Here’s something to think about the next time you’re craving something sweet: it could be more than just a sweet tooth. It could be an addictive itch begging to be scratched.
Brain scans have confirmed that intermittent sugar consumption affects the brain in ways similar to certain drugs.
A highly cited study in the journal Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews found that sugar—as pervasive as it is—meets the criteria for a substance of abuse and may be addictive to those who binge on it. It does this by affecting the chemistry of the limbic system, the part of the brain that’s associated with emotional control.
The study found that “intermittent access to sugar can lead to behavioral and neurochemical changes that resemble the effects of a substance of abuse.”
It’s these findings that spurred Paul van der Velpen, head of Amsterdam's health services, to warn people that sugar is a drug, “just like alcohol and tobacco.” He wrote a column on the city’s public health website Tuesday calling for stronger government action regarding sugar. Actions he proposed included regulating the amount allowed in foods and also banning soft drinks in schools
“This may seem exaggerated and far-fetched, but sugar is the most dangerous drug of this time and can still be easily acquired everywhere,” he wrote.
Dr. David Sack, CEO of Elements Behavioral Health, which operates Promises Treatment Centers, echoed these comments. Sack said that the prevalence and promotion of sugary foods and beverages, coupled with how it affects our brains, make addiction an issue.
“The truth is that not every one exposed to high-sugar foods is going to become addicted and seek it out regularly. The same is true with drugs like cocaine or alcohol,” he told Healthline. “The difference is that we don’t sell alcohol to anyone under the age of 21, but you can buy high-sugar content foods at any age.”
Are We, As a Whole, Addicted to Sugar?
U.S. health officials have been less hyperbolic in their messaging than van der Velpen, but many feel equally concerned.
Earlier this year, the American Heart Association cited research that shows sugary soft drinks are responsible for 180,000 deaths worldwide each year. They recommend that adults consume no more than 450 calories per week from sugar-sweetened beverages. This translates to just under two 20-ounce bottles of Coca-Cola.
While sodas are the easy culprit to blame, there are many other places where sugar sneaks into a person’s diet, often without his or her knowledge.
The CDC’s research shows that people consume excess sugars not only in beverages but also in foods they eat at home.
Relying on packaged or processed foods is a quick way to stack up the sugar cubes, even if they have healthy sounding names. Sugar is a common ingredient in many foods people assume are healthy.
For example, a jar of Newman’s Own Tomato & Basil spaghetti sauce contains 9 grams of sugar, or about four sugar cubes. Eight ounces of V8 Fusion Vegetable & Fruit Juice contains more than 11 cubes of sugar. Yoplait Original 99% Fat Free yogurt contains between 11 and 13 sugar cubes, depending on the flavor.
How Do You Kick the Habit? Curbing Your Addiction Before It Begins
The messages telling us to crave sugar begin at an early age, Sack says. Children’s TV programming is often wrapped in advertising featuring brightly colored cartoon characters selling processed foods with high sugar content.
“Food scientists have learned to manufacture food to make it more rewarding,” he said. “Then they use the media, such as advertising, so they’re dangling it in front of us.”
Sack says that not enough parents are educating their children about healthy nutrition, and that the parents may be reinforcing bad eating habits. This is made worse when working parents are short on time to focus on meal planning.
“The biggest problem we’ve seen is that parents who are overweight or obese themselves feed these foods to their kids and don’t see it as abnormal,” he said. “Right now, parents aren’t told what’s appropriate nutrition for children. Unless we educate parents on what’s appropriate height and weight, and what’s proper nutrition, it’s very hard for kids to have a proper respect for food.”
Parents shouldn’t stock their pantry shelves with sugary foods, should read nutrition labels on packaged foods, and should educate their children about healthy food choices, Sack said.
“We have to recognize this is a very deep problem,” he said.