When you’re half a sleeve deep into Girl Scout cookies and your impulse control hasn’t kicked in, you might wonder if you’re dealing with something other than a craving—something more like an addiction. Maybe you’ve heard the fact that sugar activates the same pleasure centers in your brain as substances like cocaine and heroin. But while it’s understandable to feel out of control around sugar, it just doesn’t have what it takes to be considered addictive by the standards of addiction researchers or the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), which includes the medically accepted definition of addiction.
The similarities between how the brain responds to sugar and Schedule I drugs drugs were discovered in studies performed on rats with limited access to sugar, explains Ayana Habtemariam, a dietitian and social worker based in Arlington, Virginia. “Similar neurochemical responses have been observed in humans in response to puppies and music,” she says. Beyond being misleading, the idea of sugar addiction could be harmful to a person’s overall diet and their relationship with food. So why do we insist on talking about sugar like it’s a drug?
Pleasurable Doesn’t Mean Addictive
According to the American Heart Association, the average American adult eats 77 grams of added sugar per day, well above the 50-gram maximum that the Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends for someone eating 2,000 calories per day. For a long time, scientists have been trying to figure out why we eat so much sugar. One reason is that it releases dopamine in the area of your brain associated with motivation and reward. In simple terms, it makes you feel good. Yes, the same thing happens when you take addictive drugs, but it can also happen when you exercise or have sex.
Margaret Westwater, a researcher at Cambridge University and the lead author of a 2016 review of existing studies on sugar addiction—which have been done primarily on rodents, not humans—explains that addiction is a disease with three phases: substance bingeing, substance-seeking behavior and habitual substance use, and withdrawal. The DSM-5 defines it similarly but instead uses the experiences of certain symptoms as its criteria, including substance cravings and failing to fulfill daily roles because of substance use. Westwater and her review coauthors found that, unlike truly addictive substances, eating sugar has not been shown to consistently prompt compulsive intake; rodents won’t continue to seek it out when it’s paired with an unpleasant stimulus like a shock or a bitter taste, or when it’s not readily available. Likewise, regularly eating sugar doesn’t necessarily create an increased tolerance—meaning you need more of a substance to achieve the same effect—which is another hallmark of addiction. Although habitually eating large amounts of sugar can dull the body’s insulin response over time (that’s what causes type 2 diabetes), more research is needed to say whether regularly eating sugar creates an increased tolerance to its effects on human brains.
Westwater explains that while some people report powerful cravings for sweet foods, the evidence suggests that this is because of taste and other sensory preferences that are encoded in our brains—a preference that evolved in humans long ago when energy-dense foods helped protect against famine and one that is reinforced by the fact that sugar tastes good. Truly addictive substances, on the other hand, have post-ingestive effects on brain chemistry that are both acute (an immediate change in how we feel) and chronic (characterized by obsessive substance seeking and needing an ever growing dose). And while there is a bit of a gray area between pleasure-seeking behavior and true addiction, Westwater’s review finds that eating sugar falls into the former camp, while consuming cocaine and heroin falls into the latter.
All of this said, some nutrition researchers still believe that sugar addiction might exist. In a 2018 review published in Frontiers in Psychiatry, the authors argue that sugar addiction is subtle and more similar to caffeine or nicotine addiction than to cocaine or heroin addiction. Still, they describe several factors that complicate the question of whether sugar is truly addictive, including the fact that bingeing can also be caused by food restriction.
You’re Probably Just Hungry
“Restrictive eating patterns have become the norm in our society,” she says. “When our bodies don’t receive the energy they need, biological reinforcements kick in to ensure our survival. This can come in the form of craving sugar or feeling out of control around it.” Whether you’re in the middle of a no-added-sugar challenge, on a low-carb diet, or just trying to cut your calorie intake, your body’s natural response is to crave sugar as a quick source of energy.
Researchers have explored withdrawal symptoms associated with sugar, Habtemariam notes. “Some reports suggest that rodents display signs of anxiety following loss of access to sugar,” Westwater says. “However, since such ‘withdrawal’ often occurs in the context of extended fasting, we cannot say if the behaviors were precipitated by previous sugar consumption or by hunger.” In other words, it isn’t clear whether the anxiety is caused by lack of sugar or by lack of food overall.
Don’t Demonize Sugar
Thinking of sugar as addictive or inherently bad is not only inaccurate, it can also lead to a disordered relationship with food. “As scientists, we must be aware of and cautious about the role of language in shaping beliefs and behaviors that might ultimately become health harming,” Westwater says. “Labeling a nutrient as addictive or bad can drive specific fears of foods that can increase one’s risk for various eating disorders. For some people, this restriction increases the likelihood of binge-eating episodes, in which they may consume large quantities of these feared foods, which drives further feelings of guilt and shame.” Even if you aren’t on a strict low-carb or no-sugar diet, it’s possible that you often steer clear of sugar because of all the messaging out there demonizing it.
“Our bodies are intelligent. They crave what they need most,” Habtemariam says. As with all foods, your body uses sugar for energy. Naturally occurring sugars in fruits, vegetables, and other foods come packed with other important nutrients like fiber, vitamins, and minerals. And while added added sugar isn’t exactly nutritious, it’s OK to eat as a small part of a balanced overall diet. If you’re hungry and craving carbs, it’s probably because your body could put them to good use. Most of your carbs should still come from whole foods like fruits, veggies, and grains, but sugar can be nutritionally beneficial in some cases, like if you’re exercising for an extended period of time and need quick energy. Eating it alongside protein, fat, and fiber can slow its absorption and prevent the sugar rush and subsequent crash you might feel after eating just a pack of Skittles.
No one’s saying sugar is a health food, but we should stop equating a sweet tooth to a drug habit. While researchers will likely continue to debate the semantics of sugar as an addictive substance, the best thing you can do is tune the idea out. “By conceptualizing your relationship with sugar as an addiction, you can only understand it that way,” Habtemariam says. Thinking of sugar as something you can’t quit can make you feel out of control around it; thinking of it as something you like eating sometimes makes it feel like more of a choice. Instead, she recommends recognizing your cravings for what they are: a physiological response to your body needing carbohydrates or a simple pleasure-seeking response.