The Science Behind: Sugar Addiction

Like any rational human being, I love Oreos. They’re delicious, remind me of my childhood, and are filled with sugar — but they may also be frighteningly addictive. In a study at Connecticut College, researchers compared results from two experiments with rat mazes. In one, Oreos and rice cakes were placed on different sides of a maze. Once they were released, the rats spent more time on the side with the Oreos. In the other experiment, one side offered injections of saline and the other offered injections of cocaine or morphine. The rats spent more time on the side with cocaine or morphine.

Substance use disorders exist when 2–3 of 11 symptoms defined by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders are present. From the 11 on that list, sugar can produce: cravings, tolerance, continuing to consume despite negative consequences, failed quitting, and withdrawal (Image Credit: The Independent).

When these two experiments were compared, researchers found that rats spent similar amounts of time with the Oreos and cocaine or morphine. Later, the researchers analyzed the expression of c-Fos — a protein that marks neuronal activation in the brain’s pleasure center — and found that Oreos activated significantly more neurons than cocaine or morphine. However, these results are criticized since the study was published without peer-review; the Oreos and cocaine or morphine weren’t compared directly, and rats are not the same as humans. But this study does bring attention to a critical issue: sugar addiction.

Although there may be some frightening similarities between drugs and sugar, they shouldn’t be seen as equals because unlike cocaine, sugar is necessary for our survival. It should be reduced, not eliminated (image Credit: Tenor).

To keep the human race going, some behaviors are natural rewards, such as eating high-energy foods, sleeping, and, to some, social interaction. Natural rewards make you feel good, so, of course, you do whatever brought about this natural reward again and again. One natural reward is sugar because it can help layer fat and store energy. Hundreds of years ago, this wasn’t a problem and even helped humans survive. However, today, we have access to too much sugar, which is leading to addiction and health issues.

A few hundred years ago, a person would consume less sugar in a year than you can get from a can of soda today (Image Credit: Vegan Food Lover).

In response to a rewarding event, like eating a sugary cupcake, the neurotransmitter dopamine is released by neurons in your mesolimbic dopamine system — the brain system in charge of rewards — to signal to your brain’s reward system, the nucleus accumbens. This process leads to you feeling pleasure and wanting more.

Since your brain enjoys this, you really want to do it again (Image Credit: Giphy).

When a massive amount of dopamine is released repeatedly, like from eating sugary cupcakes every day, your mesolimbic dopamine system feels a bit attacked. To prevent itself from being overstimulated, it adapts. Now, the same amount of sugar will evoke less pleasure. To get the same hit, you need more, so you increase the amount of sugar in your food. And it feels so good. As this continues, your tolerance and cravings for sugar grow and grow, creating a sugar addiction.

Eating too much sugar can lead to Type 2 diabetes, fatty liver disease, hypertension, and kidney disease. So, please, don’t eat cupcakes everyday (Image Credit: Giphy).

There are no benefits to eating too much sugar, but consuming less sugar can help with weight loss, improve sleep and moods, reduce acne, and make less sweet foods sweeter. However, limiting sugar intake can be very difficult. Sugar withdrawal causes severe cravings, and sugar is everywhere. Since it is the perfect ingredient to hook consumers to a food, added sugar can be found in about 75 percent of packaged foods in the US, which doesn’t really help when you’re trying to eat less of it.

In 2018, manufacturers will be required to use a new food label developed by the FDA that includes added sugars. If you want another preview, look at the food label on a Sun-Maid® Raisins container (Image Credit: FDA).

Possible fixes for our toxic relationship with sugar are to make foods with added sugar more expensive and to regulate foods with high levels of added sugar. If you want quick, personal solutions, decrease your consumption of processed foods, read labels carefully, and make your own meals.

Works Cited

DiNicolantonio, James J., and Sean C. Lucan. “Sugar Season. It’s Everywhere, and Addictive.” The New York Times, 22 Dec. 2014, Accessed 23 Aug. 2017.

Gaines Lewis, Jordan. “What happens to your brain when you give up sugar.” CNN, Turner Broadcasting System, 2 Mar. 2017, Accessed 23 Aug. 2017.

“How Sugar Hijacks Your Brain And Makes You Addicted.” Healthline, Accessed 23 Aug. 2017.

McCormack, Simon. “Oreos More Addictive Than Cocaine? Study Shows Cookies Might Produce More Pleasure Than Coke In Rats.” Huffington Post, Oath, 18 Oct. 2013, Accessed 23 Aug. 2017.

Reichelt, Amy. “Fact or fiction — is sugar addictive?” The Conversation, 22 Feb. 2017, Accessed 23 Aug. 2017.

Schaefer, Anna, and Kareem Yasin. “Experts Agree: Sugar Might Be as Addictive as Cocaine.” Healthline, 10 Oct. 2016, Accessed 23 Aug. 2017.

— Isabella S., Pennsylvania


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