by Marion Nestle
Jan 7 2010

Is sugar addictive?

I feel like this will open a pandora’s box but I’m hearing more and more about food as a problem of addiction.  I have a hard time seeing it that way.  We have to eat to live and in that sense I suppose you could consider food addictive.  And food does stimulate the same pleasure centers that addictive drugs do, although not to the same extent.  But does that make food, and especially sugar, addictive?

Two studies take on the question.  The first, from Canadian researchers, equivocates.  In some ways yes, in other ways no.

The second study, from Wales professor David Benton, looks at what you would have to prove to prove sugar addiction and concludes that current observations just don’t support it.  He says:

If sugar addiction exists…addicts would experience increased food cravings, predominantly for sweet items; cravings would be especially strong in the morning, after an overnight fast; obese people would find sweet foods particularly attractive; and high sugar consumption would predispose people to obesity…There is no support from the human literature for the hypothesis that sucrose may be physically addictive or that addiction to sugar plays a role in eating disorders.  [Here’s the abstract of his paper]

Really?  I’m curious to know what’s out there on this.

  • B. Koch

    If you have any doubt that food can be addicting-read Dr. Kessler’s book-The end of overeating. I just finished it and it was a real eye-opener.

  • Emily

    Wow, well put, Mason!

  • ask any kid after theyve had candy or even syrup on pancakes, if they could eat as much candy/suggarry foods as they wanted would they? my 3 school aged kids would all beg for it.

  • As far as I can tell from the studies presented in Dr. Kessler’s book and elsewhere, frequent consumption of sugar and sweet-tasting foods (even artificially sweetened ones) is somewhat habituating even without salt and fat to help launch it into super-palatability territory. The effect is more dramatic in kids, but adults experience it too–they start expecting all their drinks to be sweet, for example, or to have a sweet snack at 10:30 in the morning at work even though they’ve had a decent breakfast and lunch is only an hour or so away.

    Starches and sugars also fuel a positive feedback loop for appetite (made famous and somewhat exploited by the low-carb diet trend), and when you cut them down significantly while eating a balanced diet otherwise, you really do stop feeling knee-jerk cravings for extra food, for bread, pasta, checkout counter snacks and so on after only a couple of days. Finally, I’m not sure what Dr. Benton is referring to by implying that obese people don’t find sweet foods more attractive or attractive more often than normal-weight people, but I’ve noticed that several seriously overweight cooks of my acquaintance seem to produce party foods that are often unpalatably rich and bland for the rest of the group (try hiding a big helping of trifle behind your fork while making complimentary noises at the chef). It’s anecdotal but I think it makes sense that their satiety points for fat and sugar would be higher than normal. That still may not mean it’s addictive, but it does seem to have a preference-changing effect.

  • michelle black

    If you’ve any doubt at all, please read “Sugar Blues” by William Dufty…published 1975….this is amazingly truthful…our entire nation needs to read this!!

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  • You might want to check this vid out when looking for the relation beween sugar and addiction. It sort of says that sugar is the gateway drug to (any) addiction and specifically to obesity.

    But I am assuming that people who have not been addicted to the tougher stuff do not know where to look when researching addiction. It is a well known fact that 99% of the people quitting alcohol or any other drugs move into binging on sugar. Check out the AA meetings: sugar, sugar, sugar, sugar and sugar.
    The argument on ‘the cravings would be especially strong in the morning’ is strange because most people in the Western world have a high carb breakfast with loads of (added) sugar, orange juice, coffee with sugar and continue with snacks for the coffee break. No cravings? No, ‘just’ eating loads of sugar. :-s