“I need to get off sugar, I’m so addicted!” If you have ever uttered these words you are not alone. Nearly everyone has an affinity for the sweet taste of sugar. Historically, sweetness signaled that a food was safe to eat and not likely to poison us. But for some, the sugar cravings and intense desire to over consume sugar may feel like a true addiction. Is it possible to be addicted to sugar in the same way that one can be addicted to nicotine, drugs, or alcohol? Let’s take a look at the research.
In animal models, sugar has been shown to produce at least three symptoms consistent with those of a substance abuse disorder: cravings, tolerance, and withdrawal (1). One study performed on rats, showed that when given the choice, rats preferred sugar sweetened water over intravenous cocaine because the “reward” was greater (2). When we eat foods that contain a lot of sugar, dopamine (a neurotransmitter that drives the brain’s reward system) is released in the brain. With high sugar intake, the dopamine receptors start to down-regulate. Therefore, the next time you consume sugar, your body will be craving more to achieve the same effect or “reward.” Essentially you are building up a tolerance for sugar, in a similar way that one would build up a tolerance for alcohol or other addictive drugs.
If you are feeling out of control with your sugar intake, try foregoing added sugar for two weeks. This can help reset your palate and allow you to taste less highly sweetened foods even better. In a small study done at Kaiser, participants were asked to cut out all added sugars and artificial sweeteners for two weeks. 95% of subjects reported that the foods and drinks they used to consume now tasted “sweeter.” Over half of the participants reported that the intense cravings stopped after two to three days, and 87% no longer felt withdrawal effects after six days (3).
For some restricting sugar can lead straight into sugar binges. If giving up sugar completely is not for you, I would recommend to limit your added sugar to the American Heart Association Guidelines of 6 teaspoons of added sugar per day (about 25 grams) for women and 9 teaspoons (36 grams) of added sugar for men. Keep in mind that added sugar does not include foods which naturally contain sugar like fruit, some vegetables, and milk. Added sugar does include some products that are often marketed as healthier like honey, brown sugar, coconut sugar, agave, maple syrup, etc. When the sugar craving hits try a small piece of dark chocolate and explore mindful eating techniques.
I find that I do often crave something sweet after a meal, one of my favorite ways to nip the craving in the butt is with a mint or to chew a piece of gum. Then I get back to work and within 10 or 15 minutes the sugar craving is a distant memory. What are some of your favorite tricks to reduce or avoid added sugars?
- Evidence for Sugar Addiction: Behavioral and Neurochemical Effects of Intermittent, Excessive Sugar Intake. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2235907/
- Intense Sweetness Surpasses Cocaine Reward. http://www.plosone.org/article/fetchArticle.action?articleURI=info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0000698
- How To End Your Sugar Addiction http://www.cnn.com/2015/09/30/health/ending-sugar-addiction/
Heather Mason is a Registered Dietitian who holds a Master’s Degree in Nutrition Science. She has a passion for debunking nutrition myths and helping people discover delicious and healthy food. You can read more posts from her on her blog, Nutty Nutrition.