Is Sugar Addictive?

whiteIt causes epileptic seizures, gastric cancer, liver tumours, multiple sclerosis and increases the risk of polio and Alzheimer’s disease. It dehydrates newborns and increases the risk of Crohn’s disease. What horrific toxin are we talking about? Arsenic? Cyanide? Strychnine? Nope. According to Nancy Appleton, who holds a PhD from “distance learning” Walden University in the U.S., the substance responsible for these crimes is plain old sugar. And it causes many more travesties as well. In fact, Appleton has compiled a list, widely circulated on the web, of “146 reasons why sugar is ruining your health.” The vast majority of these, like the ones I just mentioned, are totally absurd. A few, like sugar being linked to hypoglycemia and diabetes are factual. And some, like sugar being addictive, are debatable.

There is no doubt that people love the taste of sugar. North Americans eat about a hundred and fifty pounds of it per person per year. And it shows. All those extra calories contribute to obesity. But are people eating all that sugar because they like the taste or because they are addicted to it? If we go by the scientific definition of addiction, sugar doesn’t fit. An addictive substance induces a pleasant state, triggers tolerance and causes dependence. Tolerance means that increasing amounts are needed to achieve the same pleasant effect and dependence means that abstaining from the substance causes physical withdrawal symptoms. The prototype substance that fits this definition is heroin. It is a bit of a stretch to suggest that sugar has opiate-like properties, but the notion cannot be totally dismissed. At least not if we look at a much talked about study at Princeton University.

Researchers starved rats for twelve hours and then gave them regular rat chow supplemented with a 25% sugar solution. The animals quickly incorporated the sugary drink into their diet. In fact they were soon eating less and drinking more. Within a month they had doubled their intake of the sugary beverage. And then came the interesting finding. When the sugar was removed from the rats’ diet, the animals got the shakes and their teeth began to chatter! Symptoms of opiate withdrawal. The same symptoms appeared when the researchers kept the animals on the sugar but administered a drug that blocks opiate activity. The thinking then is that sugar in some way may act on the brain’s opiate receptors and cause a real addiction. But that of course is in rats. No one has ever noted such an effect in humans. What we are likely looking at in this case is psychological addiction. The stuff just tastes so darn good that we don’t want to give it up. And there is a price to pay. Our teeth suffer. Our appetite may increase as sugar triggers insulin release and there is some evidence that too much sugar intake can eventually lead to insulin resistance and contribute to diabetes. Studies have also shown that sugar intake increases the desire for fats. All good reasons to curb our intake. But you can forget Nancy Appleton’s silly ramblings about sugar causing varicose veins, hemorrhoids, myopia or impairment of learning. In fact, Appleton, who I assume avoids sugar at all costs, makes a good case for sugar abstention as a cause for myopia and learning impairment.

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