Is Sugar Addictive?

Is Sugar Addictive? | The Paleo Diet | Casey ThalerSugar is likely the most over consumed substance in the modern world 1 On top of our endless addiction to soda (sugar water essentially) – sugar is surreptitiously added to nearly every processed food.2 As a result, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) now reports that the average American ingests 150-170 pounds of sugar per year.3

This overconsumption of sugar may very well be killing us.

As I’ve previously written, sugar is the precursor and the ‘canary in the coalmine’ – to numerous diseases and unhealthy conditions. Diabetes? Check.4 Obesity? Check.5 Even Alzheimer’s has been directly linked to too much sugar consumption.6
In fact, there is hardly a single condition or disease, that can’t be correlated with overconsumption of sugar, in some fashion.7

Still, scientists debate how addictive sugar really is, and even whether or not it is truly a substance we should call “dangerous”.8 There have been many research attempts to show just how potentially addictive sugar can be, and even a variety of (somewhat novel) ideas on just how to establish if its addictive.9, 10, 11, 12

The fact is, sugar is big business with players on both sides of this debate. From industry big wigs promoting its consumption to cities taxing sugar sweetened beverages. Somewhere along the lines the science gets lost. So let’s take a deeper look at what the research really says about sugar and addiction.

The Evidence for Sugar Addiction

Perhaps the most interesting evidence for sugar addiction lies in the brain’s varying responses to its ingestion.13 The hypothalamus, which plays a key role in the homeostatic regulation of food intake, is activated by glucose or fructose in adolescents who are obese. But it is not activated in those who are lean.14

Which raises the question – is obesity the first thing that happens, or is this neuronal response the initial instigator behind obesity? Restated – is the brain hardwired to crave sugar – or do our brains rewire themselves after we become obese?

This is one of the main reasons why scientists have yet to firmly establish whether sugar is truly “addictive.”15

When we talk about sugar, we are mostly talking about fructose and glucose. Although both provide the body with energy, fructose has a more intense sweetness, and stimulates the striatal complex (the area of the brain closely linked with rewarding behaviors, like drug ingestion or gambling).16

Unlike glucose, fructose likely overrides our homeostatic control of eating,17 meaning that fructose may cause us to overeat, while glucose may not.18 As recently as 2015, researchers showed that ingestion of fructose results in greater activation of brain regions involved in attention and reward processing.19 And just last month, a study in Diabetes concluded that there is greater perfusion in the ventral striatum when fructose is consumed.20 Fructose altered this key component of the brain’s reward system differently than glucose consumption.

Figure 1: Similarities of food and drug addictions 26

There has been a lot of research in the area of sugar addiction.21, 22 Much of the best research was led by Nora Volkow, who established that there were overlapping neuronal circuits in addiction and obesity.23 This means that our brains can react very similarly to sugar addiction as they do to alcohol, cocaine or other hard drugs. Volkow’s research is very clear and overwhelming – sugar acts near-identically to other drugs of abuse.24

Perhaps one of the clearest ways to see the addictive nature of sugary foods is to look at their opposite – vegetables – and the effects that these nutrient-rich, sugar-less substances have on our brains and bodies. These foods provide essential nutrients, elicit no cravings or negative effects, and in fact stop our hunger and cravings.26

The Industry Sweetens Us On Sugar

While there’s clear evidence of addiction, unfortunately, politics and big business come into play. If it were widely publicized that sugar acts like a drug when consumed in excess, there would be a huge profit loss for our big, processed food conglomerates.

This may sound a touch like hyperbole, but if we all were to adopt a Paleo Diet – with no added sugars – the big food companies would likely go out of business. That’s because they heavily rely on sugar, to prop up otherwise flavorless foods.27

They take advantage of the fact that our brains can never get enough sugar.28 While we can clearly see this with soda, the practice has been extended to all processed foods – even children’s breakfast cereals.29

The food industry bigwigs understand that sugar is addictive, as shown in Michael Moss’s award-winning book, Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us. The former executives of tobacco companies now run the big food companies!30 And these executives are involved in important decisions like whether or not to finally establish a percent daily value for sugar ingestion.31

Fortunately for us, the World Health Organization (WHO) finally established a guideline for sugar consumption – a very reasonable 25 grams. However, largely due to politics, they had to publicly state that even 50 grams per day would be an improvement over our current situation! Their official note was that lowering your intake to 25 grams per day would have “additional health benefits”.32


A Less Sugary Diet

A Paleo Diet is rich in essential nutrients, high in muscle-building protein, and loaded with brain-friendly fats. It is also devoid of craving-inducing sugars, and has shown to be just as beneficial as a diabetes-specific diet, in terms of helping those with the unfortunate disease.33 Ultimately, the scientific evidence and results speak for themselves. So the next time you are presented with the option of indulging in the pure, white stuff – choose wisely.


[1] Yang Q, Zhang Z, Gregg EW, Flanders WD, Merritt R, Hu FB. Added sugar intake and cardiovascular diseases mortality among US adults. JAMA Intern Med. 2014;174(4):516-24.

[2] Martínez steele E, Baraldi LG, Louzada ML, Moubarac JC, Mozaffarian D, Monteiro CA. Ultra-processed foods and added sugars in the US diet: evidence from a nationally representative cross-sectional study. BMJ Open. 2016;6(3):e009892.

[3] Available at: Accessed August 14, 2016.

[4] Basu S, Yoffe P, Hills N, Lustig RH. The relationship of sugar to population-level diabetes prevalence: an econometric analysis of repeated cross-sectional data. PLoS ONE. 2013;8(2):e57873.

[5] Musselman LP, Fink JL, Narzinski K, et al. A high-sugar diet produces obesity and insulin resistance in wild-type Drosophila. Dis Model Mech. 2011;4(6):842-9.

[6] Crane PK, Walker R, Hubbard RA, et al. Glucose levels and risk of dementia. N Engl J Med. 2013;369(6):540-8.

[7] Stanhope KL. Sugar consumption, metabolic disease and obesity: The state of the controversy. Crit Rev Clin Lab Sci. 2016;53(1):52-67.

[8] Westwater ML, Fletcher PC, Ziauddeen H. Sugar addiction: the state of the science. Eur J Nutr. 2016;

[9] Lenoir M, Serre F, Cantin L, Ahmed SH. Intense sweetness surpasses cocaine reward. PLoS ONE. 2007;2(8):e698.

[10] Ahmed SH, Guillem K, Vandaele Y. Sugar addiction: pushing the drug-sugar analogy to the limit. Curr Opin Clin Nutr Metab Care. 2013;16(4):434-9.

[11] Avena NM, Rada P, Hoebel BG. Evidence for sugar addiction: behavioral and neurochemical effects of intermittent, excessive sugar intake. Neurosci Biobehav Rev. 2008;32(1):20-39.

[12] Fortuna JL. Sweet preference, sugar addiction and the familial history of alcohol dependence: shared neural pathways and genes. J Psychoactive Drugs. 2010;42(2):147-51.

[13] Tryon MS, Stanhope KL, Epel ES, et al. Excessive Sugar Consumption May Be a Difficult Habit to Break: A View From the Brain and Body. J Clin Endocrinol Metab. 2015;100(6):2239-47.

[14] Jastreboff AM, Sinha R, Arora J, et al. Altered brain response to drinking glucose and fructose in obese adolescents. Diabetes 2016;65:1929–1939

[15] Bray GA. Is Sugar Addictive?. Diabetes. 2016;65(7):1797-9.

[16] Page KA, Chan O, Arora J, et al. Effects of fructose vs glucose on regional cerebral blood flow in brain regions involved with appetite and reward pathways. JAMA. 2013;309(1):63-70.

[17] Bray GA. Obesity: A failure of homeostasis due to hedonic rewards: Response to the letter from Gary Taubes. Obes Rev 2008;10:99–102

[18] Lustig RH. Fructose: metabolic, hedonic, and societal parallels with ethanol. J Am Diet Assoc. 2010;110(9):1307-21.

[19] Luo S, Monterosso JR, Sarpelleh K, Page KA. Differential effects of fructose versus glucose on brain and appetitive responses to food cues and decisions for food rewards. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA. 2015;112(20):6509-14.

[20] Jastreboff AM, Sinha R, Arora J, et al. Altered Brain Response to Drinking Glucose and Fructose in Obese Adolescents. Diabetes. 2016;65(7):1929-39.

[21] Rada P, Avena NM, Hoebel BG. Daily bingeing on sugar repeatedly releases dopamine in the accumbens shell. Neuroscience. 2005;134(3):737-44.

[22] Yanovski S. Sugar and fat: cravings and aversions. J Nutr. 2003;133(3):835S-837S.

[23]  Volkow ND, Wang GJ, Fowler JS, Tomasi D, Baler R. Food and drug reward: overlapping circuits in human obesity and addiction. Curr Top Behav Neurosci. 2012;11:1-24.

[24] Volkow ND, Wang GJ, Tomasi D, Baler RD. Obesity and addiction: neurobiological overlaps. Obes Rev. 2013;14(1):2-18.

[25] Volkow, N. D., Wang, G.-J., Tomasi, D., & Baler, R. D. (2013). Pro v Con Reviews: Is Food Addictive?: Obesity and addiction: neurobiological overlaps.Obesity Reviews : An Official Journal of the International Association for the Study of Obesity14(1), 2–18.

[26] Gómez-pinilla F. Brain foods: the effects of nutrients on brain function. Nat Rev Neurosci. 2008;9(7):568-78.

[27] Available at: Accessed August 14, 2016.

[28] Tryon MS, Stanhope KL, Epel ES, et al. Excessive Sugar Consumption May Be a Difficult Habit to Break: A View From the Brain and Body. J Clin Endocrinol Metab. 2015;100(6):2239-47.

[29] Harris JL, Graff SK. Protecting young people from junk food advertising: implications of psychological research for First Amendment law. Am J Public Health. 2012;102(2):214-22.

[30] Moss, Michael. Salt, Sugar, Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us. New York: Random House, 2013.

[31] Available at: Accessed August 14, 2016.

[32] Available at: “WHO Guideline: Sugar Consumption Recommendation.” World Health Organization. Accessed August 14, 2016.

[33] Jönsson T, Granfeldt Y, Lindeberg S, Hallberg AC. Subjective satiety and other experiences of a Paleolithic diet compared to a diabetes diet in patients with type 2 diabetes. Nutr J. 2013;12:105.

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“3” Comments

  1. Casey,

    Thanks for your very thoughtful comment on my post!

    There have been numerous studies looking at overlapping neuronal circuits in addiction (here is a particularly good one: and essentially any substance which provides an overload of dopamine – and also has detrimental effects in excess – is, to me, an addictive drug.

    While this may not be the opinion of every scientist yet, I believe that time will play the ultimate determining factor here. Beyond that, the nucleus accumbens is the central player in all of these substances (including sugar). Directly related to the nucleus accumbens are dopamine receptors, which are seen as down-regulated, in those suffering from obesity. Alarmingly, these dopamine receptors are also down-regulated in those who are addicted to cocaine, alcohol, etc. The extent of the degree is less with sugar, but the down-regulation still occurs.

    While certainly genetics may predispose some to sugar addiction (or other addictions), there is also good evidence to show the rewiring of sugar addict’s brains – as well as those suffering from other addictions.

    Once again, thanks for your thoughtful comment!

  2. “The hypothalamus, which plays a key role in the homeostatic regulation of food intake, is activated by glucose or fructose in adolescents who are obese. But it is not activated in those who are lean.”

    This doesn’t really mean much as not everyone who drinks alcohol becomes an alcoholic either. And, we do know that overeating sugar (abusing) would lead to obesity relatively quickly. With drug and alcohol addiction, it is believed to be a disease of a brain, that this person was prone to addiction while others are not. It isn’t usually thought that the alcohol or drug rewires the brain to make the person addicted (although there is a camp of recovering addicts who do believe this to be so). It seems the brain could already be set up for addition in the case for people who are addicted to sugar as well.
    Also, it is not uncommon for past alcoholics or smokers to develop a “sweet tooth” or what is actually a sugar addiction. As if they have just switched addictions from one substance to another.

    I wonder if studies have been done on alcoholics or drug addicts showing what their brains were doing when they were actively using v.s. many years after sobriety. And, likewise, it would be great to replicate this with sugar. It would be better if they could do this before a person started using, but that is not really possible!

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