Lots of people talk about “sugar addiction.” But here’s the truth: You can’t be addicted to sugar.
You might feel addicted to sugar.
First, let me say: It’s possible to feel addicted to sugar. If you typically try to restrict sugar or avoid sugary foods, there are two common side effects. First, you might find yourself thinking about sugar constantly. We tend to want things we can’t have. Second, you might feel like you’re unable to control yourself around sugar. You might binge on sweet foods when they’re around. When you start eating sugary foods, you may not be able to stop yourself, even when you feel full.
But you can’t actually be addicted to sugar, despite what you’ve heard.
You may have heard that sugar lights up the same pleasure centers in your brain as cocaine. That’s true! But, lots of things have this effect: sex, listening to good music, playing with cute puppies, and more. Like all of these things, sugar is pleasurable! But, it’s not addictive.
In a nutshell, here’s why: Sugar doesn’t meet the criteria for an addictive substance. Addiction researcher Margaret Westwater explained this to me for an Outside Magazine article. Although there isn’t much research on sugar addiction in humans (which means there’s not enough evidence to say that it’s a thing!), there are many trials in rodents. Westwater and her colleagues compiled existing rodent evidence in a 2016 review, and found two key addiction criteria aren’t met when it comes to sugar.
First: Rodents don’t continue to seek out sugar when it’s paired with something unpleasant, like an electric shock. (The same isn’t true for addictive drugs — rodents will continue to take the drug even if there’s a shock along with it.) Second: eating sugar doesn’t necessarily increase your tolerance for sugar. With addictive substances, your tolerance gradually increases, so you need more to feel the same effects. With sugar, this isn’t typically true. (Yes, you might binge on sugar, but this isn’t always the case, and it’s likely due to restriction.)
If you feel addicted, a “detox” will only make things worse.
I recently wrote a story for Health about why sugar “detoxes” are likely to backfire. In a nutshell: Restricting sugar absolutely makes you crave sugar more. Cutting sugar out for a certain number of days will help you eat less sugar in the short-term. You might even stop thinking about sugar towards the end of the “detox.” But the second you’re “allowed” to eat sugar again, you’ll probably have out-of-control cravings for the stuff. And when you start eating it, you might not be able to stop when you feel full. Heck, your body might not even be sending fullness signals, because it’s afraid you’ll cut out sugar again and it wants to get as much as possible before then.
If you’re worried you have a sugar addiction, the best thing to do is quit restricting the stuff.
It might sound counterintuitive (or, IDK, maybe it doesn’t), but the only way to stop obsessing about food is to loosen your grip. Bingeing and feeling out of control around food is often a result of trying to restrict what you eat. By giving up that control, you’ll ultimately feel much more in control.
To read more about why sugar addiction isn’t real, here are two articles I’ve written in the past:
You Cant Actually Be Addicted to Sugar (Outside Magazine)
What Happens When You Stop Eating Sugar? Here’s What Nutritionists Say — And Why It’s Not a Good Idea. (Health Magazine)