I often hear statements claiming that sugar is as addictive as drugs. There are even websites that can help you get rid of your addiction! If all of this is true, does this then mean that we are all sugar junkies without actually realizing it?
Let’s find out!
Yes, sugar activates the reward system in your brain, just like lots of drugs do. Sugar stimulates the secretion of dopamine, giving you a pleasant feeling. This probably is why a lot food addicts often consume lots of sugary products. Nonetheless, this in itself does not mean that sugar is addictive. Water and fat for example, can also activate your reward system whenever you are hungry or thirsty.
Furthermore, there is a big difference between repeatedly eating sugary products, and drug addiction. Drugs can eventually lead to longing changes in the brain. Sugar has no such effect. Quitting sugar therefore will not cause withdrawal symptoms at the rate that drugs do.
What’s interesting to note, is that cravings towards sugar decreases as you get older . Lastly, you don’t need more and more sugar as time progresses, in order to obtain the same effect. Sugar therefore is not physically addictive.
Nonetheless, it is important to moderate your sugar intake. It is not good for your teeth and it often leads to an unhealthy distribution of macronutrients. Lots of sugary products are easily available but often don’t contain that many healthy nutrients.
Knowing all this, it may be more important to focus on the aspect of temptations, rather than labeling sugar intake as an addiction. You will always be tempted to eat sugar. It is important how we act on this, though.
What is an Addiction?
An addiction is not being able to control your cravings to certain substances that can cause physical of mental dependence. This is not only the case with intoxicants, as one can also become addicted to gaming, gambling and so on.
Knowing this, we can say that there are two kinds of addiction.
- Addiction to substances, for example alcohol or nicotine.
- Addiction to behavior, for example gaming or gambling
The Cause of Substance Addiction
Your brain plays a big role in addictions. This is because of the fact that a lot of compounds, such as alcohol, nicotine or drugs, have a direct effect on the brain. All drugs have their own particular effect on the brain. However, all substances, including sugar, have an effect on dopamine.
Dopamine is involved in the brain’s rewarding system. It makes us feel satisfied and happy. Drugs often increase the production of dopamine, which in turn causes the user to want more and more.
Furthermore, nerve cells in the brain change because of drug use. They become less sensitive for bodily neurotransmitters; not just dopamine, but endorphin as well. These neurotransmitters usually work on receptors in the brain. Drugs however, alter these receptors, causing certain neurotransmitters to be less effective.
Addicts therefore are mostly focused on getting their fix, often causing their everyday life to be affected drastically.
Whether someone can become addicted, depends on certain factors.
- The kind of compound/drug
- Genetics (which have a 40-60% involvement on addictions)
- Environment (major events, social influences etc.)
In other words: an addiction is born through alterations in the brain because of addictive compounds. One or more of the following symptoms occur:
- Withdrawal symptoms
- Decrease in social activities
- Continued use despite the negative effects
- Spending a lot of time and money to get a fix
When a person attains at least 3 of these symptoms within a year, it can be classified as an addiction.
Eating as a Behavioral Addiction
Behavior can be addictive as well. There is no drug use involved, but someone can still become addicted to certain behavior, such as gambling, gaming, running or eating. The feeling that a behavioral addict gets after a fix, is comparable to the usage of drugs.
This is caused by their action, as well as feelings of expectation and excitement that it gives. By performing a certain act, the brain releases dopamine, causing the reward system to be indirectly stimulated. The use of drugs, however, acts directly on the reward system, as we’ve discussed before. The feeling you get when performing said action, can then cause a nice sensation, which can turn into an addiction.
A behavioral addiction can have negative effects to your body, social life, and finances. Examples include back pain or headaches because you have been gaming all day long. The same can be said about financial problems because of a gambling addiction, or becoming overweight thanks to a food addiction.
Is Sugar as Addictive as Drugs?
It is often claimed that sugar is as addictive as drugs. There is some truth to this. Sugar, like drugs, acts directly on the brain’s reward system. Furthermore, is causes dopamine secretion to be initiated.
However, there is a big difference between sugar- and drug addiction.
First of all, sugar does not influence neurotransmitters. Quitting sugar therefore does not cause withdrawal effects, neither will you need more and more as time goes on, in order to get a nice feeling.
Physiologically speaking, as sugar addiction does not exist. It is more of a behavioral addiction that we as people have taught ourselves, because we are constantly exposed to sugar. According to the World Health Organization, a sugar addiction does not classify as ‘being dependent on a substance’.
However, it is not weird that people often talk about sugar addiction. It stimulates dopamine secretion, making us feel good. This is probably one of the main reasons why people that are addicted to food often crave the taste and feeling of sugar. The same effects can occur to people that eat a lot of fat foods, or people that constantly listen to music.
Getting a pleasurable sensation simply leads to us wanting more, which can eventually result in a new habit.
In conclusion, the term ‘sugar addiction’ is often used to describe the good feeling that some people get from consuming sugary products. Therefore, there is no ‘true’ addiction.
Dealing with sugar comes down to dealing with temptations.