Health

Sugar Addiction Isn't a Thing, You Just Need to Stop Eating Sugar

Published On 08/04/2016 Published On 08/04/2016
glazed donuts donut holes
Drew Swantak/Thrillist

If you've ever had sugar cravings so bad that you sold scrap metal to make money for a box of Nerds, dude, what is wrong with you? For most people, itching for the next sugar fix, and the sense of euphoria you feel after indulging in your sweet of choice, seems strikingly similar to an addict scoring another high.

It's not your fault; there have been plenty of studies comparing sugar's effects on the brain to those of drugs. Plus, eating more sugar leads to more sugar cravings, creating a downward spiral like the kind that lands people in rehab.

As it turns out, the notion of a sugar addiction is a tad dramatic. Sure, it's a great tool for selling the latest diet book or promoting a new nutrition craze, but the scientific evidence of an actual dependency on sugar is limited, according to new findings. "We find little evidence to support sugar addiction in humans," the neuroscientists from the University of Cambridge wrote. Sorry, chocoholics. 

Previous studies looked at rodents instead of humans

Welp, if you thought you needed a doctorate in neuroscience to point out some obvious logical flaws, you were off by a mile. The team of scientists came to their conclusion after reviewing previous studies on sugar addiction, and finding some red flags. A big one was that most of these studies looked at rodents instead of humans. Even if rats love pizza as much as people, the similarities in brain function aren't strong enough to base our responses to sugar on theirs. They're a good starting point, being mammals and all, but yeah: rats do not equal humans.

Another one was that humans usually have sugar in the context of other food and nutrients, and the rodents were typically fed straight sugar. "There is a methodological challenge in translating this work because humans rarely consume sugar in isolation," the scientists wrote. EXCEPT THE ADDICTS, RIGHT?! And instead of looking at a random selection of rodents, the animals "usually had previous access to sucrose and are selected for sucrose preference," so they already really love sugar in the first place. 

But isn't your brain wired to be addicted to sugar?

Eating sugar releases feel-good dopamine, the neurotransmitter associated with reward in the brain. Drug use is also associated with a dopamine hit, but the scientists say that the way your brain responds to drugs like heroin and cocaine is different from how it responds to sugar. When the animals had sugar, their dopamine increased quickly, but soon returned to baseline, and stayed consistent even as they consumed more sugar. But in studies where the rodents were trained to give themselves cocaine, "the surge [of dopamine] does not return to baseline, but further increases after lever pressing and cocaine delivery." Basically, you can reset yourself after a sugar high, whereas cocaine makes you want more and more and more. 

That's not to say sugar is good for you; it does a lot of messed up things to your body, like causing weight gain, hormone disruption, and acne breakouts. But blaming your raging sweet tooth on a "sugar addiction" is more hyperbole than scientific fact. Plus, donuts are really damn delicious -- it's hard for anyone to stop at just one.

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Christina Stiehl is a Health and fitness staff writer for Thrillist. She has been known to hit up her local 24-hour drugstore for candy in the middle of the night. Follow her on Twitter: @ChristinaStiehl.

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