Can You Be Addicted to Sugar?

Candy, the Sweet Temptation

Bags of CandyAs Halloween approaches, teeming with temptations in the form of sugary candy, a number of articles have been published addressing the link between obesity and overdoing it with the treats. In short, these articles say one thing: candy is bad.

We’re repeatedly informed about the empty calories in candy. Warned that the laundry list of tongue-twisting ingredients (try saying anhydrous dextrose five times fast) listed on the labels are downright sinful. But it’s so hard to stay away.  

The U.S. Census Bureau gives the grim facts: the average American consumed around 25 pounds of candy in 2010, most of it around Halloween. October 30th (the day before Halloween) is now marked as Sugar Addiction Awareness Day.

But could it be that sugar is a substance of abuse, to be placed in the category of addictive drugs?

Sugar & Your Brain

In a study from Princeton University, researchers examined the effects of sugar on rats. Their results noted the heroin-like addiction of sugar on the brain chemistry of the rats.

For now, the team, led by Bart Hoebel, Ph.D., is sticking to the term "sugar-dependent" instead of addiction. Addiction requires four elements:

  • Bingeing—and changes in brain chemistry
  • Withdrawal
  • Craving and relapse after withdrawal
  • Cross-sensitization—sensitivity to a substance that predisposes a subject to sensitivity to similar substances

The experiments led by Hoebel have shown only the first two points so far. But the research certainly offers promising insight into the way sugar operates on our brain. Hoebel and his team may have found a key to understanding addiction.

The Vicious Cycle  

There are numerous reasons why you might feel food cravings. Boredom, loneliness. Stress. One study from UCSF suggested how reaching for comfort foods was our body’s attempt to “put a brake” on stress. In essence, using chocolate to conquer chronic stress. Researchers believe it might be our way of telling the brain that it can relax.  Low blood sugar is another common culprit.  

I once worked with someone who abstained from meals throughout the day. In place of food, she substituted water and the occasional protein shake. But, sometime around three or four in the afternoon, I’d see her creep back from the vending machine, wearing a shamefaced look while tearing a candy bar from its wrapper.  

This pattern of denial and indulgence ends up causing harm in the long run. Studies show that skipping meals—and inconsistent meal schedules—can wreak havoc on blood sugar, causing it to severely drop. Low blood sugar can create a vicious cycle: crankiness leads to cravings leads to “fine, I’ll just eat that candy bar (and those cookies, and what the heck, the leftovers of that entire cheesecake”). And then comes the guilt, the deprivation, the return of cravings for comfort foods.  

This relates to what researchers in the Princeton study helped to point out. Another possible reason for cravings: chemicals in the brain.

The rats in the Princeton study were deprived of food every day for 12 hours, then after a 4-hour break, given access to a sugar solution and food for another 12-hour period. After one month of this, the rats displayed “bingeing” behavior.

The addiction to sugar as demonstrated by the rats’ binge behavior and subsequent “telltale signs of withdrawal, including the ‘shakes’ and changes in brain chemistry” may—if anything—shift a current mode of thought. The research places sugar cravings “in the realm of an addictive disorder rather than a failure of willpower.”

While much remains in the way of research, the Princeton study suggests that sugar, in certain circumstances, could lead to behavioral and neurochemical changes in the brain, and could be considered addictive.

Fortunately, there are ways to fight the sugar cravings. You’ve probably heard it before, but it can’t hurt to hear it again: don’t skip meals (like my former colleague, you’ll most likely end up emptying your coins into the vending machine later), stick to a regular meal schedule, stay away from packaged foods. 

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