Think you have a sugar addiction? Here’s why cutting out sugar isn’t the answer.

Eating DisorderIntuitive EatingNutrition
August 17, 2022
Do you feel like you might have a sugar addiction? Sugar cravings are out of control? Every time you open a packet of Tim-Tams or a tub of ice-cream, you end up head-first at the bottom?
Feeling out of control around food is horrible and distressing. So understandably, you want to find a solution to this dilemma.
The rhetoric in the media is largely “sugar is basically crack”. The popular solution from a google? “Just quit sugar!”.
But in this article we will explain science-backed reasons why quitting sugar is not the answer. And why in-fact giving up sugar all together could make the problem worse.
We will break down:
  • what is sugar addiction
  • why you crave sugar
  • tips to overcome feeling like you have a sugar addiction.
To begin with, we need to understand what actually defines addiction.

What is an addiction?

There are two categories of addiction:
1. A substance addiction (e.g. tobacco, alcohol, cocaine)
2. A behavioural addiction (e.g. gambling)

Is sugar addiction the same as a drug addiction?

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5), diagnoses a Substance Use Disorder (tobacco, alcohol, drugs etc.) based on 4 categories of symptoms. How do these stack up for sugar addiction?
  • Impaired control: symptoms relate to cravings and a strong desire to use the drug or failed attempts of cutting back on drug use.
  • Social issues: symptoms relate to situations where the person’s work, home and social life is disrupted due to continued drug use.
  • Risky use: symptoms relate to a person’s continued use of the drug despite the known negative consequences.
  • Drug physiological effects: symptoms of tolerance (the body requires more of the drug to produce the same effect) and withdrawal (the body shows withdrawal symptoms when the drug is no longer in the body and a tolerance has developed

Can the above symptoms occur with a “sugar addiction”? You might be thinking…Yes!

  • Do I have cravings and a strong desire to eat sugary foods? Yes!
  • Have I tried to cut back or “quit” sugar and not been able to? Yes!
  • Do I feel so “out of control” with food that I sometimes avoid attend social events? Yes!

But are you addicted to food? Or is there something else going on? Let’s look at what the science REALLY says.


Why sugar addiction isn’t the same as a substance/drug addiction

1. Most of the studies on food and sugar addiction have been done in rodents. So we can’t generalise to humans. There are also some massive flaws in the methods of these studies…
2. The research (only done in mice and rats) shows that ‘pleasure centres’ in the brain light up when the animals eat sugar. This indicates release of dopamine and opioids, similar to when taking drugs. BUT, ‘pleasure centres’ in our brains also light up when we stroke puppies, listen to our favourite song, and see people we love. So, that argument for sugar addiction doesn’t stack up. It’s just not enough.
3. Eating food is SUPPOSED to be pleasurable. Otherwise we’d have no incentive to eat it! It’s kind of essential to our survival. We don’t need drugs or alcohol to survive. But we do need food. The food addiction rhetoric pathologises something normal and healthy. It creates guilt and shame about enjoying tasty foods. (I spy diet culture at play). Food is supposed to be rewarding and research shows that abstinence (through diets or cutting out food groups) actually increases the reward value of foods and makes you want it more. This is an evolutionarily survival mechanism, not “lack of willpower”.
4. Other studies on rodents show that they ‘binge’ on sugar. Some researchers have claimed is evidence for addiction. BUT this effect only happens after after a 12 hour fasting period. The control rats who didn’t fast didn’t binge on sugar. So what this study actually measured was the response to food restriction.
5. Scientists and clinicians argue there’s too much overlap between ‘food addiction’ and binge eating disorder (BED) and bulimia nervosa (BN) for them to be considered separate conditions. This study on ‘compulsive eaters’ who ate previously forbidden foods (such as those containing sugar) as part of their treatment decreased binge eating significantly. If food addiction was a real thing then this should have had the opposite effect.
Research on Intuitive Eaters, who don’t restrict or eliminate food groups, shows they are less likely to experience binge-eating.
And in a recent review paper of sugar addiction, researchers concluded that ‘the science of sugar addiction at present is not compelling’ meaning there isn’t enough evidence that it’s a separate phenomenon to BED or BN.

So, what to do if you feel out-of-control around sugar?

Whilst a sugar addiction is not the same as being addicted to drugs, this does not mean that you don’t FEEL addicted or very out of control around sugar. And this can be very distressing. So, what to do about it?
If you’re experiencing binges… it’s worthwhile asking yourself if you’ve been restricting foods or food groups, reducing the amount of food you are eating/dieting/clean eating. Remember that cutting out food groups is not the solution and can exacerbate the problem. This article goes into more detail about this.
If you’ve been dieting or restricting for a long time, you may feel confused about how to begin to eat differently, without the rules. Intuitive Eating is a gentle evidence-based approach that has helped people reduce overeating or binge eating. It teaches you how to identify hunger and fullness signals and find your healthy weight, without restricting food.
To learn more about Intuitive Eating, I’d recommend the 4th edition of Intuitive Eating by Tribole & Resch as a great starting point
You can also seek one-to-one support from someone qualified. A Registered Dietitian and Certified Intuitive Eating Counsellor is a good place to start. You can read more about what support looks like with us here.
Please note: This article is for educational purposes & not individualised nutrition advice, therapy or medical care. If after reading this, you think you might have an eating disorder, I encourage you to visit your GP to discuss this.


Accredited Practising Dietitian + Certified Intuitive Eating Counsellor


Accredited Practising Dietitian + Certified Intuitive Eating Counsellor