One of the more amusing stories I’ve come across in recent times is the idea that sugar is “a drug that is more rewarding and addictive than cocaine.”
It’s a theory based on research showing that certain parts of the brain “light up” when you eat sugar.
And those are the same parts of the brain that light up when you take cocaine.
It all sounds very worrying and disturbing.
But, having thought deeply about this subject for at least 30 seconds, there are a few things that don’t add up.
For one, there is some sugar sat in my kitchen right now this very minute.
It’s been there for years.
At no point have I felt compelled to run into the kitchen, grab a spoon and start eating sugar straight out of the bag.
But, maybe I’m just one of the lucky ones, and have a set of “sugar addiction resistant” genes that protect me.
So, I asked a few of my friends if they’d ever felt the urge to binge on sugar.
They all said no.
The last time I went food shopping in Tesco, I was not accompanied by three former members of the SAS, who would protect me from the rampaging hordes of sugar junkies running around in search of their next sugar fix.
When an international team of scientists looked into the research on the subject, they came to the conclusion that people can become “addicted to eating for its own sake, but not to consuming specific foods such as those high in sugar or fat.”
Publishing their findings in Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews, they found “no strong evidence to suggest that people are addicted to the chemical substances in certain foods . Instead, people can develop a psychological compulsion to eat, driven by the positive feelings that the brain associates with eating.”
In their paper, titled “Sugar addiction: the state of the science,” researchers from the University of Cambridge conclude :
“We find little evidence to support sugar addiction in humans, and findings from the animal literature suggest that addiction-like behaviours, such as bingeing, occur only in the context of intermittent access to sugar. These behaviours likely arise from intermittent access to sweet tasting or highly palatable foods, not the neurochemical effects of sugar.”
From scientists at the University of Maastricht :
“The current findings indicate that sugary foods contribute minimally to ‘food dependence’ and increased risk of weight gain. Instead, they are consistent with the current scientific notion that food energy density, and the unique individual experience of eating, plays an important role in determining the reward value of food and promoting excessive energy intake.”
As Dr Spencer Nadolsky explains here:
“Have you ever popped a sugar cube into your mouth and then wanted more? Compare that to a non-sugary food like a crunchy salty starchy delicious potato chip. If sugar is so ‘addictive,’ then why would most people be driven to eat many more potato chips than sugar cubes? It’s because sugar is not the single problem.”
The real problem is what are called hyper-palatable foods. Basically, this term refers to food that tastes good and that you want to eat more of, even when you’re not really hungry.
Hyper-palatable foods contain a lot more than just sugar. They’re often a mix of starch, sugar, fat and salt. They taste nice. They look good. They feel good in your mouth.
And what is hyper-palatable for one person might not be for another. Some people can binge on sweet foods, while others prefer something savory. It varies from person to person.
Hyper-palatable foods differ from addictive drugs. But there is a degree of overlap between the two, and they do share some common characteristics.
From researchers at Yale University.
“First, highly processed foods and drugs of abuse are both capable of triggering cravings. Second, consumption of highly processed foods and drugs of abuse can both be associated with compulsive overuse in the face of severe negative consequences. And finally, in some individuals there is evidence of chronic relapse and an inability to cut down consumption of both substances.”
Foods that are high in sugar – cookies, chocolate bars, soft drinks, ice cream and so on – can and do make a significant contribution to fat gain.
However that’s not because you’re “addicted” to sugar.
It’s because those foods taste very nice.
They’re an extremely convenient and pleasurable way to provide your body with more energy than it needs – energy that will eventually end up stored as fat.
To repeat, sugar is not a drug.
It’s not addictive in the same way as cocaine.
Contrary to what the various “celebrity diet experts jumping on the anti-sugar bandwagon” have to say, there is no need to eliminate every gram of sugar from your diet.
As long as it’s accounted for in your daily carbohydrate budget, eating sugar isn’t going to have a big impact on your results one way or the other.
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ABOUT CHRISTIAN FINNChristian Finn holds a master's degree with distinction in exercise science, is a former personal trainer and has been featured on BBC TV and radio, as well as in Men's Health, Men's Fitness, Fit Pro, Zest, and Perfect Body magazine.