I watched his show occasionally many years ago. Before the image of Dr. Oz would make me want to peel my fingers off and listen to Nickleback on full blast, he was a favorite. One episode that I recall was about sugar addiction. The concept of sugar addiction was new to me, and I wasn’t sure what my opinion would be. One of Dr. Oz’s holistic celebrity doctor’s guests was on hand to support the sugar addiction theory. He discussed a recent study showing that sugar was as addictive as cocaine. We’ll discuss that later.
He was an older man with a specific authority about the topic. He talked about sugar the same way that your health teacher in middle school spoke about drugs: addictive, poisonous, and deadly. Even though I was a dietitian then and knew that sugar in moderation was safe, I began to doubt myself. Should I stop adding jam to peanut butter sandwiches and throw out the ice cream in my freezer??
Dr. Oz, in a weak attempt to be balanced and fair, also brought a dietitian who was a young female registered dietitian. She was seated in the front row, not on the stage, highlighting the power difference. She gave her opinion as a scientist on why sugar is not addictive. She was clear, discredited the research that he presented, and offered realistic advice to people who would almost certainly continue to eat sugar.
After hearing her, I felt foolish that I had bought into celeb doc’s fearmongering. When they asked the audience questions, it became clear that they were a team of overly-tanned and Botoxed physicians. They told stories about feeling out of control when it came to sweets. It is evident that even before I fully understood the science behind binge eating disorders and the restricted binge cycle, the feeling of addiction resonated with them. They were this meme as soon as glucose entered their bloodstream…
Since watching the episode, I have looked at the research to see if sugar addiction is real. Dietitians such as Marci Evan have done a great job of digging deep into research and making it available to more people. I have also worked with many people who are like the audience members. They feel controlled by their sugar cravings and are entirely under control. This article may be helpful if you are feeling the same way or if what you have heard about sugar addiction has made eating sweets seem scary.
Is Sugar Addiction Real?
Sugar/food addicts point out similarities in how drugs and food affect the brain. Food and medicines activate similar neural pathways – the reward and pleasure pathways. Researchers have found that food, especially foods high in sugar or fat and energy-dense foods, releases dopamine and serotonin. The anticipation of food also activates the same brain pathways as when drug addicts engage in drug-seeking behaviors.
All of these are genuine neurobiological reactions to food. These effects are more pronounced with foods high in sugar, fats, and energy. This supports the idea of food addiction. But slower. Take a look at the problems with this research.
Many things activate the addiction neural pathway.
Drug use releases feel-good chemicals, particularly dopamine, to simplify the neural pathway of addiction. Dopamine triggers the reward part of the mind. Over time, the brain becomes resistant to drugs and requires more to get a similar response.
The brain also has a similar neural pathway for pleasure and reward. It is a fact. Food and sugar, in particular, are meant to be enjoyable. Early humans believed tasting something sweet told the plant they picked was not poisonous but contained energy. Early humans may have died if they didn’t get this response from their brains to food.
Other activities, such as those related to how early humans survived, can also trigger addiction pathways. Other activities that trigger addiction pathways in the brain include listening to music, exercising with a partner, cuddling with a pet, or playing games. I remember reading about a study that showed that even happily married people experienced a surge of serotonin and dopamine when shown photos of their ex. I read this with the idea of food addiction and thought, “Well, I’m definitely not addicted to any ex-boyfriends!”
The majority of sugar addiction research is conducted on rats.
Most of the research that supports sugar addiction has been done on rats. This includes the studies behind headlines claiming that sugar is more addictive than heroin. We are not rats, but we are human. We are two different species, both physically and mentally. It’s almost a cliché that rats are food-obsessed. Remember Templeton in Charlotte’s Web. Ratatouille? Ratatouille?
These animal studies could prove against sugar addiction. The addiction neural pathways in rats lit up just as strongly when they ate sugar as with heroin. However, this happened only when rats were denied sugar or adequate nutrition. Sugar was freely available to rats, and they showed no addiction-like behaviors. In essence, the restriction was what triggered addictive behaviors. This supports an intuitive, non-diet approach to sugar. Gives people full permission for sweets. People eat them in a very competent manner.
These studies also included human subjects, but the results were much more mixed. These studies do not take into account eating disorders, caloric restriction, or disordered food consumption. They also use a flawed screening tool, the Yale Food Addiction Scale (the equivalent of the Cosmo quiz).