Food Addiction

This post may contain affiliate links. Please read my disclosure and privacy policy.

I have been listening to a LOT of NPR at work lately, and they did a really interesting segment on Food Addiction the other day–> specifically on sugar addiction.

Did you all know that in research using lab rats, sugar was to be found almost as addicting as narcotics?! And they tested sugar across the board– not just high fructose corn syrup, but all types of “fructose” were found to be addictive, including agave nectar and honey. Artificial sweeteners were not involved in this particular study, but I think it would be interesting to find out how they compare… I think heard somewhere that artificial sweeteners can stimulate your sweet tooth as well, which may lead to more sugar cravings later. Pretty interesting, huh?

According to Rob Lustig, professor of pediatrics, division of endocrinology at UCSF Medical Center, addictive substances must satisfy four criteria. They are:

  1. Binging
  2. Withdrawal
  3. Craving
  4. Cross-sensitization with other substances (i.e. if you’re addicted to sugar, you may also find yourself more likely to become addicted to alcohol as well)

While they haven’t confirmed that all of these criteria are met among the human population, they have seemed to confirm the addiction criteria in rats.

Research showed hungry rats that binge on sugar experience a surge of dopamine in their brains. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that plays a major role in addiction and affects movement, emotional response and the ability to experience pleasure and pain.After a month of binging, the rats’ brains adapt to increased dopamine levels and have fewer of a certain type of dopamine receptors than before. Similar changes have been observed in the brains of rats fed cocaine and heroin. [source]

What’s scarier (to me, anyway) are the sugar withdrawal symptoms of the rats:

Once the rats were hooked, researchers induced symptoms of withdrawal by taking away their sugar. The level of dopamine in the rats’ brains dropped and they exhibited anxious behaviour such as chattering teeth and an unwillingness to venture into the open arm of their maze, preferring to stay in a tunnel area. Normally rats like to explore their environment, but the researchers say the rats experiencing sugar withdrawal were too anxious to explore.

Finally, Hoebel and his colleagues found that rats denied sugar for a prolonged period after learning to binge worked harder to get it when it was reintroduced to them. In fact, they ate more sugar than ever, suggesting craving and relapse behaviour.

Hoebel said such behaviour shows their motivation for sugar had grown. “Abstinence makes the heart grow fonder,” he said.

Does this sound familiar to anyone else?! I know I certainly crave sugar when I try to give it up, and I’m SO grouchy about it, too! I’m totally experiencing withdrawal!!ย 

So, now that we’re pretty sure that sugar is addictive, how do we beat it?

Here are some suggestions:

-Trying to stop eating sugar is as hard as quitting smoking or drinking coffee, so cut yourself some slack and check out these ways to curb your sugar cravings.

-Reduce the amount of sugar you consume – the less you eat, the less you crave. Soda and juice are high in sugar so read your labels carefully.

-Eat some sweet vegetables. Root vegetables like yams, sweet potato, carrots, beets and onions provide a sweet flavor that satisfies the palate, reducing your craving for a sweet dessert.

-Eat some leafy green vegetables to replenish the vitamins and minerals you have been losing to sugar.

-Drink more water! We often mistake thirst for hunger. The next time a craving strikes, drink some water and see how you feel.

-Gain awareness of the many names of sugar as they appear on food labels. Sugar is called fructose, maltose, dextrose, cane sugar, turbinado, organic sugar, brown sugar, raw sugar, high fructose corn syrup, and corn syrup, just to name a few.
Remember that processed foods act like sugar in the body, so stay away from white bread, white pasta and white rice when you are trying to reduce the amount of sugar you consume. Replace these with whole grain versions for a slower burning food.
Stay away from artificial sweeteners! Aside from being a chemical and not a food, artificial sweeteners are much sweeter than regular sugar. Studies have shown that zero calorie sweeteners cause weight gain by tricking the body into thinking that they are the real sweet. Because artificial sweeteners are much sweeter than sugar, people overeat when exposed to sugar, trying to reach the sweetness of the fake.
If you must indulge in something sweet, try natural sweeteners like raw honey, maple syrup, or agave nectar in place of sugar. These sweeteners are less processed than sugar and still have their nutrients intact. Although they have calories like sugar, they do not cause weight gain as quickly because they burn more slowly in the body. If you want a zero calorie sweetener, try stevia leaf, an herbal supplement that is extremely sweet and can be found in your local health food store. [source]

I couldn’t possibly cover all the information they talked about in one post! If you all have some time during your workdays, I highly recommend listening to the NPR audio here.

Another book that addresses the science of food addiction is Michael Pollan’s In Defense of Food. I’m still finishing up this book, but it is SO interesting to read how some food manufacturers and restaurants will go to great lengths to make us crave their food!

Reader Feedback: Have you guys ever experienced sugar withdrawal? When you cut out sugar, do you go cold-turkey? Or try to gradually cut back?

Get more recipes + meal plans in my books:

detox book and meal plan

Never Miss a Post!

Get a FREE 3-Day Detox Plan when you sign up for my email newsletter

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.



I don’t know if I’ve experienced sugar withdrawal although it’s quite likely that I have. As for cutting back, I never really have the need to since I don’t really eat my “bad” sugar. Mostly fruits. ๐Ÿ™‚


interesting stuff, thanks for sharing!
as a recovering compulsive overeater, i can definitely confirm the addiction part of sugar, as well as other foods, quite frankly. it is a true addiction, no doubt about it. i always include some sugar as part of my food plan to remain binge-free so that i’m not feeling deprived, so i can’t speak to kicking it entirely.

Nicole @ Making Good Choices

wow that is some pretty scary information! I listen to NPR with my husband so don’t feel like such a nerd, I share the nerdness with you! When I want to eat less sugar I try to do it gradually so I’m not totaly feeling deprived. good luck with your detox, having a buddy really does help!

Sara Katich

I found all that to be true in my life! Now that I mainly stick to fruits and honey to satisfy sweet cravings, I notice how much better I feel. Plus, other desserts taste too sweet to me. I found that if I do have a sweet treat, since I eat less of them I don’t have cravings like I used to.


I try to just stick to natural sugars (sugar in fruits etc.) but sometimes I really just want some frozen yogurt with chocolate sauce or something but for the most part I try to keep it natural if anything


Wow this couldn’t have come at a better time! I rarely eat processed food, but I swear once I do it starts crazy cravings for more junk food. “Once it hits your lips, it’s so good!” I really try to cut out processed food and white sugar, etc. because I completely hate how it makes me feel.


When I’m eating sugar, it’s just a slippery slope from there. Sugar makes me crave processed white flour products (bread, pasta), which make me crave fried processed products, etc, etc. It’s just a disaster (that is what happened to me in PR!). I don’t find that agave nectar affects me though, I put some in my morning smoothie and it just makes me happy, not crazy. When I detoxing from PR and had really bad sweet cravings. I would make a green smoothie with a lot of raw cacao and agave nectar — it faked me out ๐Ÿ™‚

Dominic Gonzales

we have a small stevia garden at home and the dried leaves are very very sweet**.

Penny O

I’m trying to beat a sugar craving myself. The poster above was correct with the slippery slope statement. My solution was to allow myself 3 squares of high-quality chocolate every day. I carry it with me. I find that when a junkie sugar snack presents itself, I already feel satisfied with my allotment of chocolate. Baby steps and try, try again if need be. It can be a long process.

Never Miss a Post!

Get a FREE 3-Day Detox Plan when you sign up for my email newsletter