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Sugar As an Addictive Substance, or Not

January has just ended, providing a great cue to take a retrospective look at a piece written 10 years ago for NPR by Eliza Barclay, titled “Is Sugar Addiction Why So Many January Diets Fail?

In it, the prolific journalist outed herself as a sugar addict. After that, she continued to explore the subject by studying the work of Dr. Robert Lustig (Sugar: The Bitter Truth), Eve O. Schaub (Year of No Sugar), Nicole Avena (How Does Sugar Affect the Brain?), and Michael Prager (Fat Boy Thin Man), among others.

A decade has gone by since the January diets article, but no progress in preventing or curing sugar addiction has been made. We fallible humans are still flummoxed by our relationship with sugar (including its various substitutes) to the point where, if this is not technically an addiction, it might as well be. While it may not meet the particular academic criteria, the effects of sugar addiction are just as real and devastating as if it ticked all the scientific boxes.

For instance, who among us does not relate to this experience?

When I eat sugar, I can feel something devilish turn on in my brain: a voice saying, “More, more, more.”

Another expert cited by Barclay was Ashley Gearhardt, described as “cautious about comparing sugar to drugs like nicotine and alcohol”:

She says the addiction jury is still out on sugar. We still need to better understand whether people addicted to sugar experience tolerance and withdrawal in the same way they would with drugs…

Among other things, Gearhardt pointed out that many people are unable to moderate sugar, an indicator that maybe it ought to be classified as addictive. After all, while many people are able to moderate or even ignore alcohol, surely no one would deny that it is ferociously addictive. People who have weaned themselves off sugar tend to find that total abstinence works much better than dabbling, another characteristic shared with hardcore addictive substances.

Also in 2014, Dr. Pam Peeke spoke to the press about the brain’s reward center:

What we see are identical, indistinguishable changes between sugar or food addiction and any other addiction, for instance, cocaine, methamphetamine, morphine, alcohol. The effect of the sugar on the reward center is to cause changes that literally keep you addicted.

Dr. Peeke spoke in the capacity of senior science advisor for Elements Behavioral Health Centers, whose Malibu Vista facility was touted as “one of the first treatment centers for people hooked on sugar,” as determined by the Yale Food Addiction Scale. Elements still exists, with many branches, all apparently equipped to treat addictions of all kinds.

The literature hints that one of the problems faced by sugar addicts is their embarrassment over having to admit that their drug of choice is just as difficult to kick as heroin or meth. But it’s the same for everyone. Recovery starts with retraining the brain to stop craving the substance, then it is a “lifelong choice,” a choice made over and over again with each new day, not to use.

For someone who thinks about cutting down on sugar, but isn’t quite ready to take the plunge, a way to sneak up on it might be classical journaling. Eliza Barclay suggests,

Take a week or two to monitor exactly when the cravings hit. Then figure out what the cues are — like stress, boredom, emotional downers or the need for a distraction.

Take it a step further by jotting down those details. There is no need to record every action and thought throughout the day. This is targeted journaling — more like the notes a detective might make on the movements of a suspect. What inspires that shady guy to pull out his phone and make a call? Those are the clues. What triggers the craving for sugar in you? Field notes will allow you to see patterns and get a real grasp on the dimensions of the problem.

Written by Pat Hartman. First published February 2, 2024.


“Is Sugar Addiction Why So Many January Diets Fail?,” NPR, 01/09/14
“Sugar Rehab: New Treatment for Not-So-Sweet Addiction,” NBC News, 11/28/14
“The Reality of Sugar Addiction,”, 01/13/15

Image Copyright: Sheila Sund/CC BY 2.0 DEED


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