This article is for the ‘chocoholic.’ Those who love chocolate and find themselves eating a lot of it. If you are concerned about addiction, please consult a medical professional for appropriate support.
The question “is sugar addictive?” is an interesting one. From a biomedical perspective; the current research suggests that sugar is not ‘addictive’ in the same ways that substances, such as nicotine or alcohol, are.
Dopamine is a neurotransmitter, levels of which spike in the brain in response to something pleasurable, including food. The ‘explosion’ of dopamine is much larger in response to addictive substances than in response to sugar, which releases an amount of dopamine that is comparable to holding a baby or laughing.
The argument within nutrition studies that sugar is addictive largely comes from a 2005 rodent study. Rats that were given and restricted from a sugar solution intermittently every 12 hours displayed more binging behaviour than rats who had unlimited access to the solution and rats who were given it twice a day. This has led to the suggestion that there is something unique about sugar that makes it difficult to not want to binge on.
However, a 2014 literature review of all available science on sugar addiction found no evidence that the human brain responds in the same way to sugar as it does to biologically addictive substances like cocaine; it does not have the same ‘neurohijacking.’
Instead, we have pleasure centres in the brain that are stimulated as we eat. While drugs over stimulate and hijack these pathways, sugar leads to the same dopamine response that we have in response to non addictive stimuli like listening to music or laughing. These are pleasurable, but not addictive.
Evolutionary Response to Sugar
It makes evolutionary sense to derive pleasure from food, otherwise we would have no drive to obtain and the survival of our species would be compromised. It also makes sense that we crave high sugar and high fat foods: fat is the most calorie-dense macronutrient so we get the most energy in the smallest package, and sugar is immediately absorbed into the blood stream so we also get fast energy.
Since humans have evolved to favour these flavours, the ‘bliss point’ was developed. This refers to a ratio of salt, sugar and fat that makes food as moreish as possible. The brain responds to these foods with a ‘reward’ of dopamine, making us want to take another bite. Check out our other article about how bliss point features in the chocolate sector too.
Are We Culturally Addicted?
So, we have established that there is currently little evidence to support a sugar ‘addiction’ in the medical sense of the word. However, it is a social fact that the Western world is certainly enamoured, hooked, obsessed with the stuff.
Milk chocolate is a prime example of a food that capitalises upon the bliss point, which helps to explain why people so often scoff a full bar mindlessly and quickly. This way of eating is particularly common in mainstream chocolate, which has such an excess of sugar that it conceals the actual flavour of the cocoa.
If high sugar foods are eaten regularly or in high amounts, the dopamine response will continue to feel rewarding. This is unlike non-sugary, balanced meals, where repetition will diminish the dopamine response. In this way, sugar can be seen to act a bit like an addictive substance and helps us to understand why people seem to be hooked on sugary foods.
To combat this, we recommend relishing chocolate. Craft dark chocolate, with its lower sugar content, is perfect for this; suck a square slowly, savouring and noticing the different aromas and flavours that it contains. Craft chocolate offers an awful lot to appreciate, and mindful tasting often leads to a sense of satisfaction after only a few squares.
References and Further Reading:
“Addiction” as a mental health disorder:
- American Society of Addiction Medicine, 2011. Public Policiy Statement: Definition of Addiction.
- Hebebrand et al. 2014. “Eating addiction”, rather than “food addiction”, better captures addictive-like eating behavior. Neurosci Biobehav Rev 47
- Ziauddeen & Fletcher, 2013. Is food addiction a valid and useful concept? Obesity Review 14(1)
Is sugar addictive?
- Westwater et al. 2016. Sugar addiction: the state of the science. Eur J Nutr.
- TedTalk ‘How sugar affects the brain – Nicole Avena’
Actual case studies:
- Thanarajah et al. 2019. Food Intake Recruits Orosensory and Post-Ingestive Dopaminergic Circuits to Affect Eating Desire in Humans. Cell Metabolism 29(3)
- Cox et al, 2017. Cocaine Cue-Induced Dopamine Release in Recreational Cocaine Users. Scientific Reports 7
- Avena et al. 2008. After daily binging on a sucrose solution, food deprivation induces anxiety and accumbens dopamine/acetylcholine imbalance. Physiology & Behavior 94(3)
- Rada, Avena & Hoebel. 2005. Daily binging on sugar repeatedly releases dopamine in the accumbens shell. Neuroscience
- De Vries and Meule, 2016. Food Addiction and Bulimia Nervosa: New Data Based on the Yale Food Addiction Scale 2.0 Eur Eat Disord Rev (24(6)
- Stice, Burger and Yokum, 2014. Caloric Deprivation Increases Responsivity of Attention and Reward Brain Regions to Intake, Anticipated Intake, and Images of Palatable Foods. Neuroimage.
- Pietiläinen et al, 2011. Does dieting make you fat? A twin study. Int J Obes (Lond) 36(3)