Sugar Addiction: The Science Behind It + Tips on How to Break It

I’m probably going to make a lot of you dislike me by giving y’all this post on Halloween – but yesterday was (probably very strategically) Sugar Addiction Awareness Day. Yes, tacking the word “addiction” to anything makes it seem so dirty and disappointing, but the phrase really should not get the better of you. After reading multiple articles (and going to school for health and exercise science, of course) it really is evident that the toll sugar takes on the mind is similar to that of substance addictions.

Do you know how much added sugar American adults are supposed to be consume in a year?

The American Heart Association states that women should have a max of 6 teaspoons worth a day while men should have a max of 9 teaspoon’s worth a day, which according to the University of California San Francisco, that equates to 66 lbs of sugar a year.

Now the question is, do you know how much added sugar the American adult actually consumes (Cleveland Clinic, 2015)?

152 lbs a year.

The thing that makes food addictions so challenging compared to drug or alcohol addictions is that we need food – and in this day in age of processed foods, refined sugar finds its way into anything and everything; it isn’t just in desserts and sodas – it’s in condiments, the supposedly good-for-you protein bars… my point being, sugar is hard to get away from.

I have two research articles that I have read through and wanted to summarize for you – the science behind food addictions are intriguing (at least to someone like me who literally lives to study this stuff). Following your little science lesson, I’ll give you all 5 ways I have looked into to combat a sugar addiction.


I’m going to start by defining addiction. Avena et al. (2007) defines addiction as implying “psychological dependence and thus is a mental or cognitive problem, not just a physical ailment;” it is often times used synonymously with the term dependence. Avena et al. (2007) goes on to explain that drug dependence is the “compulsive, sometimes uncontrollable, behaviors that occur at the expense of other activities and intensify with repeated access.”

One of the first obstacles when it comes to fighting a food or sugar addiction is what we call the hedonic brain. This is the pleasure area of the brain and what makes it possible to form emotions/reward mentalities with our food (Ziauddeen et al., 2015). Think about it – whenever you were rewarded for doing something as child, you were usually rewarded with a toy or a piece of candy, right? What parent was going to convince you to have good behavior using carrots or broccoli? From a young age, we’ve gotten used to the idea of sweets and sugars being the ultimate cause of euphoria. Granted, the hedonic brain is not limited to sugar, but it plays a part in all food addictions (including sweets). Foods that are the easiest to become addicted to are those that are high in fats and/or sugar, which tend to be foods that are low in fiber, protein, and water (Westwater et al., 2016).

Sugar addictions are self-diagnosable based on scales and specific questions that scientists have come up with, but it’s not particularly something you can receive a diagnosis on. Sugar addictions have similar characteristics to that of binge eating disorder. Those that struggle with binge eating typically go through waves of uncontrollably consuming massive amounts of calories in a short amount of time, generally followed by feelings of guilt and disgust (NEDA, 2016). Symptoms include eating more sugary foods than planned, craving simple sugars, craving meat and salty foods, eating sugary food without actually desiring to, and eating sugary foods until you feel sick (MindBodyGreen, 2015).

Addictions generally have 3 stages: binging, craving, and withdrawl. I’ve already touched some on bingeing, but to recap, it is “the escalation of intake with a high proportion of intake at one time, usually after a period of voluntary abstinence or forced deprivation” (Avena et al., 2007). I’m sure if you’ve taken a health or psychology class you’ve heard the term tolerance when it comes to substance abuse/addictions – it is the concept that one becomes gradually desensitized to a stimulus, therefore leading them to take in more of a food or substance to reach the desired effect, which often constitutes as substance abuse.

Withdrawl is where the science gets a little fun (sorry, #nerdstatus). Foods – such as sugar, saccharin, and corn oil – that trigger repeated releases of dopamine in the brain can lead to substance abuse.

Avena et al. (2007)  studied the effects of bingeing sugar in rats – I’m going to do my best to break this down in the most understandable way possible. There were 4 groups: daily intermittent sugar and chow (12 hrs with sugar, 12 hrs without), daily intermittent chow (12 hrs with chow, 12 hrs without), ad libitum sugar and chow, and ad libitum chow (ad libitum meaning “as much and as often as desired”).

An observation they made between the daily intermittent sugar/chow rats and the ad libitum sugar/chow rats is that both groups consumed the same amount of sugar, but the daily intermittent rats consumed the same amount of sugar in 12 hours that the ad libitum rats did in 24 hours. In the daily intermittent sugar/chow rats, withdrawl symptoms were noticeable after 3 weeks (symptoms being behavioral depression, anxiety, tremors, shaking, etc), cravings increased by 23% following a 2 week “deprivation effect” (compared to rats that were granted 0.5 hour access to sugar a day during the abstinence period), and exhibited the “gateway effect” – when forced to abstain from sugar, daily intermittent sugar/chow rats “enhanced intake of 9% alcohol.” While the effects observed in the intermittent rats were smaller than those created by drugs such as cocaine or morphine,  evident neurological changes were observed and evidence for dependency on sugar was found (Avena et al., 2007).

If someone truly struggles with an addiction – whether it be food or any other substance – working on breaking the habit isn’t necessarily a cut and dry process and takes a lot of determination and desire to change. If you think you might be struggling with sugar addiction, here are 5 tips on how to start breaking your bad habits via Psychology Today:

  1. Find different rewards – meaning, find other things to provide you comfort rather than food. A lot of times, foods (especially sugary foods) become a primary means of solace. Reward yourself with things like a hot bath, getting your nails done, hanging out with a friend, etc.
  2. Don’t trade one addiction for another – while finding new rewards, make sure you’re not trading one addictive behavior for another; it kind of defeats the whole purpose. Find activities or items that feel rewarding that won’t become compulsive.
  3. Aim for healthy, naturally sweet snacks – aka, fruit! It’s easier to remember/think about eating healthier snacks if they’re placed in plain sight. If it’s something you keep in the fridge, make sure it’s on a shelf where you can see it rather than stuffing it in one of the drawers to be forgotten.
  4. Avoid the “just one” mentality – we’re all guilty of saying, “I’ll just have a bite/piece/one/etc,” but watching ourselves cave to definitely having more than what we committed to. This rings especially true for those who have an actual or presumed addiction. The best way to not have a relapse is to stay away from what makes you weak altogether.
  5. Don’t have it around – I have mentioned in previous posts that in order to keep myself from eating certain foods, I simply made sure I never bought them at the store. If unhealthy foods are accessible, of course I’m going to eat them – especially if I’ve spent the money on it. But if I keep it out of the house in the first place, I’m much better off.

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