Sugar is highly addictive.

As a kid, and even as an adult, sugar influences our dietary decisions every day. Most of us are completely unaware of how much sugar we’re actually ingesting. Even if you’ve been passing on the sweets, you’re likely still consuming way too much sugar. However, it’s not your fault, we are all being blindsided by this toxic substance as it’s hidden in nearly every processed food and sweetened beverage sold today. The sugar addiction in the brain subliminally tells us to keep eating sugar despite the fact that over time high sugar intake is literally killing our internal organs.

Sugar is sweet and the human brain craves it, which keeps us wanting more. The more you eat, the more you crave. Your brain is wired to crave sugar as a survival mechanism, as the body needs sugar to function. In times of starvation, this mechanism was crucial for survival, but what’s rarely discussed is that we don’t actually need to eat sugar at all. Fun fact, your body can make its own glucose. That’s right, your liver and kidneys, make their own glucose supply through a process called gluconeogenesis.

Hormones from the pancreas, like insulin and glucagon, signal the liver when there are changes in blood sugar levels. Insulin is released when blood glucose is too high causing the liver to convert sugar into cholesterol. These lipids are then stored in fat cells, sent out into circulation, or left in the liver. All of this increases the risk for cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and fatty liver disease. Glucagon is released when sugar levels are too low causing the liver to convert glycogen (stored glucose) into glucose leading to increased blood sugar levels. Therefore, your blood glucose levels can be highly influenced by diet, but also by your liver and overall metabolic health.

Today, we have an abundance of sugar-filled foods and beverages, but we can’t just rewire our brains to stop craving this sweet substance. Instead, we have developed compulsive behaviors and eating patterns around high sugar intake, which is the definition of addiction.

Sugar has similar addictive properties as cocaine. Yes, I just compared sugar to cocaine. Imaging studies have shown how the human brain responds to sugar and how it responds to an illicit drug like cocaine and they are nearly identical. Some studies have even shown that the brain prefers sugar over cocaine, meaning it could potentially be more addictive.

Late-night sweet tooth cravings and binging are not a matter of self-control. Addiction, to any substance, takes over your brain and alters your ability to think rationally. Your brain can talk you into that bag of chips, late-night fast food trip, or that second serving of ice cream because it’s addicted to the sugar high.

Sugar is highly addictive and contributes to the development of diseases like Obesity, Type 2 Diabetes, Fatty Liver Disease, and Cardiovascular Disease, which are all on the rise.

How is Sugar Digested?

We’ve already established that the brain craves sugar. Once ingested, carbohydrates are broken down into glucose to be used for immediate energy or stored for later use. Glucose can be used by every cell in the body, but other forms of sugar cannot be used for immediate energy and must be converted by the liver in order to be used. Therefore, sugars that are not naturally occurring, like high-fructose corn syrup, put added stress on the liver and other organs.

The human body was not made to process the amount of sugar we’re consuming on a daily basis. The liver can’t keep up processing large amounts of added sugars and over time results in disease.

Drinking large amounts of sugar from sodas, frappuccinos, and juices is a guaranteed way to jack up your metabolic profile leading to diseases like obesity, Type 2 Diabetes, and cardiovascular disease. Drinking sugar spikes blood sugar levels since they contain virtually zero fiber. When you consume added sugars without fiber, such as baked goods, ice cream, candy, and soda, your body absorbs this sugar very quickly. The brain gets a rush of pleasure from the dopamine high, which reinforces the sugar addiction. A sudden spike in blood glucose signals the pancreas to release insulin, which pushes glucose into cells and tells the liver to start storing excess sugar in fat cells. This causes a sudden drop in blood sugar leading to a sugar crash which alerts the brain and cravings start again. This cycle continues all day causing hormonal imbalances and weight gain that lead to disease.

Sugar essentially hijacks our brain, lighting up the reward center, boosting dopamine, and altering opioid receptors, which means you feel a rush of happy pleasure when eating sugar followed by a crash.

Sugar & Disease

Sugar addiction starts at a very young age, as early as infancy. Many baby formulas are made with fructose and other added sugars. It’s true that babies need carbs, but not from corn syrup. Studies show that babies who are formula-fed are more likely to have childhood obesity and other metabolic diseases later in life. However, the food and beverage industry knows how addictive sugar is so they promote it at a very young age so they can have lifelong customers. Kids in the U.S. typically consume around 80 grams of sugar a day, drinking over (30 gallons of sugar in soda, juice, and sports drinks).

Sugar is hidden in nearly everything these days, from soups and sauces to salad dressings and cereals, and the dose keeps getting higher to give us a palatable and pleasurable experience.

The American Heart Association recommends sugar intake for men to be less than 9tsp and for women, it’s less than 6tsp a day. According to the CDC, the average intake of sugar from 2017-2018 was 17tsp a day-age 2 and older, and now it’s nearly 20tsp daily. This means with just one can of regular soda you’re over the daily recommended limit. A 12oz can of soda tends to contain 8-10tsp of sugar. On average, we are consuming 3x the recommended amount and with sugar having such a high addictive profile, I don’t see this number going down unless we become smarter as consumers and shop for healthier alternatives.

The problem is this addiction starts at such a young age before we even know what it’s doing to us. Over time, sugar continues to stimulate insulin until it no longer functions the way it should. After years of being hammered by insulin, the liver cells become resistant to insulin signals, causing more to be pumped out by the pancreas to get the job done. Only, this compensatory mechanism is bound to fail eventually, and Type 2 Diabetes results.

Conditions linked to high sugar intake:

Regardless if you were formula-fed or breastfed, at some age, you were introduced to sugar. Candy, ice cream, pop tarts, and even cereals have way too much sugar, and yet this is what we grew up on. Children are consuming sugar at a high rate. Sugar addiction starts at a young age and continues into adulthood.

Do You Need Sugar to Survive?

The truth is, you don’t need any added sugar in your diet to survive. Your own liver makes glucose through a process called gluconeogenesis (to make new sugar). Your liver makes all the glucose you need. This process occurs daily, even while you’re sleeping to maintain normal blood sugar levels.

Your sugar intake should come from sources that occur naturally in nature from whole foods. The healthiest sugar source is found in whole fruits and vegetables that also contain fiber. Eating carbs with fiber slows down the speed of digestion and absorption producing a gradual rise in blood sugar compared to a sudden spike. This allows the liver to process sugar longer and leads to a slower release of insulin, thus reducing the sugar crash.

So, How Can You Reduce Your Sugar Intake and Break This Addiction?

Cutting sugar out drastically, like in the popular keto diet or other strict diets, causes a withdrawal period, just like a drug or alcohol addiction. Symptoms of sugar withdrawal include mood changes like anxiety and irritability, fatigue, intense cravings, brain fog, muscle aches, nausea, and stomach cramps that can last from days to weeks. Strict dieting isn’t the best method for sugar detox or for weight loss.

Instead, we must treat sugar like any other addiction. Quitting smoking is no easy task and sugar isn’t either. Quitting cold turkey may be the way for some, but for most people, it creates intensified cravings, irritability, mood swings, and even physical symptoms like fatigue and headaches. Therefore, tapering down your sugar intake is likely the better method.

Take a few minutes and pick some items from your fridge and pantry to check out the ingredient list. Look at the total sugar content, more specifically the “added sugars” section. Go ahead, I’ll wait. I’m sure you’ll be surprised to see how many items contain added sugars. Even ones that you wouldn’t suspect had that much sugar. “Healthy” granola bars, yogurt, fruit juices, and BBQ sauce often contain a lot of added sugar.

Sugar Detox

When considering a sugar detox, my suggestion is to reduce/cut out added sugars from beverages first. Take 1-2 weeks and limit the amount of sugar you’re drinking in coffee, teas, juices, energy drinks, and sodas. Next, focus on sauces, condiments, and dressings. Ketchup, BBQ sauce, pasta sauces, marinades, and salad dressings also usually have hidden sugars. Look for “no added sugars” and find healthy substitutes to help with cravings. After 1-2 weeks of this, it’s time to focus on your snacking and instant meals. Snacks like crackers, cookies, and chips should be limited. Even some “healthy” frozen TV dinners are high in added sugars, salt, and preservatives including the popular lean cuisines, which are marketed for weight loss. Eat whole foods that are nutrient dense, like fresh fruits, veggies, and lean meats. Preparing your food at home limits the amount of added sugars you’re consuming.

For more tips, read about which types of carbohydrates are healthy and unhealthy for you and also ways to look out for hidden sugars.

Disclaimer: The information in this article is designed for educational purposes only and is not intended to be a substitute for informed medical advice or care. This information should not be used to diagnose or treat any health conditions without consulting your healthcare provider. Information used is based on experience and opinion, not 100% evidence. Always consult with a health care practitioner before relying on any information in this article or on this website. Some links in this article may contain affiliate links.