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Sugar Addiction

Sugar addiction, akin to addictive substances, stimulates the brain’s pleasure centers, leading to a problematic cycle of cravings and consumption. Explore the science behind this addiction and its effects on health and emotional well-being, and learn strategies for overcoming it.

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Understanding Sugar Addiction

Humans need sugar to fuel their bodies, but sugar also has the power to cause serious health conditions and even cause addictions to form. Research shows that sugar can be highly addictive to the right kind of person, but spotting such an addiction can be difficult, considering sugar’s popularity.

Like many addictive substances, sugar has very grave health risks when consumed in excess. Understanding how sugar affects the brain and how to cut down on the amounts we consume is essential to helping those with sugar addiction and life-threatening health conditions that can arise.

Is Sugar Addictive?

The most current research shows that sugar can be addictive. Like with many drug addictions, people with sugar addiction often find themselves struggling with common symptoms such as sugar cravings, binging, and withdrawal symptoms.

Several studies have shown that both natural sugars and artificial sweeteners can be more addictive than cocaine. Similar to food addiction, sugar interacts with a person’s brain chemistry in a way that can lead to dependence and addiction.

How Sugar Affects Your Brain

Sugar’s effect on the reward center of the brain is powerful. Within the reward center of the brain, neurotransmitters like feel-good dopamine and serotonin are released with certain stimuli.

While this system is usually helpful in motivating us, these chemicals are often at the center of many addictions.

A study from the Columbia University Medical Center found that sugar can activate the opioid receptors in the brain and result in dopamine release. Each time this pathway is activated, the brain releases a little less dopamine, and thus, more sugar is required for the same effect.

Eating incredibly sugary foods consistently over time can lead to pathway changes in the brain, resulting in compulsive and addictive behaviors. The brain struggles to function properly without the constant high-sugar foods when sugar intake is halted due to its sugar dependence.

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Side Effects of Sugar Addiction

Eating sugar in excessive amounts has real physical and mental health consequences. While sugar-free options have become popular alternatives over the years, these artificial sweeteners have many of the same negative effects and can even cause worse sugar cravings.

Short-term effects of sugar addiction include:

  • Weight gain
  • Bloating
  • Acne
  • Inflammation
  • Tooth decay
  • Tiredness or low energy levels
  • Blood sugar issues and insulin resistance
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Mood disorders
  • Eating disorders like binge eating

Long-term effects of sugar addiction include:

  • Obesity
  • High blood pressure
  • Type 2 diabetes
  • Heart disease
  • Cardiovascular disease
  • Fatty liver disease
  • Chronic Inflammation
  • Pancreatitis
  • Stroke
  • Heightened risk of cancer

Sugar Withdrawal

Just like when quitting drugs cold turkey, quitting sugar can cause some unpleasant withdrawal symptoms. Without the constant intake of sugary foods, the brain struggles to cope, and withdrawal symptoms can occur.

Common withdrawals from sugar addiction include:

  • Intense cravings for sweet foods
  • Mood changes
  • Increased anxiety
  • Fatigue
  • Irritability
  • Nausea
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Disrupted sleep patterns

Statistics About Sugar Addiction

Unfortunately, statistics about sugar addiction are in short supply. However, research has revealed just how prevalent sugar consumption is in the US.

  • According to the American Heart Association (AHA), the average American consumes more than 17 teaspoons of added sugar per day.
  • The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reports that 14% of the average person’s daily calorie intake has added sugars.
  • The CDC also reports that the leading sources of added sugars are sugar-sweetened beverages, cereals, and desserts like cookies, brownies, cakes, pies, ice cream, frozen dairy desserts, doughnuts, sweet rolls, and pastries.

How Sugar Addiction Is Treated

Unlike drug or alcohol addiction treatment, the treatment for sugar addiction often centers around changes in diet. Most individuals with sugar addiction will not require an inpatient rehab stay. Treatment typically includes working with a dietitian, therapy, and medications (if needed).

Slowly Cut Out Sugar

Weaning yourself off sugar is often the recommended strategy for addressing a sugar addiction and curbing withdrawal symptoms. Take a look at the foods you eat most often and opt for alternatives with less sugar.

Not all foods will simply say “sugar,” so familiarizing yourself with other names and types of sugars can help you spot hidden sugars.

Common names for “hidden” sugars include:

  • High-fructose corn syrup
  • Fructose
  • Sucrose
  • Saccharin
  • Agave nectar
  • Brown rice syrup
  • Dextrose
  • Evaporated cane juice
  • Glucose
  • Lactose
  • Malt syrup
  • Molasses

Don’t Skip Meals

Individuals who have gained weight due to sugar addiction may try unhealthy routes to weight loss. Unfortunately, restricting food can worsen sugar and food cravings. The hungrier you are, the more likely you are to fall back on old habits.

Lean on Protein and Fiber

All food we eat is broken down into the molecule glucose, which we need to fuel our bodies. However, super sugary foods hit our metabolism like a match to gasoline.

Refined sugars and carbohydrates cause our blood sugar to spike and crash and contribute to accelerated fat storage.

By eating foods that require more energy to break down into sugars, we avoid these spikes and crashes while getting the vital nutrients refined sugars can’t offer. Eating foods rich in fiber and protein and managing magnesium levels are great ways to combat sugar cravings.

Avoid Artificial Sweeteners

Sugar-free options or artificial sweeteners have become a staple of the diet world. While they are offered as an option for people with a sweet tooth to get their sugar fix without the negative effects, artificial sweeteners come with their issues.

The biggest issue is that artificial sweeteners can worsen sugar cravings, leading to the risk of binging on high-sugar foods. Research has also indicated that artificial sweeteners may also be just as addictive as real sugar, as well as increasing the risk of stroke and heart disease.

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Get Help for Sugar Addiction

In contrast to drug addiction, sugar addiction can be difficult to identify and treat. If you suspect you or a loved one is struggling with sugar addiction, there are many treatment options available.

Getting treatment is especially important for those with life-threatening conditions related to sugar addiction.

Speak with your doctor or a dietician to see what diet plan best suits your situation. Working with a mental health therapist to address the compulsive behavior towards sugar may also be helpful.

FAQs About Sugar Addiction

Is sugar addictive?

Yes. Sugar has been proven to activate the same receptors in the brain as other highly addictive drugs. Several studies have shown that sugar can be even more addicting than cocaine.

What are the main health effects of sugar addiction?

Obesity and weight gain are the most common health effects of having a sugar addiction. As body weight increases, so too does the risk of serious diseases like type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and increased risk of stroke, heart attack, and cancer.

Other health effects of sugar addiction include:

  • Acne
  • Depression and anxiety
  • Mood disorders
  • Tooth decay
  • Sleep issues
  • Chronic Inflammation
  • Fatigue
  • High blood pressure
  • Fatty liver disease
  • Pancreatitis

What are the signs of sugar addiction?

Sugar addiction can be challenging to spot, as sugar is in almost everything we eat. However, there are a few signs to look out for if you suspect sugar addiction in yourself or others.

Common warning signs of sugar addiction include:

  • Hiding or lying about eating high-sugar food
  • Eating sugar-filled foods even when not hungry
  • Getting intense cravings for sugar that you can’t resist
  • Using sugar to cope with negative emotions or stress
  • Continuing to eat sugar despite the negative consequences
  • Feeling shame or embarrassment about eating sugary foods
  • Obsessing over sugar-rich foods and planning the next time you’ll binge on them
  • Trying and failing to stop eating sugar
  • Experiencing withdrawal symptoms when not eating or drinking sugary things

How do I break my sugar addiction?

Breaking a sugar addiction is typically done through a combination of diet changes, therapy, and medication (if needed). A dietician can help you rebalance your diet by educating you on how sugar affects the body and helping you with balanced meal plans.

Slowly cutting sugar-rich food and drink out of your diet is usually the best way to address a sugar addiction and avoid unpleasant withdrawal symptoms. Therapy can assist with the compulsive behaviors surrounding your sugar intake.

How long does it take to get over a sugar addiction?

It depends on many factors. Every person handles diet changes and therapy differently, so it’s important not to compare your recovery to anyone else. Diet and behavior changes take time, so be patient with yourself or a loved one.

With the right therapy, diet, and support from family and friends, sugar addicts can successfully conquer their sugar addiction.

Kent S. Hoffman, D.O. is a founder of Addiction HelpReviewed by:Kent S. Hoffman, D.O.

Chief Medical Officer & Co-Founder

  • Fact-Checked
  • Editor

Kent S. Hoffman, D.O. has been an expert in addiction medicine for more than 15 years. In addition to managing a successful family medical practice, Dr. Hoffman is board certified in addiction medicine by the American Osteopathic Academy of Addiction Medicine (AOAAM). Dr. Hoffman has successfully treated hundreds of patients battling addiction. Dr. Hoffman is the Co-Founder and Chief Medical Officer of AddictionHelp.com and ensures the website’s medical content and messaging quality.

Jessica Miller is the Content Manager of Addiction HelpWritten by:

Editorial Director

Jessica Miller is the Editorial Director of Addiction Help. Jessica graduated from the University of South Florida (USF) with an English degree and combines her writing expertise and passion for helping others to deliver reliable information to those impacted by addiction. Informed by her personal journey to recovery and support of loved ones in sobriety, Jessica's empathetic and authentic approach resonates deeply with the Addiction Help community.

  1. Ahmed , S. H., Guillem, K., & Vandaele, Y. (2013, July). Sugar Addiction: Pushing the Drug-Sugar Analogy to the Limit. Current Opinion in Clinical Nutrition and Metabolic Care. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/23719144/
  2. Avena, N. M., Rada, P., & Hoebel, B. G. (2008, May 18). Evidence for Sugar Addiction: Behavioral and Neurochemical Effects of Intermittent, Excessive Sugar Intake. Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2235907/
  3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2021, November 28). Get the Facts: Added Sugars. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/nutrition/data-statistics/added-sugars.html
  4. Conason, A. (2012, April 4). Sugar Addiction. Psychology Today. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/eating-mindfully/201204/sugar-addiction
  5. How to Break the Sugar Habit—And Help Your Health in the Process. Harvard Health. (2013, July 1). https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/how-to-break-the-sugar-habit-and-help-your-health-in-the-process
  6. Mysels, D. J., & Sullivan, M. A. (2010). The Relationship Between Opioid and Sugar Intake: Review of Evidence and Clinical Applications. Journal of Opioid Management. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3109725/
  7. Richards, L. (2020, June 30). Eating too Much Sugar: Effects and Symptoms. Medical News Today. https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/eating-too-much-sugar
  8. Sugar Addiction: More Serious Than You Think. Center of Alcohol & Substance Use Studies. (2023). https://alcoholstudies.rutgers.edu/sugar-addiction-more-serious-than-you-think/
  9. Westwater, M. L., Fletcher, P. C., & Ziauddeen, H. (2016, November). Sugar Addiction: The State of the Science. European Journal of Nutrition. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/27372453/

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