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Am I a Sugar Addict

Evidence that Sugar can be another form of Addiction
SUNY - Empire State College
Angela D. Wise
May 2, 2014

Am I a Sugar Addict? Evidence that Sugar can be another form of Addiction
Your body and your food choices are your own. You can choose what you want to
eat and when and in what quantity. Or is it really that easy? When you are a sugar
addict, this seemingly easy choice isn’t quite so simple. When people say “Oh I am a
sugar addict”, is that even a real thing? Some individuals will argue that it is a matter of
choice and willpower – that if you wanted to stop eating sugar, you could, you just
choose not to. When you compare this to the addictiveness of drugs, how is it any
different though? You can tell the alcoholic that it is his choice whether to drink that
bottle or not, or even to purchase it, or how much of it to drink. But if the alcoholic feels
powerless over his addiction, is this whole matter really about choice? In this paper, I
aim to prove that sugar is an addictive substance in the same category as other
addictive elements like drugs and alcohol, where chemical changes in your brain occur
that make you crave the substance you have been “using”, and if you don’t get that
substance, you experience withdrawal symptoms.
At the beginning of an addiction cycle (with any addictive substance, not just
sugar), you will first see the individual increase the intake of the addictive substance.
Secondly, when the intake has decreased (through supply and demand or their own

choice), they will experience withdrawal symptoms. Lastly, in order to feel good again,
you seek out that substance again. As time goes on, it takes more and more of the
substance to reach the “satisfied” level.
Neurotransmitters in the body show that sugar addiction is possible because
biological processes are occurring during and after usage of sugar, similar to other
addictive substances. It is not just about personal taste or preference for sugar, it is
more about a biochemical urge and need for it. Sometimes when the body is
experiencing low blood sugar or low serotonin levels, it shows this in the form of
exhaustion, anxiety, insomnia, unclear thinking, or general crabbiness. The need for
the addictive substances are powerful, called cravings. Cravings are the way for the
body to call out for help to ease these symptoms. The brain can become dependent on
sugar because when sugar is consumed, especially in large quantities, the serotonin
levels of the brain increase. Serotonin makes us feel good. Now if we don’t get that
sugar, the serotonin levels in the brain decrease and you will feel bad. (Low Serotonin
levels are linked to Depression.) As the addict needs to achieve that “high” or good
feeling again, they find they must consume more and more sugar to achieve the same
effect. Another neurotransmitter that plays a role is dopomine. Dopamine triggers the
reward center of the brain. Just thinking of a sugary sweet can trigger the reward
system and in order to not be disappointed and feel bad, you try to give the brain that
reward, by consuming the sweet. But after the initial euphoria, you will then feel the
letdown of not having that treat anymore and may go looking for other sweets. This
repeated intensifying cycle is a hallmark of addiction. (Avena, 2003).

Animal studies (with rats) have proven the effects that sugar has on brain
neurotransmitters. Dr. Nicole Avena and her staff from Princeton University, (Avena
2005, Avena 2007), researched the effects of sugar and sugar withdrawal on rats. The
rats were fed a diet of sugar and then later when offered food or sugar, the rats
continued to go to the sugar, forgoing their nutritional needs to satisfy their craving.
They pushed their other food away, waiting for the sugar even! When sugar was
withdrawn from the rats, they experienced withdrawal symptoms similar to an alcoholic
without booze – the shakes and shattering teeth.
Evidence has shown that “addiction” does not mean a person is completely
powerless over their compulsions, only that it makes it much much more difficult to
abstain from the behavior than something they were not addicted to (Hendon, 2013).
Behavior and decision patterns will emerge where individuals may discount their usage
of sugar (rationalize it away), make promises to themselves to quit, or engage in use in
secret because they are embarrassed by their consumption. These are all indicators of
addictive behavior. When an addicted person makes a decision on consumption, it is
about weighing the benefits of abstinence relative to the benefit of the reward (Hendon,
2013). At times, your overall health may not seem as strong of a motive when you are
in the thralls of a low blood sugar induced headache or mood swing that seems to
demand immediate action. You can always tell yourself you will do better later and “get
back on track when you feel better.”
Another correlation with sugar addiction and drug addiction is something called
the “gateway effect”. You might have heard it said that marijuana is the “gateway”
drug, meaning that you start with smoking it but then may find your needs to be stronger

for something else so you seek out other highs, maybe moving on to cocaine, or
something even stronger. Studies have shown that increased intake of a drug of any
kind may lead to increase of another kind of drug. Research with rats (Avena 2008)
show that rats who were forced to abstain from sugar had an increase of alcohol intake.
Other studies showed that those who preferred sugary tastes would also self administer
themselves cocaine at higher rates (Avena 2008).
Becoming addicted to a substance starts with a choice to consume that
substance. There is a transition from voluntary usage to compulsive usage. An
irresistible desire for sugar may not seem to many people to be such a huge issue so
they may not try very hard to fight that compulsive urge or to get help with it. It isn’t
something you hear about as much as you do drugs, alcohol, or cigarette addiction. It
seems to be further education, like nutrition classes could help. It wasn’t even all that
long ago that cigarette smoking became such a huge concern for the public. Now there
are cessation programs everywhere. I think people may not be accepting that the
term “addiction” is applied to sugar consumption because not enough is known yet. It is
not purely biological but also psychological in proof, and that type of proof is not as easy
to quantify in studies.

1. Appleton, Nancy “Suicide by Sugar: A Startling Look at Our #1 National
Addiction” Square One Publishers; 1 edition (October 15, 2008)

2. Avena, Nicole M., Long, Kristin A, Hoebel, Bartley G, Sugar-dependent rats show
enhanced responding for sugar after abstinence: Evidence of a sugar deprivation
effect, Physiology & Behavior, Volume 84, Issue 3, 16 March 2005, Pages 359-
362, ISSN 0031-9384,

3. Avena, Nicole; Rada, Pedro; Hoebel, Bartley, “Evidence for sugar addiction”
Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews, Volume 32, Issue 1, 2008, Pages 20-39,
ISSN 0149-7634,

4. Avena, N.M., Hoebel, B.G., Pages 737-744, ISSN 0306-4522,

5. Benton, David, The plausibility of sugar addiction and its role in obesity and
eating disorders, Clinical Nutrition, Volume 29, Issue 3, June 2010, Pages 288-
303, ISSN 0261-5614,

6. CBS News. 60 minutes episode, 2012, Sanjay Gupta, Is Sugar Toxic?

7. Hendon, Edmund, Melberg, Hans Olav, Edmund Henden, Røgeberg , Ole
Jørgen, Addiction: Choice or Compulsion. Accessed by PubMed. Front
Psychiatry. 2013; 4: 77. Published online 2013 August
7. doi: 10.3389/fpsyt.2013.00077

8. Huffington Post, Article by Mark Hyman, MD. “Sugar Addiction? It Might be
Genetic” Feb 06, 2011

9. Medical News Today, MediLexicon International Ltd, Bexhill-on-Sea, UK

10. Psychology Today,