Proven to be more addictive than cocaine, a closer look at Sugar may help to explain America’s rise in obesity, diabetes and the new focus on food addiction.

A 2007 study (Lenoir, Serre, Cantin, Ahmed), found that intense sweetness surpasses cocaine reward even in addicted and drug-sensitized subjects leading to increased aggression upon withdrawal and a disruption of the dopamine/acetylcholine reward balance in the brain.

The alterations on brain functioning brought on by highly palatable foods produce many of these hallmarks of addiction - including intense craving, the inability to control or stop use, a pre-occupation with the substance, and withdrawal symptoms - the idea of dessert becomes elevated to a whole new level.

Research is supporting evidence that food addictions has behavioral and neurological qualities that resemble substance abuse and dependence. Increased craving for food or food-related substances leads to a heightened state of pleasure, energy, or excitement (Zhang, et al., 2011)

I think it is ironic that when the government ordered cocaine removed from all Coca-Cola beverages no one would have guessed that an even more consequential substance would take its place. High Fructose Corn Syrup hit the markets in the 1970s as a wonder product. Cheaper than sugar cane with an intense sweetness we associate with confectionery delights, High Fructose Corn Syrup is now used to sweeten candies, juices, cookies, cakes, and has even found its way into less palatable tempting items including bread, soups, snacks and other pre-packaged foods.

Intense sweetness triggers the same receptor pathways of other ingested addictive chemicals, including cocaine and opiates. It alters the transmission of certain brain chemicals including endorphins, dopamine and serotonin, which, in turn, trigger the pleasure center of our brains, leaving us wanting more. (Nicole, et al., 2008). It is important to note that with the incorporation of HFCS into food products have raised more than 1000% since 1970 (Bray, Nielsen, & Popkin, 2004).

As an eating disorder treatment center, we consistently see what happens with patients who have an addiction to sugar and what happens when they stop eating sugar. When they eat sugar they get a sugar rush, then their blood sugar levels drop, they become tired and sleepy, they become depressed then they crave more. For some these cravings lead them back into their eating disorder.

Certainly, we can find studies to support any opinion, and much like eating disorders, every one of us is different and the effects of sugar may vary. At Rebecca’s House, we have found that when a person has the courage to realize that their relationship to food is out of alignment or is one of addiction, they can begin to change. Many clients have found that once they are freed from the bondage of sugar, their cravings and binges go away, they are less depressed, they maintain a normal weight without dieting or obsessing and they are able to improve their total health.

It’s so hard today to promote the fact that sugar is an addictive substance, leaving one craving more and more. Unfortunately, there are still many nutritionists, dietitians, and professionals who don’t believe sugar can be addictive to SOME people. In all my years of work with eating disorder sufferers and emotional overeaters - as well as the new scientific studies - prove otherwise. It is just like alcohol. Some people have no problem having a few drinks, but others cannot stop after that first drink.

Millions of people are addicted to sugar and do not even realize it. The “food” manufactures are only concerned about their bottom line. They know that sugar is toxic and addictive; they add it to make us want their products, to feel that we must have more. We are getting sicker because our addiction to sugar, as well as our eating habits in general, have weaken our immune system. Our health care system cannot keep up with the high costs associated with obesity, diabetes, and associated diseases.

We are in the midst of an obesity crisis in this country and I’m convinced sugar addiction is a major culprit. I’ve known this from working with disordered eating patients for decades and now with new scientific evidence maybe we can educate the general public that for some sugar can be the gateway drug to a life of obesity, diabetes, and/or addiction. Nothing less than the health of our nation is at stake.

Avena N. M., Rada P., Hoebel B. G. (2008). Sugar vs. Fat Bingeing: Notable Differences in Addictive-like Behaviors; Department of Psychology, Princeton University.

Bray, G. A., Nielsen, S. J., Popkin, B. M., (2004). Consumption of high-fructose corn syrup in beverages may play a role in the epidemic of obesity. American Journal Clin Nutr. 79(4):537-43.

Lenoir, M., Serre, F., Cantin L., & Ahmed, S.H. (2007). Intense Sweetness Surpasses Cocaine Reward. PLoS ONE 2(8): e698.

Zhang, Y., Von Deneen, K.M., Tian, J., Gold, M.S., Liu, Y. (2011) Food addiction and neuroimaging. Curr Pharm Des 17: 1149-1157.

Author's Bio: 

Rebecca Cooper, MA, LMFT, LPCC, CEDS, is the Founder of Rebecca’s House Eating Disorder Treatment Programs and the author of Diets Don’t Work®. For more information about her programs, call 800-711-2062 and/or see