Sugar Addiction: Is It a Serious Problem?

Sweet treats are no longer reserved for holidays such as Halloween or Christmas. Walk into any supermarket, and you will find an abundance of sweet foods. Is it possible to get addicted to sugar? Excessive sugar consumption can have undesirable effects on our bodies. Let's discuss what sugar addiction means and potential ways to prevent and manage an unhealthy relationship with sugar.

Is sugar addiction real?

An addiction is a neuropsychological disorder characterized by the compulsive use and misuse of a substance (drugs or alcohol) despite the harmful consequences. The misuse is driven by neurochemical changes in the brain's reward system. Using this as a model, sugar addiction is the compulsive consumption of high-sugar foods, though sugar addiction isn't a recognized diagnosis.

Currently, there's not enough evidence to support sugar addiction in humans. Further, some animal studies show that addiction-like behaviors only occur in response to intermittent access to sugar rather than the neurochemical effects of the sugar itself. With the majority of evidence coming from animal studies, more research is needed to determine how it translates to humans, given our much more complex eating patterns.

Nevertheless, a seemingly harmless habit of eating chocolate after every meal can escalate to developing an unhealthy relationship with sugar. Overconsumption of sugar and highly processed foods can impact a person's personal and professional life.

Does sugar addiction need immediate attention?

Sugar addiction may be considered a type of food addiction, though different opinions exist as to whether food addiction is a valid concept. Despite the term being highly contentious, evidence shows that having an unhealthy relationship with food, including compulsive eating, may contribute to obesity or being overweight.

The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that by the year 2030, at least 57% of the world population will be obese. This silent epidemic of obesity was brought to the forefront during the COVID-19 pandemic, as obesity increases the risk of other diseases, including infectious diseases. Considering the negative effects of an unhealthy relationship with food (including sugary foods), it's important to recognize addictive-like behaviors toward sugary foods as well as ways to prevent and manage them.

The physiological mechanisms of sugar addiction are poorly understood. In drug or alcohol addiction, underlying brain mechanisms are studied, and abstinence is a possible treatment. For food or sugar addiction, the activation of reward circuitry in the brain was observed when animals had food addictions. Similar results are expected in human studies. However, no consensus about these physiological mechanisms has emerged yet. Furthermore, abstinence from food is not possible. This makes treatment difficult, and hence, developing self-awareness and taking preventative steps to reduce the risk of developing an unhealthy relationship with sugar is important.

What does an unhealthy relationship with sugar look like?

In substance addictions, people may have a group of psychological, cognitive, and behavioral symptoms. Persons experiencing addictive-type behaviors toward sugary foods may demonstrate some of these symptoms:

  • Constant craving for sugar
  • Excessive intake of sweet foods
  • Prolonged intake of sweet foods
  • Repeated failure to stay away from sweets
  • Intake of sweet foods despite harmful symptoms

There's no listing of food addiction in the "Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition" (DSM-5). Thus, currently, it is not officially regarded as a diagnosable condition. Typically, doctors take a multi-pronged approach when evaluating someone with unhealthy food behaviors, like overconsumption of sugary foods.

The patient may undergo a semi-structured interview with a psychiatrist or their family doctor. The patient needs to fill out various self-report questionnaires. For instance, the "Eating Behaviors Questionnaire" (EBQ) helps capture symptoms such as compulsive eating, repeated failure to avoid sweets, and continuing to eat despite harmful symptoms. Another commonly used questionnaire is the "Yale Food Addiction Scale." This questionnaire helps identify addictions to certain foods, such as sweet or salty foods.

However, since the brain mechanisms are yet unclear, food addiction and sugar addiction remain controversial diagnoses among clinicians.

Ways to manage an unhealthy relationship with sugar

Prevention is better than cure is true in cases of sugar addiction. Early intervention to break sugar cravings is important. Here are a few tips to manage sugar cravings:

  • Avoid hidden sugars. Many food items that are not sweet have sugars in the form of corn syrup and cane sugar. For instance, some pasta sauces include a lot of sugar. Becoming aware of hidden sugar and avoiding consumption helps in breaking sugar addiction.
  • Use artificial sweeteners. For some people, using artificial sweeteners, such as sucralose, might be a stepping stone to a sugar-free lifestyle. Talk to your care team before you use artificial sweeteners for a prolonged period.
  • Avoid starvation. When we are starving, we crave food, which in turn triggers excessive sugar consumption. Certain triggers, such as a particular bakery or pizzeria, can make a person indulge in sugar. It is best to avoid such locations when craving food.
  • Eat when hungry. Consume adequate portions of healthy foods when hungry to avoid starvation. One useful tool nutritionists use is 'the hunger scale,' where zero is starving, and 10 is being full to the point of feeling sick. Persons experiencing sugar addiction are advised to avoid both extremes of the scale.
  • Manage stress. People often turn to sweet foods when they experience stress. Practicing meditation, relaxation techniques, and time management skills can help in stress management.
  • Exercise. Exercise helps in increasing dopamine receptors and makes people feel happier. Regular exercise can help in reducing sugar cravings.

Sugar addiction may be difficult to break, and it requires understanding the underlying factors for having an unhealthy relationship with food. There's no course of treatment for what some may call a sugar addiction. However, there are ways to manage addictive behaviors, as well as treatments that may be helpful for addressing the health issues that arise from chronic overconsumption of food.

Therapies such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and 12-step programs for addiction may be beneficial. Doctors may also prescribe medications such as antidepressants, anti-obesity, and anti-addiction drugs to reduce food intake. In some cases, treatments such as transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS) or surgery for obesity may become necessary.

Policymakers can also provide social interventions to reduce sugar addictions. For instance, the marketing of sweet foods or sodas to young children needs to be prohibited. Another way to reduce the consumption of certain foods is by levying taxes on the food.

Sugar makes food hyper-palatable and, thereby, easy to overconsume despite the harm it may cause. Even with the emerging evidence for the potential addiction-type behaviors relating to sugar, it remains a hotly debated topic. More research is needed to better understand this type of behavior and explore potential ways to manage it. Talk to your doctor and nutritionist if you have concerns about your eating behaviors.

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