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Sugar: Addictive or Not? Here’s What Research (Actually) Says

Sugar is as addictive as cocaine — true or false? And should we blame obesity and other chronic health conditions on sugar? Get answers here.

Athletic woman in gym clothes clapping her covered in sugar icing hands together above a stack of doughnuts inside a gym

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!

Wild claims.

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 the case of sugar's supposed "addictiveness", we can trace the smoke back to a handful of rodent 🐁 experiments.

In most studies, researchers provided the rats with intermittent access to sucrose solution:

  1. 12 hours ad libitum (basically, unlimited), followed by
  2. 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.

How did the researchers conduct the study?

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:

  1. The incidence of food addiction was more prevalent in participants reporting having problems with HFSW and HFSA foods.
  2. A strong association between food addiction symptoms and BMI values.
  3. 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:

How Often Should You Eat For Weight Loss?
Some experts recommend 2 meals a day - while others call for 6 meals daily. Which approach is right? How often should you eat, really? Get the answer here.
3 Hunger-Suppressing Foods Helpful for Weight Loss
You’re trying your best to stick to a calorie deficit. The only problem? All that intense hunger. Find 3 hunger-suppressing foods that may help.
Counting Calories for Weight Loss: When Is It Ever Okay?
Your calorie balance determines your weight. That’s for sure. But does that mean you should count calories in your food for weight loss purposes?
Weight Loss Fatigue Is Real: 5 Ways To Deal With Low Energy
No, it’s not in your head. Weight loss fatigue is real. But you can fight back; here are 5 tips to implement so your weight continues dropping.

If you’re tired of second-guessing your calorie consumption and playing “catch-up” to your weight, check out GymStreak.

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See this multi-tasking workout + nutrition app in action here:

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References

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