Sugar is likely the most over consumed substance in the modern world 1 On top of our endless addiction to soda (sugar water essentially) – sugar is surreptitiously added to nearly every processed food.2 As a result, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) now reports that the average American ingests 150-170 pounds of sugar per year.3
This overconsumption of sugar may very well be killing us.
As I’ve previously written, sugar is the precursor and the ‘canary in the coalmine’ – to numerous diseases and unhealthy conditions. Diabetes? Check.4 Obesity? Check.5 Even Alzheimer’s has been directly linked to too much sugar consumption.6
In fact, there is hardly a single condition or disease, that can’t be correlated with overconsumption of sugar, in some fashion.7
Still, scientists debate how addictive sugar really is, and even whether or not it is truly a substance we should call “dangerous”.8 There have been many research attempts to show just how potentially addictive sugar can be, and even a variety of (somewhat novel) ideas on just how to establish if its addictive.9, 10, 11, 12
The fact is, sugar is big business with players on both sides of this debate. From industry big wigs promoting its consumption to cities taxing sugar sweetened beverages. Somewhere along the lines the science gets lost. So let’s take a deeper look at what the research really says about sugar and addiction.
The Evidence for Sugar Addiction
Perhaps the most interesting evidence for sugar addiction lies in the brain’s varying responses to its ingestion.13 The hypothalamus, which plays a key role in the homeostatic regulation of food intake, is activated by glucose or fructose in adolescents who are obese. But it is not activated in those who are lean.14
Which raises the question – is obesity the first thing that happens, or is this neuronal response the initial instigator behind obesity? Restated – is the brain hardwired to crave sugar – or do our brains rewire themselves after we become obese?
This is one of the main reasons why scientists have yet to firmly establish whether sugar is truly “addictive.”15
When we talk about sugar, we are mostly talking about fructose and glucose. Although both provide the body with energy, fructose has a more intense sweetness, and stimulates the striatal complex (the area of the brain closely linked with rewarding behaviors, like drug ingestion or gambling).16
Unlike glucose, fructose likely overrides our homeostatic control of eating,17 meaning that fructose may cause us to overeat, while glucose may not.18 As recently as 2015, researchers showed that ingestion of fructose results in greater activation of brain regions involved in attention and reward processing.19 And just last month, a study in Diabetes concluded that there is greater perfusion in the ventral striatum when fructose is consumed.20 Fructose altered this key component of the brain’s reward system differently than glucose consumption.
There has been a lot of research in the area of sugar addiction.21, 22 Much of the best research was led by Nora Volkow, who established that there were overlapping neuronal circuits in addiction and obesity.23 This means that our brains can react very similarly to sugar addiction as they do to alcohol, cocaine or other hard drugs. Volkow’s research is very clear and overwhelming – sugar acts near-identically to other drugs of abuse.24
Perhaps one of the clearest ways to see the addictive nature of sugary foods is to look at their opposite – vegetables – and the effects that these nutrient-rich, sugar-less substances have on our brains and bodies. These foods provide essential nutrients, elicit no cravings or negative effects, and in fact stop our hunger and cravings.26
The Industry Sweetens Us On Sugar
While there’s clear evidence of addiction, unfortunately, politics and big business come into play. If it were widely publicized that sugar acts like a drug when consumed in excess, there would be a huge profit loss for our big, processed food conglomerates.
This may sound a touch like hyperbole, but if we all were to adopt a Paleo Diet – with no added sugars – the big food companies would likely go out of business. That’s because they heavily rely on sugar, to prop up otherwise flavorless foods.27
They take advantage of the fact that our brains can never get enough sugar.28 While we can clearly see this with soda, the practice has been extended to all processed foods – even children’s breakfast cereals.29
The food industry bigwigs understand that sugar is addictive, as shown in Michael Moss’s award-winning book, Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us. The former executives of tobacco companies now run the big food companies!30 And these executives are involved in important decisions like whether or not to finally establish a percent daily value for sugar ingestion.31
Fortunately for us, the World Health Organization (WHO) finally established a guideline for sugar consumption – a very reasonable 25 grams. However, largely due to politics, they had to publicly state that even 50 grams per day would be an improvement over our current situation! Their official note was that lowering your intake to 25 grams per day would have “additional health benefits”.32
A Less Sugary Diet
A Paleo Diet is rich in essential nutrients, high in muscle-building protein, and loaded with brain-friendly fats. It is also devoid of craving-inducing sugars, and has shown to be just as beneficial as a diabetes-specific diet, in terms of helping those with the unfortunate disease.33 Ultimately, the scientific evidence and results speak for themselves. So the next time you are presented with the option of indulging in the pure, white stuff – choose wisely.
 Yang Q, Zhang Z, Gregg EW, Flanders WD, Merritt R, Hu FB. Added sugar intake and cardiovascular diseases mortality among US adults. JAMA Intern Med. 2014;174(4):516-24.