- Is Sugar Addictive?
- Statistical Overview of Sugar Use
- Types of Sugar Addiction
- Physical Effects of Sugar
- Negative Health Consequences
- Signs & Symptoms of Sugar Addiction
- Sugar Withdrawal Symptoms
- Tips for Cutting Out Sugar
- Treatment for Sugar Addiction
- Key Sources
- Medical Disclaimer
Many of us have a love-hate relationship with sugar. On the one hand, how can you resist a delicious chocolate brownie or buttery cake? And yet, on the other, how can you ignore the negative effects that sugar has on weight gain and your overall health?
Whether we like it or not, sugar is everywhere. It’s found in birthday and wedding cakes, at restaurants, coffee houses, on supermarket shelves, and in the cupboards of our homes and places of work. While having the odd sweet treat is not necessarily dangerous, chronic consumption is. Sugar may seem harmless at first, because, hey, everyone eats it. However, the truth of the matter is that sugar is not only bad for your health in the long run, but it is also highly addictive.
If you find yourself addicted to sugar, hope is not lost. Many people around the world are successfully overcoming a battle with sugar addiction. And the good news is that there are effective strategies available —not only for coping with this addiction, but also for eliminating sugar from your diet completely.
Before going into the treatment methods that are available for sugar addiction, this article will provide an outline of how sugar affects our brains and bodies and how we can learn to cut down.
Is Sugar Addictive?
Do you ever find yourself craving sweets? Or perhaps reaching for that afternoon sweet fix for a boost of energy? While sugar is embedded into our everyday lives in the forms of cakes, ice-cream, and more, what some might not realize is that it is also highly addictive. In fact, sugar activates the same brain chemicals as some hard street drugs; it is even said to be more addictive than cocaine.
What Sugar Does to the Brain
When a person ingests sugar, they stimulate the production of serotonin and dopamine in the brain. What makes this activation so powerful is that dopamine is responsible for pleasure and reward, while serotonin is responsible for mood, appetite, and sleep. When these neurotransmitters are released frequently or in excess, it leads to a pleasurable high and a boost in mood. As a person becomes used to this sensation, their body builds up a tolerance and they need to consume higher amounts of sugar to achieve the same effect. It is this very process that makes substances like sugar so addictive.
Another factor in this addictive process is the way that sugar activates our opiate receptors, which are part of the body’s reward system. Not only does opiate receptor stimulation result in addictive behavior, but sugar activates the neurological pathways of the brain that lead to tolerance and dependence. This means withdrawing from sugar can also lead to uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms, such as cravings, headaches, stomach pain, insomnia, and more.
What Sugar Does to the Body
Consuming sugar regularly also causes numerous effects on the body which can lead to cravings and low energy. When you eat sugar, your body receives a jolt of energy and a pleasurable high. At this point, your blood sugar levels have spiked. The body then needs to remove that excess glucose from the bloodstream, which is where insulin comes in. Insulin regulates how the body uses and stores glucose; therefore, when it starts this process, you may experience a sudden drop in blood sugar levels. This is where a sugar crash can occur and prompt you to consume (yep, you guessed it) more sugar. So, as well as activating certain brain chemicals, the “highs and lows” effect of sugar on the body can also lead to addiction.
Influences on Sugar Addiction
Aside from the biochemical and neurological effects of sugar consumption, other factors can cause a person to become hooked on sugar:
The Serotonin Effect
The consumption of sugar results in a complex process that eventually depletes your serotonin after it’s been triggered. As serotonin levels drop, it can cause you to crave or consume more sugar.
People who are stressed will often “comfort eat” to feel better or boost their mood. Stress can also cause you to engage in unhealthy eating habits. Researchers have also found that high levels of stress hormones can trigger sugar cravings, compulsive eating, and drug-seeking behavior.
If a person’s natural bacteria are imbalanced or disrupted in the digestive tract, it can cause an overgrowth of fungi and yeast. This results in sugar cravings and can result in a vicious circle if it is not interrupted. Food sensitivities and allergies can also prompt sugar cravings.
Women can often crave sugar during their menstrual cycle, especially if they suffer from Pre-Menstrual Syndrome (PMS). This is due to the hormone changes that cause a drop in a woman’s blood sugar.
Other Names for Sugar
- Corn sweetener
- Corn syrup
- Sorghum syrup
- Brown sugar
- Fruit juice concentrate
- High-fructose corn syrup
Statistical Overview of Sugar Use
Below are some statistics surrounding sugar and its consumption in the U.S.
- 200 years ago, the average American consumed 2 pounds of sugar per year. Today, the average American consumes around 196 pounds of sugar per year.
- Between 2017-2018, children and young adults aged 2 to 19 years consumed an average of 17 teaspoons of sugar per day.
- Between 2018-2019, Americans consumed roughly 11 million metric tons of sugar, up from 10 million metric tons in 2010.
- Roughly one in three children are at risk of developing diabetes.
- The number of adults who have diabetes has increased to 18.8 million (compared with 1.6 million 50 years ago).
- According to the 2014 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, more than 2 out of 3 U.S. adults were overweight, and 1 out of 13 was obese.
Types of Sugar Addiction
While sugar can be part of a person’s normal eating habits, there are also co-occurring mental health conditions and issues that cause sugar addiction.
Anxiety is a mental health condition characterized by excessive worry and fear. It’s therefore no surprise that some people turn to sugar to ease these feelings. While each person is different, the fact is that anxiety is uncomfortable, and a person may find relief in the serotonin and dopamine boost that sugar provides. However, due to sugar’s stimulating effects, it can also worsen anxiety over the long term, especially during the withdrawal process.
Comfort Eating (Depression)
Many people also turn to sugar as a form of comfort eating or self-soothing. This can especially be the case for people who have depression or who experience a chronically low mood. Consuming sugar produces that pleasurable high and burst of energy that people with depression often crave. However, the crashes that result after consuming large amounts can worsen depression, particularly during sugar withdrawal.
Binge eating is another condition that can involve excessive sugar intake. A person who binges will consume large amounts of food in a short period of time and will often experience feelings of guilt and remorse afterward. However, the biological mechanics behind binge eating are the same as for anxiety and depression. It is a form of self-medication that often involves sugary treats.
There are correlations between sugar addiction and people who engage in (or are recovering from) substance abuse. In other words, some individuals turn to sugary foods as a substitute for alcohol or drugs. Since sugar activates the same reward systems in the brain as other drugs, people who are addicted to other substances may find they have an increased craving for sweet things.
Physical Effects of Sugar
Sugar influences brain chemicals that are responsible for mood, energy, and appetite. Some of the initial effects that a person may experience when consuming sugar include:
- Increased energy (or “sugar high”)
- Mood boost
- Increased appetite
Symptoms of consuming too much sugar include:
- Increased hunger and weight gain
- Fatigue and low energy
- A feeling that foods don’t taste sweet enough
- Cravings for sweets
- High blood pressure
- Acne and wrinkles
- Joint pain
Negative Health Consequences
Excessive sugar intake can cause damaging effects on a person’s physical health. Some of the potential long-term consequences include:
- Diabetes and/or insulin imbalances
- Poor kidney function
- Rotting teeth
- Sexual impotence
- Chronic inflammation
- Weight gain or obesity
- Heart disease
- High blood pressure
- Fatty liver
Signs & Symptoms of Sugar Addiction
Like other drugs, there are physical and behavioral signs that indicate that someone is addicted to sugar.
Individuals who regularly consume sugar for long periods can exhibit physical signs, such as:
- Lethargy or fatigue
- Muscle pain
Any sudden changes in behavior can be clear indicators of a problem. Some of the behavioral signs of sugar addiction also apply to other drug dependencies. These include:
- Hiding sugar consumption
- Needing more sugar to satisfy a craving
- Eating sugar even if you’re not hungry
- Craving sweets
- Salty food cravings
- Using sugar to self-soothe
- Feeling guilty about sugar consumption
- Going out of your way to consume sugar
- Experiencing withdrawal symptoms when trying to quit sugar
Sugar Withdrawal Symptoms
- Cravings for sweet or high-calorie foods
- Lack of energy
- Muscle aches
- Stomach cramps
- Irritability or anxiety
- Feeling down or depressed
Tips for Cutting Out Sugar
Cutting out sugar can be difficult, especially as it’s available everywhere you look. However, if you are intent on reducing your sugar intake or cutting it out completely, there are some tips you can follow.
Keep Sugary Foods Away
While this may be difficult at first, it’s important to remember that you are in control of what you eat. Make sure you shop sensibly and avoid buying sugary foods or products which contain hidden sugars. The less sugary foods you have around you, the less tempted you’ll be. This will require more diligence at the store and taking time to read labels carefully. You may even need to politely decline if you’re offered sweet treats at social gatherings.
Sweeten Foods Yourself
Hidden sugars are also one of the biggest causes of overconsumption. As well as reading labels, get in the habit of sweetening food yourself. For example, commercial yogurts and porridges often contain high amounts of added sugar. Choose the plain versions instead and sweeten them at home with alternatives, like a bit of dried fruit or cinnamon. You’ll be amazed at how much less sugar you’ll consume —but you’ll have to be careful you don’t overdo it at home, too!
Eating regularly and sensibly is a great way to curb sugar cravings. If you frequently leave yourself hungry or skip meals throughout the day, your blood sugar will also be spiking up and down. Eating regularly ensures that your blood sugar stays stable, which also reduces sugar cravings.
Incorporate Protein and Fat
Protein and fats are great blood sugar stabilizers. By incorporating good amounts of these into each meal, you’ll find that your blood sugar stays stable for longer. Proteins and fats will also keep you fuller for longer, so that you’re not tempted to reach for a sugary treat later on.
Exercise is not only great for keeping your weight down and your blood sugar stable, but research shows that it may also reduce cravings. This is because exercise can make more sugar available in the brain.
Eat Whole Grains
Starchy foods and refined, white carbohydrates are also sources of sugar. These are often found in foods like bread and pasta, and they spike your blood sugar, causing hunger and sugar cravings. To stop this cycle, eat whole grain foods instead, as they stabilize your blood sugar and are more filling.
Understand Your Emotional Triggers
If your sugar addiction is due to emotional triggers, it’s important to understand what these are and how you can deal with them. Taking sugar away is not the only solution if you still have underlying issues that caused you to become addicted to sugar in the first place. If you’re struggling with mental health issues such as anxiety or depression, seek professional help or counseling.
Some supplements are also great for curbing cravings and stabilizing blood sugar. These include:
- Magnesium: curbs sugar cravings and regulates dopamine, glucose, and insulin. Deficiencies in magnesium can result in sugar cravings, especially for chocolate.
- Zinc: helps the body metabolize insulin and glucose.
- L-glutamine: balances blood sugar.
- Chromium picolinate: can reduce cravings, hunger, and binge eating.
- Vitamin B complex: helps metabolize carbohydrates.
- Fish oil: enhances insulin sensitivity and helps with appetite control and cravings.
Know What to Avoid
Last, but not least, when cutting out sugar, it’s important to know what to avoid. While some of these are obvious, others may not be. It’s also a good idea to read labels and keep an eye out for alternative names for sugar. Things you should actively avoid include:
- Fruit juices
- Fruit (in high amounts)
- Baked goods
- Low-fat foods (fat is often replaced with sugar in these products)
- Refined carbohydrates (white bread, white rice, pasta)
Treatment for Sugar Addiction
Stop On Your Own
Like other drugs, many health professionals advise against quitting cold turkey on your own. While it’s possible to do so, it’s important to bear in mind that doing it this way can worsen withdrawal symptoms. It may also not be sustainable over the long term if you don’t know how to create a sensible plan for withdrawal and alternative ways of eating.
See a Dietician and/or Doctor
Dieticians or doctors can provide tailored plans for tapering off sugar, rather than cutting it suddenly and all at once. Working with a doctor or nutritionist can be one of the best ways to beat a sugar addiction, as they will be able to monitor your progress and provide meal plans and lists of foods that you should and shouldn’t eat. They will also be able to customize a program for your individual needs, health, and body composition.
Many rehab centers do not offer specific plans for sugar addiction. However, individuals who have co-occurring mental health conditions like anxiety or depression may benefit from outpatient treatment that offers dual diagnosis, the 12-Steps, and a focus on topics like relapse prevention and emotional triggers.
However, some rehab facilities do provide specialized programs for sugar or behavioral addictions. Individuals can enroll in an inpatient or outpatient program and receive relevant treatments, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), trauma therapy, nutrition therapy, and other alternative therapy models.
If you or a loved one are struggling with mental health issues and/or sugar addiction, you are not alone. Treatment and support are readily available. Contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357 for information on support and treatment.
You can also find a list of treatment centers near you on our website to help get you on the path to recovery.
Avena, N. M., Rada, P., Hoebel, B. (2008). Evidence For Sugar Addiction: Behavioral and Neurochemical Effects of Intermittent, Excessive Sugar Intake. Neurosci Biobehav Rev. doi: 10.1016/j.neubiorev.2007.04.019.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2021). Get the Facts: Added Sugars. https://www.cdc.gov/nutrition/data-statistics/added-sugars.html.
Cilliers, L. (N.D). 10 Supplements That May Curb Your Carb Cravings and Help You Lose Weight. https://www.genesismedical.co.za/10-supplements-that-may-curb-your-carb-cravings-and-help-you-lose-weight.
Statista. (2020). Sugar Consumption in the United States from 2009/2010 to 2019/2020. https://www.statista.com/statistics/249692/us-sugar-consumption.
The Diabetes Council. (2021). 45 Alarming Statistics on American’s Sugar Consumption and the Effects of Sugar on Americans’ Health. https://www.thediabetescouncil.com/45-alarming-statistics-on-americans-sugar-consumption-and-the-effects-of-sugar-on-americans-health.
At RehabAid.com, we are dedicated to helping people recover from problematic substance use and associated mental health disorders. If you or a loved one are struggling with addiction to drugs or alcohol, you are not alone. Information on treatment and support options is readily available through the National Helpline of the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) at 1-800-662-4357. To further assist you along the path to recovery, the treatment center locator on our website allows you to easily find rehabilitation programs and services in your local area.
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