Sugar is a Drug

By Dr Ernst
May 25, 2018

As we grapple as a nation with what’s been dubbed “The Opioid Crisis,” the nation’s favorite drug remains legal, marketed and available to children without a prescription and it is ubiquitous. That drug is sugar.

To be fair, there is a lot of debate around whether or not sugar is an addictive substance in the classic sense of the word–or if it is simply something people like A LOT. A recent article in The Guardian asks this question well, citing doctors and various studies on both sides of the fence. Sugar historian Sydney Mintz, who wrote a book on sugar entitled Sweetness and Power, pointed out “That sugars, particularly highly refined sucrose, produce peculiar physiological effects is well known, the first use of which can trigger rapid changes in respiration, heartbeat, skin colour and so on.” That’s the behavior of a drug. Mintz also points out, rather aptly, that most of us never feel the symptoms of sugar withdrawal–as we would with most drugs–because almost no one goes long enough without it to experience those symptoms.

Scientific studies into the subject have found that sugar triggers a response in the pleasure centers of the brain–much like nicotine, heroin, sex, etc. It causes a cascade of reactions where the brain is flooded with dopamine. And much like any other drug, the more you consume, the less sensitive your brain becomes to it. You need more and more to get the same response.

People undoubtedly crave sugar, much like addicts crave the substance to which they are addicted. You have likely yourself craved sugar at some point. It often comes as persistent thoughts about your favorite treat, be it ice cream, pie, pastry, etc.

At the very least, the human body’s chemical, physiological and psychological response to sugar seems to be, by all accounts, that of a drug. So why is there even a debate?

Most of the other side of the debate (i.e., sugar is NOT a drug) basically revolves around three arguments:

  1. There isn’t enough research to conclusively say sugar is a drug
  2. We might just be dealing with addictive personalities
  3. Because sugar is so pervasive that trying to isolate it in a person’s habits is impossible, muddying the waters

Let’s explain.

To the first point: There has been a lot of research into the impact sugar has on health. It can lead to fat storage, weight gain, insulin resistance, diabetes, metabolic syndrome, etc. We know that. But studies looking at the addictive properties of sugar as compared to, say, nicotine or heroin, are few and far between, and generally involve rats instead of humans.

To the second point: Some people manage to consume sugar in moderation, as something of a treat on a special occasion, or just don’t seem to seek it out. Others seem to be controlled by their need for sugar. The disparity throws into question whether or not we are dealing with an addictive substance or just addictive people.

To the third point: Sugar is everywhere in modern society. You can scarcely eat anything without getting sugar as part of the package. Consequently, if someone were to successfully quit sugar, they would also be removing various additives, added sodium, coloring, preservatives, oils, etc. If they then experience withdrawals, what is it they are withdrawing from exactly? There is no way to be sure it is the sugar.

While these are valid points, they seem to be rather nit-picky and ignore the logic. Furthermore, while there isn’t a wealth of studies confirming sugar is addictive, there are some–and it’s enough to go on in my opinion. Second, this isn’t a great argument. Of course some people are less prone to addiction than others. Some simply have better self-control. It doesn’t mean sugar isn’t addictive. Third, if someone subsisting mainly on a diet of processed foods were to suddenly go cold turkey, yeah, they would probably have withdrawals from various things. But I tend to think it’s logical to assume that one of those things is sugar.

The evidence that sugar activates the brain’s pleasure centers, that people crave it, that it causes a dopamine rush, that the dopamine rush become less powerful with the same amount of sugar as time goes on… well. If it walks like a duck, if it quacks like a duck. Well, call it what you want, but it’s probably a duck.

That being said, what do we do?

Well, you’ve got to kick the habit. Start using natural non-sugar sweeteners like stevia. Get off the processed foods. Limit or eliminate your carb intake (bread, pasta, etc.). Will you experience withdrawals? Of course! But power through them. Every addict has to bite the bullet someday.

But the point is, treat it like an addiction. That’s the final wisdom of this post. Look into strategies to kick addictions and see what works for you. You will be coming off a drug. Treat your approach as such.

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