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Is Sugar Addiction Real?

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I’m sure you’ve seen the headline somewhere that sugar is as addictive as cocaine. Now, thats a pretty bold statement which led me to some further investigation.

I often hear my clients say things like “I am addicted to sugar” or “I can’t control myself around sweets, so I don’t keep them in the house”. Is it really producing physiological and neurochemical aspects of substance abuse?

One side argues that highly palatable foods such as sugar and high fat foods stimulate some of the same regions of the brain that trigger a flood of dopamine, the feel good neurotransmitter.

So what does the science say?

Nothing like true drug withdrawal symptoms have ever been observed in humans, even if you’ve felt that longing desire for that late night treat.

A systematic review found that addictive-like behaviors, such as bingeing, occur only in the context of intermittent access to sugar, not as a result of neurochemical effects of sugar. Those who were in the underweight category or who may be dieting/restricting may exhibit increased reward sensitivity for food.

One side argues that highly palatable foods such as sugar and high fat foods stimulate some of the same regions of the brain that trigger a flood of dopamine, the feel good neurotransmitter.

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A model called the Yale Food Addiction Scale (YFAS), which has been used to identify individuals who exhibit signs of food addiction towards certain types of foods, showed that dieting/restrained eating is what caused elevated scores on the YFAS.While sugar does trigger the same dopamine pathway as drugs, so do many other things including naps, exercise, sex, connecting with others, and other tasty foods that do not contain sugar. If sugar and other foods didn’t trigger the dopamine-reward cycle, we wouldn’t be alive today. 

4 reasons why you might FEEL addicted to sugar

  • You aren’t getting enough sleep: When your body is tired, it is looking for an immediate source of energy. Sugar digests quickly and provides us with that quick surge. Get on a more regular sleep schedule and check out my tips for a better night’s sleep.
  • High stress levels: Stress increases cortisol levels, a hormone that when elevated will alter your circulating levels of glucose and insulin. Manage your stress by finding outlets such as meditation, working out, or journaling.
  • Restriction: By restricting sweets completely from your diet, you may find yourself thinking about them more. Aim to find a balance of the foods that you enjoy.
  • Poor dietary habits: If you aren’t balancing your meals and snacks, you will be left feeling depleted. People tend to crave sugar more when they are consuming a diet of mostly carbs without enough protein and fats. Calcium, zinc, chromium, and magnesium imbalances can manifest themselves as sugar cravings too.
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If you feel out of control or addicted to sugar, and want to find peace with your relationship with food, click the link below.

Nourishment and pleasure are both such essential parts of our relationship with food – Christy Harrison, MPH, RD, CDN

References

1. Westwater M, Fletcher P, Ziauddeen H. Sugar addiction: the state of the science. Eur J Nutr. 2016;55(S2):55-69. doi:10.1007/s00394-016-1229-6

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