What is sugar addiction?

Quick Answer
Sugar addiction is the compulsive physiological need for sugar. This compulsive need constitutes a behavioral addiction, an interpretation that is reinforced when sugar addicts, long habituated to large amounts of sugar, experience classic withdrawal symptoms when their sugar intake is reduced.
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Just as the search for explanations of addiction to alcohol and other drugs has been complicated by the nature-nurture debate, so too have been the controversies over sugar addiction. Some medical researchers and physicians believe that sugar addiction might be genetic—that is, that the biological nature of certain humans, specifically the information programmed into their deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA), can explain why some people become addicted to sugar, in a way similar to how others become addicted to substances such as alcohol, nicotine, or heroin.

Other researchers have traced the pleasurable physiological state (popularly known as a sugar high) induced by an intake of sugar to the activation of certain receptors in the brain. Sugar is said to affect the same neurotransmitters in the brain associated with the pleasure produced by such substances as nicotine in cigarette smoke.

Those who emphasize the cultural rather than the genetic causes of physiological addiction to sugar point out that refined sugar (or sucrose, largely derived from sugar cane and sugar beets) has been a relatively recent addition to the human diet. Throughout most of the evolution of Homo sapiens and the early history of civilized humans, the dietary need for glucose was satisfied by the ingestion of fruits, vegetables, and fats, which could be metabolized into glucose as needed.

Even after techniques were discovered that allowed sugar to be extracted from plants, most humans were unable to use this sugar because of its expense. Sugar did not become an inexpensive commodity until the eighteenth century, when doctors began to discover some of its negative effects on the human body. For some historians, the origin of sugar addiction can be traced to this period, when laborers could be inexpensively fed with sweetened foods and drinks rather than with costly meats, fruits, and vegetables.

While there has in the past been some debate as to whether sugar addiction constitutes a genuine physiological dependence, recent scientific research has largely put this debate to rest. Consumption of sugar has been shown to cause overproduction of the delta FBJ murine osteosarcoma viral oncogene homolog B (ΔFosB) protein, which plays a crucial role in the establishment of both drug and behavioral addictions by inducing neuroplasticity in the brain's reward system. In addition, the rewards and subsequent cravings induced by sugar consumption were found to be of comparable magnitude to those induced by addictive drugs such as cocaine; in fact, according to a 2013 review of research into sugar addiction, the sugar reward can be even more attractive than the cocaine reward in laboratory animals and has been shown to have a more robust underlying structure.

Contemporary analysts now believe that sugar addiction has both genetic and cultural causes. However, because of the uniqueness of every person’s biochemistry, it is difficult if not impossible to precisely divide causality for this relatively recent medical phenomenon into its biological and environmental sources.

Risk Factors

Scientists have discovered a number of medical conditions that predispose a person to sugar addiction. For example, a weak adrenal gland results in an insufficient quantity of glucocorticoid hormones to properly regulate glucose levels in the blood, leading to an intense craving for sugar. Furthermore, persons with a penchant for overeating are often susceptible to sugar addiction.

Cultural factors also can pose risks. For instance, in many advanced societies, the processed food industries add massive amounts of refined sugar to numerous products, thus allowing for large numbers of suitably predisposed persons to become sugar addicts.


A common symptom of sugar addiction is the overpowering urge, several times a day, to consume something sweet. If afflicted persons are unable to satisfy these urges, they often feel weak, apathetic, and dizzy. These symptoms may be relieved by the ingestion of sugar-containing foods and sweetened beverages, but continued dependence on sugar builds a tolerance, with increased consumption needed to relieve symptoms and reexperience the pleasurable feelings that sugar consumption initially created.

With the removal of sugar from the addict’s diet, withdrawal symptoms often occur, including tremors of the extremities, painful headaches, and digestive difficulties such as nausea. Psychological symptoms include irritability, depression, and drastic mood changes.

Researchers have noted numerous long-term health problems associated with sugar addiction, including such well-known consequences as obesity and dental decay. The American Diabetes Association regards the overconsumption of sugar as a major cause of degenerative diseases in the United States, including diabetes, heart disease, and cancer. Sugar also has a negative effect on the body’s immune system by depleting white blood cells, thus reducing this system’s ability to fight infectious agents.

Screening and Diagnosis

Screening for sugar addiction has not been a part of most routine physical examinations, with the exception of physical exams of the obese and of persons showing clear symptoms. Those who believe that sugar addiction is endemic to Western society argue that this neglect to screen for the addiction imperils the health of many people.

The lack of monitoring for sugar addiction has led to numerous books on the disorder, many of which contain guidelines for self-diagnosis. However, self-diagnoses can be inaccurate, even dangerous. Blood tests exist to monitor symptoms before and after the ingestion of sugar, and these tests can provide reliable evidence leading to a diagnosis of sugar addiction.

Treatment and Therapy

According to some advocates, the world is facing a crisis centered on sugar addiction, in large part because treatment of sugar addiction is hampered by a number of cultural barriers. Sugar has become “a legalized recreational drug” that is “socially acceptable to consume.” Sugar addiction is considered an acceptable addiction, one wholly separate from other addictions.

The treatment of sugar addicts is also hindered by the denial of their dependence in a manner reminiscent of classic drug addicts. Also, similar to another addictive product—tobacco—countries frequently subsidize sugar production because of its importance to their economies, and it is common for sugar and its presence in numerous foods and drinks to receive much more legal immunity than tobacco.

Therapy for sugar addiction can be a long and difficult process. Sugar addicts should not expect their sugar cravings to vanish in a few weeks or months. Most physicians and nutritionists begin treatment with diet modification. After tests, doctors generally attempt to stabilize blood sugar levels by getting their sugar-addicted patients to eat modest meals rich in protein. A nutritious breakfast is especially important, as is the elimination of sugar and artificial sweeteners from all meals and snacks.

Some doctors insist on treating sugar addiction the way they treat alcohol and other drug addictions—that is, by insisting their patients avoid all refined sugars and sugar-containing foods and drinks from their diet. This can be daunting because so many processed foods contain fructose, dextrose, maltose, and other sugary additives such as corn syrup. Some nutritionists even suggest a drastic reduction in the consumption of fresh fruits and fruit juices, which contain sugar. Others allow some fruit in the diet during the transition to a totally sugar-free diet.

Doctors also can prescribe medicines that may help reduce the craving for sugar, and nutritionists may advise recovering sugar addicts to take amino acids, such as glutamine and tyrosine, to help reduce cravings. Others have found that chromium supplements help balance blood sugar.

Orthomolecular physicians believe that good health can be achieved by balancing substances normally present in the body or by adding essential vitamins and minerals to the diet. These practitioners tend to agree with believers in sugar addiction that this sweet substance is alien to the body and poses a danger to health. For orthomolecular physicians, the combination of megavitamin therapy with the elimination of sugars and other processed foods that are incompatible with the body’s normal and natural array of molecules is optimum for health.

Other therapies add behavioral modifications for the treatment of sugar addiction. These therapies include exercise, especially relaxed walking, and eight hours of sleep every night. For serious cases, some professionals recommend psychotherapy, because certain patients become addicted to sugar to assuage feelings of loneliness or self-hatred. Therapists often try to discover why patients crave sugar; oftentimes, this craving is caused by past trauma.

With increasing awareness of sugar addiction, many treatment options have become available. Professionals now promote their services in treating this disorder. Treatment centers that include group therapy for sugar addiction also are available.


Curbing sugar addiction involves both the individual and society. Even those skeptical of this addiction agree that most persons consume far too much sugar and that this overconsumption contributes to many health problems. Evolution has not prepared the human body to handle an average intake of 150 to 300 pounds of sugar each year. Several states in the United States have failed in their attempts to put a tax on sugary soft drinks. In concept, the prevention of sugar addiction is simple: drastically reduce sugar consumption. In reality, though, individuals and societies rarely manage to accomplish this.


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