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Why is Sugar Addictive?

sugar is not just a treat; it's an addictive substance
sugar is not just a treat; it's an addictive substance

Why is Sugar Addictive...We “Feel Better” When We Eat It?

In today's world, sugar lurks in the supermarket aisles, camouflaged amid the allure of cookies, cakes, donuts, candy, sodas, and unsuspecting treats. Surrounded by these delectable indulgences, resisting the temptation to indulge becomes an arduous task. Recent insights from psychology delve into the profound reasons behind our incessant cravings for sweets, revealing a disconcerting truth – sugar is not just a treat; it's an addictive substance.

Exploring the biological and chemical aspects of sugar in relation to human eating habits, recent studies expose startling findings. Sugar, classified as a carbohydrate composed of hydrogen, carbon, and oxygen, stands out for its simplicity compared to other carbohydrates. This simplicity facilitates its swift breakdown in the body's intestinal system. From commonplace white cane sugar to exotic variants like agave nectar or molasses, the world is inundated with various forms of sugar, all sharing the common trio of simple sugars – glucose, fructose, and sucrose. These components, blended in unique proportions, collectively form what we know as 'sugar.'

Addiction, defined as a psychological dependence causing mental and cognitive distress in addition to physical ailments, transcends its traditional association with substances like alcohol and drugs (Avena, 2008). In the realm of sugar, dependence manifests as compulsive and uncontrollable behaviors, overshadowing other activities with repeated access. Diagnosing sugar addiction involves scrutinizing three key signs: bingeing, withdrawal, and craving (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 2000). A confluence of these symptoms points to a profound dependence on sugar, a reality often overlooked in favor of more conventional addictions.

Elevating serotonin levels, sugar consumption triggers a cascade of calming and mood-enhancing effects (Fortuna, 2010). Serotonin, pivotal in regulating pain levels, sleep cycles, and acting as an anti-depressant, plays a crucial role in making individuals feel better both physically and mentally. The association of comfort with sugary indulgences, like cookies and ice cream, offers a plausible explanation for the struggle some face in resisting these sweet temptations.

Furthermore, sugar ingestion induces an increase in dopamine levels, akin to the effects observed with notorious addictive substances like cocaine and heroin (Fortuna, 2010). Dopamine, responsible for pleasure in response to life events, is facilitated by dopamine receptors. A deficiency in these receptors, associated with disorders such as depression, alcoholism, bulimia, and binge eating, can drive individuals towards seeking pleasure from substances like sugar.

In unraveling the complex emotional tapestry woven by sugar addiction, it becomes evident that our cravings extend beyond mere physical desires. The allure of sugar is deeply intertwined with our emotional well-being, making the battle against this sweet temptation a multidimensional struggle."

It’s as Addictive As Drugs Like Cocaine.

Delving deeper into the intricate dance between sugar and the human brain, intermittent sugar access reveals an additional layer of complexity through its interaction with the brain's opioid system. The alterations in the brain's opioid pathways, induced by the consumption of sugar, give rise to withdrawal symptoms reminiscent of addiction. As Avena (2008) suggests, the intermittent and excessive intake of sugar can elicit dopaminergic, cholinergic, and opioid effects akin to psychostimulants and opiates, albeit on a smaller scale. Despite the subtlety of sugar's impact on neurochemicals, a gradual dependency or addiction can manifest over time.

Beyond the realm of neurochemistry, the brain itself bears witness to the signs of sugar addiction. In studies scrutinizing brain activity following sugar consumption, the orbitofrontal cortex emerges as a focal point. Positioned at the frontal lobe, this area is integral in processing rewards (Benton, 2009). The heightened activity in this region underscores the rewarding nature of eating sugar, prompting individuals to seek pleasure and gratification through continuous indulgence.

Further exploration of the brain during sugar cravings reveals activation in areas such as the caudate nucleus, hippocampus, and insula – regions also implicated in drug cravings. As Pelchat (2009) notes, during a sugar craving, there seems to be a sensory template dictating what needs to be consumed to satisfy that craving. In the context of sugar addiction, this implies that individuals instinctively know that consuming sugar is the key to satiating their cravings.

Certain populations, including those with bulimia, binge eating disorder, obesity, alcohol dependence, smokers, and chronic pain sufferers, face a higher risk of succumbing to sugar addiction (Fortuna, 2010). The commonality lies in the parallels between sugar addiction and these disorders, often coexisting within individuals. As Pelchat (2009) emphasizes, healthy, normal-weight individuals, by definition, do not suffer from food addiction, but overweight and obese individuals may meet clinical criteria due to the cyclical pattern of binging and restricting associated with sugar addiction.

Environmental cues play a pivotal role as triggers for sugar addiction. Whether it's witnessing a candy commercial, catching the scent of freshly baked cinnamon rolls, or merely being in proximity to sugar, these cues can spark uncontrollable cravings. Eating sugar can become a learned response, tied to feelings of hunger, boredom, or fatigue, establishing a habitual pattern that mirrors the mechanisms observed in other substance addictions.

Although the notion of sugar addiction has gained recognition relatively recently, skepticism persists within the scientific community. The limited research, conducted on both rats and humans, illuminates the neurochemical and biological effects of sugar. Convincing the broader scientific and medical community of the unequivocal link between the human body and sugar addiction may require more time and extensive research. Nevertheless, as we unravel the studies conducted thus far and witness the tangible effects of sugar on individuals, it becomes increasingly evident that sugar is a bona fide addiction.

The Brain Thinks It Is Rewarding.

Sugar addiction, or sugar dependence, manifests in the triad of bingeing, withdrawal, and craving, paralleling the trajectory of traditional addictions. The surge of neurochemicals, including dopamine, tryptophan, and serotonin, during sugar consumption, intertwines pleasure, reward, and pain tolerance, rendering sugar irresistible. The striking similarity between the release of these neurochemicals in sugar addiction and other substance dependencies underscores the interconnected nature of these addictive behaviors. As research advances, sugar addiction stands poised to secure a more prominent place within the scientific and medical discourse, shedding light on the intricate relationship between human physiology and the captivating allure of sugar."

How to Overcome Sugar Addiction

Overcoming sugar addiction can be challenging, but it's certainly possible with dedication and a strategic approach. Here are some practical steps to help you break free from sugar addiction:

  1. Acknowledge the Addiction: Admitting that you have a sugar addiction is the first step. Recognize the impact it has on your physical and mental well-being.

  2. Educate Yourself: Understand the effects of sugar on the body and mind. Knowing the risks and consequences can reinforce your commitment to overcoming the addiction.

  3. Gradual Reduction: Rather than quitting sugar cold turkey, consider gradually reducing your intake. This can help minimize withdrawal symptoms and make the transition more manageable.

  4. Read Labels: Learn to read food labels and identify hidden sugars. Many processed foods contain added sugars under various names, such as sucrose, high-fructose corn syrup, and others.

  5. Choose Whole Foods: Opt for whole, unprocessed foods. Fruits, vegetables, lean proteins, and whole grains can provide essential nutrients without the excessive sugar content found in many processed foods.

  6. Stay Hydrated: Sometimes, feelings of hunger can be mistaken for cravings. Drink plenty of water throughout the day to stay hydrated and reduce the likelihood of unnecessary snacking.

  7. Healthy Alternatives: Replace sugary snacks with healthier alternatives. Choose fruits, nuts, or yogurt with no added sugars to satisfy your sweet tooth in a more nutritious way.

  8. Meal Planning: Plan your meals and snacks in advance. Having a structured eating schedule can prevent impulsive decisions and reduce the likelihood of reaching for sugary foods.

  9. Manage Stress: Practice stress-reduction techniques such as meditation, deep breathing, or yoga. Stress can often trigger sugar cravings, and finding healthier ways to cope can be beneficial.

  10. Regular Exercise: Engage in regular physical activity. Exercise not only helps improve mood but also reduces sugar cravings by promoting the release of endorphins.

  11. Get Support: Share your goal of overcoming sugar addiction with friends, family, or a support group. Having a supportive network can provide encouragement and accountability.

  12. Professional Help: If your sugar addiction is severe, consider seeking help from a healthcare professional or a registered dietitian. They can provide personalized guidance and support.

  13. Mindful Eating: Pay attention to your eating habits. Eat slowly, savoring each bite, and listen to your body's hunger and fullness cues. This can help prevent overeating and mindless snacking.

  14. Celebrate Successes: Acknowledge and celebrate your achievements along the way. Breaking a sugar addiction is a gradual process, and recognizing your progress can help motivate you to continue.

Remember that overcoming sugar addiction is a journey, and progress may come in small steps. Be patient with yourself, stay committed, and celebrate the positive changes you make along the way. If needed, consult with healthcare professionals for tailored advice and support.


Avena, N. (2008). Evidence for sugar addiction: Behavioral and neurochemical effects of intermittent, excessive sugar intake. Neuroscience & Bio Behavioral Reviews, 32(1), 20–39.

Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders: DSM-IV-TR. (4th ed.). (2000). Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Association.

Fortuna, J. L. (2010). Sweet Preference, Sugar Addiction and the Familial History of Alcohol Dependence: Shared Neural Pathways and Genes. Journal of Psychoactive Drugs, 42(2), 147-151.

Benton, D. (2009). The plausibility of sugar addiction and its role in obesity and eating disorders. Clinical Nutrition, 29(3), 288-303.

Pelchat, M. (March, 2009). Food addiction in humans. The Journal of Nutrition. 139(3), 620-622.


Need Help Developing A Plan For Self-Care

Do you want help developing a self-care plan that works for your busy schedule? Do you want accountability in implementing a self-care plan? If you or someone you love is struggling to maintain optimal mental and emotional health, consider reaching out to Spiced Life Conversation Art Wellness Studio and Botanica. We are a Metro Atlanta, Conyers Georgia area. We are a coaching and counseling practice with empathetic, skilled counselors and recovery coaches who can help you set goals, develop a self-care routine, and move forward to build a more fulfilling life. Our team would be happy to work with you either just for a couple of sessions to develop and implement a Self-care plan or longer term to work toward overall better mental health within our membership site or other programs.

Dr. Nikki LeToya White
Dr. Nikki LeToya White

About The Author:

Dr. Nikki LeToya White MSEd-TL, Ph.D. RHN is the founder, director, and full-time board-certified trauma-informed nutritionist, folk herbalist, and wellness consultant at Spiced Life Conversation Art Wellness Studio and Botanica. She created Spiced Life Conversation, LLC

Art Wellness Studio and Botanica to provide the Metro Atlanta area with counseling and coaching services where clients are carefully matched with the right program for healing abandonment and childhood emotional neglect trauma that cause codependency, emotional eating, financial stress, and imposter syndrome as it relates to fear of success and being abandon. We help you begin your emotional healing journey with ease. Recently, we have expanded to include an online membership site so we now provide support to people living all over the world. All of our recovery coaches provide at least one evidence-based treatment to assist in your recovery. Dr. White is a big proponent of self-care and helping people live a fulfilling life! She has been in full remission with both codependency and emotional binge eating disorder since 2016. In living a life in recovery from sugar addiction. Loving her low-sugar balance lifestyle.

Best Regards

Dr. Nikki LeToya White


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