Help! I'm a Sugar Addict!

My mum had a sweet tooth. She continually craved cake, biscuits, teacakes, pastries and the sweetest desserts such as meringues. I have a vivid childhood memory of her, utterly aghast when I chose fruit salad for dessert in a restaurant. She claimed we could not be related and almost disowned me!

Is sugar addiction a ‘thing’?

To follow is a summary of the evidence surrounding this controversial question, in an attempt to find out whether sugar really is guilty as charged.


What is addiction?

As a backdrop to this discussion, it is useful to first consider the various aspects of addiction. Of course, addiction is an extremely complex phenomenon, incorporating substance addiction, such as nicotine, alcohol or drugs, and behavioural addiction, such as gambling.

The NHS defines addiction as “not having control over doing, taking or using something to the point where it could be harmful to you”. Crucially, an addict experiences cravings, dependency and impaired control of actions. This can cause disruptive consequences emotionally, socially and physically, yet the individual is compelled to continue with the behaviour despite the known risks. Addiction also produces physiological effects which result in increased tolerance to the substance and withdrawal symptoms if access to it is stopped.


Can eating sugar cause such devastating effects?

Research into sugar addiction has been performed with rats, and some results suggest that rats show behavioural signs of addiction, for example, bingeing on sugar when they have been deprived of sweet, palatable foods for a period of time.

However, the rats in these studies only had intermittent access to sugar, which is an essential source of energy. Therefore, it can be argued they are simply behaving as though they are hungry and seeking out food, and that this is not the same as being addicted to sugar. In any case, it is very difficult to extrapolate evidence from animal studies and apply it to human behaviour, because humans are genetically and socially very different to rats.

There are very few studies which analyse sugar addiction in humans and those that have been performed are generally of poor quality with many limitations. Furthermore, there are no studies which suggest that sugar intake can cause tolerance or withdrawal effects. Thus, in terms of the scientific evidence base, there is nothing to suggest that sugar is physically addictive in the human population.


Really? Sugar addiction is not a ‘thing’?

This may come as a surprise to many, not least me. In the last month, five separate individuals have described to me, with some desperation, that they or their child are addicted to sugar. This is no laughing matter for these people, who explained with considerable distress that they are trapped in a pattern of eating sugar relentlessly, feeling completely out of control and powerless to change matters.


If sugar addiction is not a ‘thing’, why do so many people crave it?

There are certainly individual differences in preferences where sweet foods are concerned. We all know someone who has a sweet tooth, someone like my mum who would happily eat cake for lunch (and breakfast!). She also had a separate ‘pudding stomach’ which was extremely demanding and would be in need of attention even after a huge roast dinner.

Neuroscience suggests that these cravings arise from the experience of sweet food tasting good, which stimulates ‘happy’ hormones called endorphins. Sugar stimulates a chemical called dopamine, triggering a reward system in which the greater the sugar intake, the greater the spike in dopamine. This reinforces the eating behaviour and encourages a person to consume sugar repeatedly.

Of course, sugar is vital to humans, and in fact our brains rely on glucose exclusively. It is therefore no surprise that humans find sugar pleasurable and it is implausible that we have evolved to become addicted to something we in fact need to stay alive.

A great many other pleasurable human behaviours are rooted in similar biological mechanisms and yet they are rarely accused of being addictions. These pleasure-seeking behaviours, including sugar consumption, may be better described as ‘hedonism’ than ‘addiction’.

This is not to belittle the anguish that someone feels in the grips of their perceived sugar ‘addiction’. For many people, it is a very real and very distressing issue, and something that individuals desperately wish they could change. So what can be done to help?


Restriction, not addiction?

While the science may explain the strong feeling of ‘being hooked’ that some individuals perceive in respect to their relationship with sugar, it is likely to be a behavioural construct rather than a physical one.

Continual bingeing on sugar can feel out of control, but this may have its roots in restriction, rather than addiction, as in the case of the rat studies in which animals deprived of sugar wanted to eat it more.

Several human studies support the idea that physical restriction of particular foods causes an individual to crave them, and eat them more. Additionally, emotional restriction may also play a part in humans. This is the feeling of guilt that many people have about eating sugary foods, perhaps arising from a person’s upbringing, or the culture or environment that they live in.


Is there any escape?

The most instinctive solution to escape from the prison of bingeing on sugar is to go ‘cold turkey’, that is, similar to strategies advised by many professionals to those addicted to drugs or alcohol. However, this is not easy in the case of sugar, because it is integral to many of the foods we eat, including those that are good for health.

Many nutrients are present in foods containing sugar, such as fruit, vegetables, dairy and grains and we need all of these as part of a balanced diet. If a person eliminates sugar, they are at risk of eliminating a great many vitamins and minerals, not to mention excellent sources of fibre.

However, it is possible to reduce sugar intake without being too drastic about it, and still gain control. As with many aspects of dietary behaviour, it is not straightforward to change sugar eating habits. Understanding an individual’s psychology, together with their practical circumstances, are important to devise a strategy for behaviour change.

Meal planning, for example, is one such strategy used to ensure that non-sugary, palatable foods are readily available to satisfy hunger or food cravings. It also helps to provide some psychological structure and support for an individual’s decision making regarding what to eat. 


Help is at hand!

For those who feel addicted to sugar, the solution does not have to be heavy restriction. Habits will eventually break if the new moderate behaviour is repeatedly and consistently practised. Changing behaviour is difficult and requires time and commitment but it can be done, and it is more likely to be successful with the one-to-one support of a registered dietician or nutritionist.


Photo credit: Yarden Photography