Sugar Addiction, Rats, and Your Eating Habits – What’s Wrong Now?

by | Aug 4, 2023

Is it Sugar Addiction?

It’s Not Sugar Addiction, You’re Hungry

Sugar Addiction, This Again?

I’ve been reading up on Sugar Addiction, I’ve always been suspicious of the concept.

How can you be addicted to something you need for your very existence, i.e. carbohydrates?  Sugar is just a carb.  Carb-o-hydrate:  carbon, oxygen, and hydrogen.  Every plant you’ve ever eaten has broken down in your body to the very same thing, sugar.

You may as well say you’re addicted to water (stay tuned for that next week).

So, following I have quite a bit of information from evidence-based sources and peer-reviewed journals that blow some holes in the concept of sugar addiction.  Rat studies, for the most part, but there rules that say we can’t do the types of things we do to rats to people. 

Highlights (what I want to share):

  1. Sugar isn’t addictive.  Sugar isn’t a substance of abuse.  A substance of abuse is a chemical that is foreign to the body that impacts neurological functioning.   Sugar is food.
  2. The studies that have been done that seem to suggest sugar is addictive observed the behavior of rats who had been denied food for an extended amount of time.
  3. Diets, pursued by a large percentage of people (especially women) are a self-imposed restriction of calories, foods, or food groups for an extended amount of time.
  4. Those rats weren’t addicted to food, they were hungry.
  5. Eating, in response to food deprivation and resultant hunger, can look a whole lot like addiction, what with the desperate eating, binging, and eat past fullness to the point of discomfort.

Not to leave out those studies that showed rats go for sugar water over cocaine:

  1. Those rats were denied food, too.
  2. Biology and physiology are smart and insistent.  If it comes down to food for survival versus recreational drugs, sugar (carb=food=energy=survival) wins.

But enough from me.  Read on for some truly good prose generated by AI, with actual real life citations added by me.  (Meaning, yes, I used AI, but I also got in there, researched, and validated.  This is perhaps the best use of AI.)

The topic of sugar addiction has been a subject of debate among researchers and health professionals for some time. The prevailing scientific consensus is that sugar is not physically addictive in the same way as substances like drugs or alcohol. Instead, it can lead to behavioral and psychological patterns that resemble addiction.  The same urgent behaviors are experienced by dieters.

Here are some key points to consider:

No physical dependence: Unlike addictive substances such as nicotine, alcohol, or opioids (and caffeine!), sugar does not cause physical dependence. There is no evidence to suggest that quitting sugar leads to withdrawal symptoms or severe physiological cravings.

Dopamine release: Sugar consumption can trigger the release of dopamine in the brain, which is a neurotransmitter associated with pleasure and reward. This can create positive associations with sugary foods and lead to a desire for more.  Good news, you can get a dopamine hit from smelling a flower or petting a dog. 

Individual differences: People’s drives for sugar can vary widely. Genetic, environmental, socio-economic, and psychological factors can play a role in these individual differences.

Diagnostic criteria: Sugar addiction is not recognized as a clinical diagnosis in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), which is the standard classification of mental disorders used by mental health professionals.

As research continues in the field of nutrition and addiction, our understanding of the relationship between sugar and addictive behaviors may evolve. For the most up-to-date information, it’s always best to consult reputable sources and scientific literature.

Quoting from the study regarding the hungry rats:

Avena NM, Rada P, Hoebel BG. Evidence for sugar addiction: behavioral and neurochemical effects of intermittent, excessive sugar intake. 

…we developed an animal model to investigate why some people have difficulty moderating their intake of palatable foods, such as sweet beverages.

In this animal model, rats are food deprived daily for 12 h, then after a delay of 4 h into their normal circadian-driven active period, they are given 12-h access to a sugar solution and chow. As a result, they learn to drink the sugar solution copiously, especially when it first becomes available each day.

After a month on this intermittent-feeding schedule, the animals show a series of behaviors similar to the effects of drugs of abuse. These are categorized as “bingeing”, meaning unusually large bouts of intake, opiate-like “withdrawal” indicated by signs of anxiety and behavioral depression (Colantuoni et al., 20012002), and “craving” measured during sugar abstinence as enhanced responding for sugar (Avena et al., 2005). There are also signs of both locomotor and consummatory “cross-sensitization” from sugar to drugs of abuse (Avena et al., 2004Avena and Hoebel, 2003b). Having found these behaviors that are common to drug dependency with supporting evidence from other laboratories (Gosnell, 2005Grimm et al., 2005Wideman et al., 2005), the next question is why this happens.

A well-known characteristic of addictive drugs is their ability to cause repeated, intermittent increases in extracellular dopamine (DA) in the nucleus accumbens (NAc) (Di Chiara and Imperato, 1988Hernandez and Hoebel, 1988Wise et al., 1995). We find that rats with intermittent access to sugar will drink in a binge-like manner that releases DA in the NAc each time, like the classic effect of most substances of abuse

Intrigued?  I’d love to talk to you about your food/sugar “addiction” and break it down into something you can heal – because the way you eat is about more than food, and abstaining from any kind of food isn’t gonna get you any closer to the root causes.


Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Hi, I’m Jennifer! I’ve been in practice for over 15 years, and have helped over a hundred women heal their relationship with food.

Free Quiz: Do You Trust Yourself with Food?