If you haven't already heard, sugar is (apparently) the source of all evil.
It’s fattening, disease-causing, and, to make things worse, potentially as addictive as cocaine!
But as tempting as it may be to dismiss them as baseless and facile statements, the truth is that there is at least circumstantial evidence that sugar, indeed:
- Triggers the reward pathways in the brain and may cause addiction, plus
- Contributes to overeating, obesity, and, in turn, various chronic health conditions
Keywords? Circumstantial evidence.
In this article, we’ll explore why such circumstantial evidence will fail to stand up to scrutiny and use real, credible science to explain why sugar really isn’t as harmful as mass media (or influencers pushing sugar-free products) make it out to be.
Yes, sugar seems to be addictive … in rats
Do you know how they say there's no smoke without fire?
In most studies, researchers provided the rats with intermittent access to sucrose solution:
- 12 hours ad libitum (basically, unlimited), followed by
- 12 hours without sucrose
… and found that the rodents often showed signs of sugar “bingeing” behavior that:
- Increased dopamine within the nucleus accumbens (a critical brain structure involved in mediating motivational and emotional processes) and
- Caused withdrawal signs after the cessation of sucrose solution
These are the exact mechanisms through which drugs of abuse (e.g., amphetamine and cocaine) work to cause addiction. But here's the thing.
Animal experiments can provide valuable insights during the exploratory stage of research. But their findings are not always comparable to humans. In other words, to find out whether sugar is truly addictive to humans, we’d need research that involves … yep, humans.
We need human research
Good news: a 2017 study published in Appetite provided just that.
More specifically, here's a brief overview of what the researchers did and found.
They recruited 1,046 female and 449 male university students between the ages of 18 and 30 who were asked to complete an online survey intended to measure their:
1️⃣ Food addiction for food-specific categories:
👉 Low-fat savory foods (LFSA): light foods or snacks containing none/almost no fat or sugar (e.g., rice cakes, crackers, vegetables)
👉 Sugary foods: foods mainly/totally containing sugar without fats or protein (e.g., sweets, candy, juice, soda)
👉High-fat sweet foods (HFSW): high fat with sugar (e.g., cake, chocolate, pastry)
👉High-fat savory foods (HFSA): high fat and some carbs or protein (chips, fries, meat, cheese)
2️⃣ Depression symptoms
3️⃣ Bodyweight and height
What did the researchers find?
The researchers reported 3 main findings:
- The incidence of food addiction was more prevalent in participants reporting having problems with HFSW and HFSA foods.
- A strong association between food addiction symptoms and BMI values.
- A strong, positive correlation exists between food addiction symptoms and depression symptoms.
The takeaway most relevant to this article?
It seems high-fat sweet and high-fat savory (i.e., energy-dense or highly palatable foods) affect eating dependence more than simply sugar by itself.
Or, put another way, sugar doesn't appear addictive in humans — at least, not when consumed alone.
And when you think about it, that seems logical.
After all, how likely are you to chomp on a block of sugar vs honey-drizzled pancakes stacked with bacon?
Does sugar contribute to obesity and a plethora of diseases? 🤔
OK, so sugar isn’t addictive by itself.
But it does still cause obesity and a dizzying range of chronic health diseases … right?
It'll be inaccurate to say that sugar doesn't play a role. That said, it's worth understanding that sugar itself likely isn't the primary driver for obesity or its associated health conditions.
Instead, it's the overall overconsumption of calories.
Looking for proof? The following may help:
- Many meta-analyses have revealed that increased sugar consumption is associated with increased energy intake in general — supporting the notion that higher energy intake is the cause of the obesity epidemic.
- A 2016 review published in the European Journal of Nutrition failed to find an association between sugar consumption at normal levels within the human diet (in contrast to the typical and abnormal hypercaloric conditions in many studies) and various adverse metabolic and health-related effects.
Limit your consumption of hyper-palatable foods
Bottom line? Don’t demonize sugar.
Unlike drugs of abuse, sugar (by itself) is unlikely to make you feel like uncontrollably snorting it up your nose or stuffing your face with it.
When calories are equated, sugar is also unlikely to cause obesity and various adverse health consequences more than any other macronutrient (i.e., protein, fat, or fiber).
That said, since hyper-palatable foods appear to play a role in eating dependence, you may wish to limit your consumption.
And it's probably for the better since hyper-palatable foods are often ultra-processed foods that tend to be calorie-dense and nutrient-poor — a double-whammy, womp-womp effect on your waistline and health.
Take control of your calorie intake
Ultimately, the number one thing you can do to minimize your risk of chronic health conditions is to maintain a healthy weight.
And the key to doing that?
It's in taking control of your calorie intake and ensuring you stay on the right side of the energy balance equation.
Here are a few articles that may help you with that:
If you’re tired of second-guessing your calorie consumption and playing “catch-up” to your weight, check out GymStreak.
Simply key in whatever you're eating for breakfast, lunch, or dinner (or snacks), and the app auto-updates your daily calorie intake in real-time.
Oh, and even better still, the app can tailor a nutrition plan for you and your unique fitness goals — so you never have to hurt your head thinking about what and when to eat. How convenient is that?
See this multi-tasking workout + nutrition app in action here:
*sigh of relief* We'll guide you through it all — step-by-step. Just download the app, and you'll be making progress toward your dream body like never before.
Gillespie, K. M., Kemps, E., White, M. J., & Bartlett, S. E. (2023). The Impact of Free Sugar on Human Health—A Narrative Review. Nutrients, 15(4), 889. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu15040889
Hoebel, B. G., Avena, N. M., Bocarsly, M. E., & Rada, P. (2009). A Behavioral and Circuit Model Based on Sugar Addiction in Rats. Journal of Addiction Medicine, 3(1), 33–41. https://doi.org/10.1097/ADM.0b013e31819aa621
Lenoir, M., Serre, F., Cantin, L., & Ahmed, S. H. (2007). Intense Sweetness Surpasses Cocaine Reward. PLoS ONE, 2(8), e698. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0000698
Markus, C. R., Rogers, P. J., Brouns, F., & Schepers, R. (2017). Eating dependence and weight gain; no human evidence for a “sugar-addiction” model of overweight. Appetite, 114, 64–72. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.appet.2017.03.024
Prada, M., Saraiva, M., Garrido, M. V., Sério, A., Teixeira, A., Lopes, D., Silva, D. A., & Rodrigues, D. L. (2022). Perceived Associations between Excessive Sugar Intake and Health Conditions. Nutrients, 14(3), 640. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu14030640
Rippe, J. M., & Angelopoulos, T. J. (2016). Sugars, obesity, and cardiovascular disease: Results from recent randomized control trials. European Journal of Nutrition, 55(Suppl 2), 45–53. https://doi.org/10.1007/s00394-016-1257-2
Wei, S., Bilbao, A., & Spanagel, R. (2018). P.2.004—Sugar-addictive phenotypes in mice. European Neuropsychopharmacology, 28, S23. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.euroneuro.2017.12.043