough.

Another thing that happens is that you build tolerance. This is when the brain receptors get a lot of the dopamine hits but eventually adapt and need more to get that reward response. Studies have also proven that the sensation of sweetness builds a tolerance.

woman lying head on table eating carbs

There is also evidence of a genetic component to some people feeling addicted to sugar. The gene that controls the dopamine receptors in our brains can have mutations that impair the reward system in the brain, thereby triggering some people to exhibit more addictive behavior toward sugar.

This tends to be one of the hallmarks of a definition of ‘addiction’, but again– the issue is whether it specifically is sugar, or is another component of the food you’re eating, or even a combination of components.

Recently, research has been compiled to compare the criteria of an addictive substance to the proven addictive traits of sugar.

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According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), two of the eleven criteria must be met by a patient for that patient to qualify as addicted to a substance. The study done proves that five criteria of addiction to sugar could be met, exceeding the minimum criteria.

How to break the sugar addiction

Without a proper understanding of the truly addictive nature of sugar, many people are at a loss as to how to break their sugar addiction.

Many have tried dieting and quitting cold turkey over and over again, to no avail.

Experience with myself and clients through the years has shown that there are many different factors at play, including:

  1. genetics,
  2. how much sugar (and refined carbs) are consumed on a normal basis,
  3. and for how long.

A popular term that comes up in searches and circulating in ‘wellness’ media is a sugar detox. While many may think this concept is a godsend to those trying to quit sugar, it may do more harm than good to those truly addicted.

The reason is that some people can do a sugar detox and are done with sugar, no problem. Those of us that truly have that addictive component to sugar usually can’t manage longer than a week on a sugar detox.

woman trying to resist sugar holding up apple and donut

The cravings will make us give up, and the withdrawal will send us on a binge.

We’ve essentially been ‘programmed’ to be hooked on sugar and refined carbs.

Thus, the first step is figuring out if you’re more likely to be addicted or less. If less, a sugar detox can be a great way to get off sugar for a week or so and learn how to switch out meals to healthier sugar-free versions.

If you are more likely to be addicted, undoing that ‘sugar programming’ will take a lot more work. Because it’s literally been programmed into your reward response system as well as your metabolic expectations.

This is incredibly disappointing that the government has allowed our food system to create this trap. But there is a way to break that addiction with what I call ‘Sugar Deprogramming’. If you’re ready to break your addiction with sugar deprogramming, read the next article in this series: 👇

DID YOU KNOW… The TYPE of sugar detox that’s best for your body depends on your sugar addiction probability? Take the QUIZ to find out yours! 👇

is sugar addiction real

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is sugar addiction real
Laura Brigance, MS, CHC

Author: Laura Brigance, MS, CHC

Laura is a Nutrition Specialist and Certified Health Coach with a Master of Science in Nutrition. Her goal is to help women reduce inflammation, balance blood sugar, and regain natural energy with an Anti-Inflammatory Diet + Lifestyle.

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