Sugar vs. Cocaine

Sugar vs. Cocaine

Is Sugar More Addictive Than Cocaine

Research on rats has found that sugar is more addictive than opioid drugs such as cocaine and that there can be withdrawal symptoms such as depression and behavioral problems when people try cutting out sugar completely. Should we be treating refined sugar with even more caution?

Drug-like effects

A review published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine has claimed that refined sugar has a similar effect on the brain as illegal drugs such as cocaine.

In studies on rats, it has been found that there are significant similarities between eating sugar and drug-like effects such as bingeing, craving, tolerance, withdrawal, dependence, and reward.

The research scientists claim that sugar alters the mood and can induce reward and pleasure, in the same way, drugs such as cocaine affect the brain. They cite studies in rats where sugar was preferred to cocaine and studies in mice where the mice experienced sugar withdrawal symptoms.

Aversion signal

The review looked at all the existing research about sugar and its potential addictive qualities.

Lead author of the review, James DiNicolantonio of Saint Luke’s Mid-America Heart Institute, has said that, unlike salt, there is no ‘aversion signal’ to sugar – a built-in safety mechanism that protects us from eating too much salt. This isn’t present in sugar and so people can eat a lot of it and still want more. Whereas once people have eaten enough salt, they don’t want any more.

Withdrawal symptoms

Of the withdrawal symptoms the authors of the review claim are present when giving up sugar completely, DiNicolantonio said: “Withdrawal symptoms from sugar come from dopamine deficiency in the brain. This may lead to symptoms such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and it may even create a similar state in the brain as found in patients with depression.”

Dopamine deficiency can be temporarily relieved by eating more sugar. DiNicolantonio claims that sugar can override our self-control mechanisms – hence the term ‘sugar fix’.

Dietary energy

According to Public Health England, sugar intake in England is nearly three times the recommended limit, and the consumption of sugar and sugar-sweetened drinks is particularly high in school-age children.

On average, sugar contributes between 12% and 15% of our energy intake, whereas the Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition recommends that sugar should not exceed 5% of our total dietary energy.

Eating too much sugar can lead to weight gain, which then increases the risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, stroke, and some cancers. But sugar also alters our mood and provides feelings of being rewarded and euphoria; hence the comparison to illegal drugs.

Reward system

However, there are opponents of the argument around sugar and addiction, with some other experts disputing the claim. An article in the journal Clinical Nutrition in 2010 claimed that there is no support from studies on humans that sugar is physically addictive or that addiction to sugar plays a role in eating disorders.

And another study of research on the effect of sugar on rats argued that the addiction-like behaviors that are seen are only if the animals are restricted to having sugar for two hours every day; whereas if they are allowed to have it whenever they want it, these behaviors aren’t seen.

Opponents of the theory argue that there is a reward system in the brain that controls eating behavior, but, unlike sugar, illegal drugs such as cocaine hijack those systems and turn the normal controls off. They also argue that rats choosing sugar over cocaine in some experiments is not surprising as animals will always choose the substance that will give them energy.

Nutritional value

What all scientists agree on is that people should try and reduce the amount of sugar in their diet, for health reasons and to protect their teeth from tooth decay.

While some argue that cutting out sugar completely means we won’t get addicted, others reason that there are much more nutritional foods that we should be eating instead. Sugar doesn’t offer anything from a nutrition perspective, and filling the diet with sugar can lead to over-eating and weight gain.


Purpose of review: To review research that tests the validity of the analogy between addictive drugs, like cocaine, and hyper-palatable foods, notably those high in added sugar (i.e., sucrose).

Recent findings: Available evidence in humans shows that sugar and sweetness can induce rewards and craving that are comparable in magnitude to those induced by addictive drugs. Although this evidence is limited by the inherent difficulty of comparing different types of rewards and psychological experiences in humans, it is nevertheless supported by recent experimental research on sugar and sweet reward in laboratory rats. Overall, this research has revealed that sugar and sweet reward can not only substitute for addictive drugs, like cocaine but can even be more rewarding and attractive. At the neurobiological level, the neural substrates of sugar and sweet reward appear to be more robust than those of cocaine (i.e., more resistant to functional failures), possibly reflecting past selective evolutionary pressures for seeking and taking foods high in sugar and calories.

Summary: The biological robustness in the neural substrates of sugar and sweet reward may be sufficient to explain why many people can have difficulty to control the consumption of foods high in sugar when continuously exposed to them.


Sugar vs. Cocaine

Why Is Sugar Addiction A Problem?

From cupcakes to pies to iced coffee drinks, sugar is found in many foods and is almost impossible to avoid. Emotional or psychological dependence on sugary foods and drinks, also known as sugar addiction, is a very real cause for concern among health officials in America. Processed foods and refined grains create additional sugar in the body once the body metabolizes the food. Sugar in moderation is not harmful; however, many overdo it. A recent study suggests Americans eat far too much sugar. To be specific, approximately 75% of Americans eat excessive amounts of sugar — many of whom could be classified as having a sugar addiction.

How Do People Develop A Sugar Addiction?

Sugar consumption can create a short-term high and a spark of energy in the body. Some studies have suggested that sugar is as addictive as Cocaine. People often enjoy the dopamine release that sugar brings. But due to the addictive nature of sugar, long-term health effects like obesity and diabetes are a risk of sugar overindulgence. Similar to other compulsions or behavioral addictions, sugar addiction is a special risk for people with low moods, anxiety, and stress.

Additionally, people who suffer from constant tiredness may reach for carb-rich sugary foods for a boost. Sugar releases endorphins in the body and combines with other chemicals in the body, resulting in a surge of energy. Once someone mentally connects sugar with help providing energy, they may become dependent on it (usually inadvertently). People may begin to crave sugar to balance irritability, emotional lows, and other conditions. At this point, there is often little control over dietary habits, and a sugar addiction has developed.

Signs Of A Sugar Addiction

Unlike many other substance use disorders or behavioral compulsions, sugar addiction is often easy to spot. The clearest signs of sugar addiction involve the consumption of large amounts of food or drinks laden with sugar. The individual may eat constantly, eat to combat boredom, and become hyper and crash. They may even talk about craving sugar after stressful or irritating life experiences.

Sugar Addiction And Emotional Eating

People may find sugar’s ability to provide instant energy, combined with the good taste of sugary foods, enticing. Sugar provides some with a “quick fix” during a long and stressful day. People who are enduring breakups or other emotionally stressful situations often turn to chocolate or pints of ice cream to comfort themselves during difficult times. However, those who turn to sugar to deal with emotional issues are more likely to become addicted. Other indications of sugar addiction for emotional relief are weight gain and difficulty focusing on daily responsibilities. These side effects can damage self-esteem, cause feelings of helplessness, and lower self-worth; this in turn leads to more sugar consumption and more severe addiction.

Sugar Addiction And Binge Eating

A particularly worrisome aspect of sugar addiction is binge eating. Binge eating is eating too much and too rapidly followed by feelings of guilt, shame, and disgust. This can include a focus on sweets for the same mood-regulating and self-medicating effects of binge eating non-sugary foods. It is critical to remember that food, especially sugar, is a short-term fix for emotional conditions. If you or someone you love is struggling with depression and using food as a crutch, consider therapy or rehab.

Sugar Addiction And Anxiety

Anxiety and sugar cravings have a direct relationship. Eating disorders like binge eating or anorexia occur for underlying reasons. Oftentimes, the person suffering from such disorders is struggling for psychological and emotional reasons. Stress eating is a common example of the relationship between eating disorders and anxiety, and sugar consumption is commonly associated with stress eating.

Anxiety causes the stress hormone cortisol to be released in the body, which can suppress appetite in some. On the other hand, stress may encourage people who already like sugar into more cravings. When sugar addiction co-occurs with eating to soothe anxiety, the result is typically weight gain. Despite sugar initially boosting serotonin levels in the brain, sugar can worsen anxiety as sugar lows create feelings of fatigue and depression.

Sugar Addiction And Alcoholism

There is a surprising genetic link between children of parents who abuse alcohol and sugar addiction. A recent study confirmed dopamine receptors in the brain light up when sugar is consumed, similar to the receptors lighting up in the brain of someone who abuses alcohol. This can encourage people who struggle with sweets to develop alcoholism.

Alcohol-dependent individuals have a higher preference for sweets and experience sugar cravings and sugar withdrawals. The genes in parents who abuse alcohol, as well as their preference for sugar, can be passed down to their children. As a result, the child may have a predisposition to both of these compulsions.

Sugar Withdrawal

Many who eliminate sugar from their diet find themselves experiencing withdrawal symptoms of irritability, fogginess, moodiness, and low energy. Since many struggling with sugar addiction have binged on sugary foods, withdrawal, and cravings can be intense. Tragically, many choose to go back to eating sugary foods for the chemical release in the brain. A much better alternative is to do a dietary swap, whereby the sugar user exchanges unhealthy sweets for natural and healthy options to regain control.

Why is Sugar Bad For You?

This should come as no surprise…sugar is not your friend. Refined sugar is 99.4 to 99.7 percent pure calories, with no vitamins, minerals, fats, or proteins – just carbohydrates that spike blood sugar, followed by an insulin response and a subsequent sugar crash, leading us to the desire for more. There are ways to control these cravings.

The Negative Effects of Sugar

Eating sugary foods makes people hungry and tired, and causes them to gain weight. Refined sugar is void of minerals needed for enzymes, can cause mineral deficiencies, interferes with the actions of calcium and magnesium, increases inflammation, increases erratic brain cell firing, and has been implicated in aggression.

Additionally, sugar consumption has been associated with depression, ADHD, and hyperactivity, increased triglycerides, lower HDL, and higher LDL cholesterol; it also feeds cancer cells. Brain imaging studies showed sugar causes increased slow brain waves, and a study at UCLA showed that sugar alters learning and memory.

Did you know that the average American eats about 140 pounds of sugar a year?

And the fact that sugar is often disguised behind the labels of “organic,” “cane,” “raw,” or “unprocessed” doesn’t change the insulin response in your body when you eat it. Whether it comes from a beehive, a maple tree, or any other natural source, sugar is sugar.

When you eat sugar, your blood sugar spikes, insulin is released, then blood sugar drops, and you crave it again and again. When your blood sugar drops, your body sees it as a state of emergency, causing you to crave food as a way to fix the situation. Sugar is the fastest way to do that aside from the alternatives. That is why when you eat sugar, you crave it more – similar to how a drug addict craves his drug.

“Drug Dealers” in the Food Industry

In the 1970s, a mathematician by the name of Howard Moskowitz discovered that the perfect combination of sugar, salt, and fat would optimize the human brain’s pleasure experience. He coined it the “bliss point.”

Fast-forward a few decades, and we now know that triggering the bliss point not only increases sensory experiences like taste and texture but also activates an area deep in the brain, called the nucleus accumbens, which is associated with motivation and pleasure.

The nucleus accumbens is the same part of the brain that is activated by certain drugs such as cocaine, methamphetamines, nicotine, and morphine! In other words, the job of food designers is to create foods that hook your brain, just like addictive drugs.

Now new research published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine backs that up by demonstrating that sugar has a similar effect on the brain to powerful illegal drugs and that it can be as addictive as cocaine! Furthermore, they say, cutting out sugar can cause cravings, binges, and withdrawal symptoms – like a drug addict going cold turkey.

But here is the good news: Once you let go of sugar, your cravings WILL subside.

Within a short time (usually several days) of eliminating sugar, many amazing things begin to happen in your body. Your hormones begin to regulate. Your hunger/satiation signals normalize. You begin to enjoy the taste of real (unprocessed) foods. Fruit tastes sweeter and vegetables more flavorful.

And by eliminating sugar, which contributes to a lack of focus and inattention, you have a greater ability to focus on making the healthiest eating choices.
National Library of Medicine - PubMed Central

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