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We are here today to explore the issue and take a closer look at sugar’s addictive qualities…and give you some tips on how to shake the sugar habit once and for all.

Is Sugar Really a Form of Food Heroin?

The addictive nature of sugar is the stuff of legend.

In fact, sugar is often compared to drugs.

And frankly, with good reason.

That is because eating sugar causes immediate changes in the brain’s chemistry (similar to what is seen with narcotics use) which produces heightened pleasure.

Sugar is — quite literally — irresistible.

What Science Shows Us

For a very long time, the addictive qualities of sugar have been recognized anecdotally by layperson and scientists alike.

But it was not until recently that we actually have had hard scientific evidence, which proves the ‘drug-like’ quality of sugar.

This evidence has come to us thanks to the use of PET scan, an imaging technology that shows how organs and tissues work and, therefore, reveals a lot about how the brain reacts to the consumption (and overconsumption of sugar).

It all began with an Italian study, which showed that there was decreased dopamine sensitivity in the obese. Interestingly, scientists started to notice the exact same pattern in cocaine addicts and alcoholics, suggesting that a reduction in dopamine receptors is associated with addictive behavior.

What Is So Special About Dopamine?

So how is dopamine actually connected with addictive behavior?

Dopamine is a neurotransmitter (a chemical released by nerve cells to send signals to other nerve cells) that operates primarily in the ‘pleasure and reward’ center of the brain.

When someone takes a drug like heroin or consumes sugar, they are in effect stimulating the pleasure center of the brain by increasing the levels of dopamine.

In fact, studies have shown that the intense sweetness of sugar can actually surpass the reward value of other drugs. Meaning that the dopamine spike you get from sugar is even more intense than a drug like cocaine.
But this is not a static process; continued exposure to either the drug or sugar diminishes the sensitivity to the dopamine; to achieve the same dopamine/pleasure center rewards, higher and higher levels of the hit (whether drug or sugar) are required.

You enter into a vicious circle of addiction.

And just like drug withdrawal which is well known to cause physical, emotional and mental distress, removing sugar from the diet can lead to temporary depression and physical discomfort.

Which is precisely why changing diet can be so difficult.

Artificial Sweeteners Are Not the Solution

And swapping out sugars for artificial sweeteners will not help.

As we have already discussed on this blog post, artificial sweeteners may stimulate our appetite rather than suppress it because they do not relieve hunger like real sugar does. We do not feel satiated. In this state, we are likely to eat more and choose unhealthful foods. So instead of eating less, we eat more.

And one of the rather counter-intuitive and yet potent consequences of using artificial sweeteners is that they perpetuate the desire for and the dependency on all things sweet. By continuing to consume ‘sweet’ (whether it is with or without calories) we are unable to train our taste buds away
from intensely sweet foods.

Another vicious circle.

How to Kick the Sugar Habit

At the end of the day, the best way out of the sugar cycle is to retrain our taste buds by eating only whole foods (fruits, veggies and starches) that contain natural sweetness.

If you are used to adding heaps of sugar to your coffee or cereal in the morning, you may find it difficult at first. Just give your taste buds a bit of time to adapt. The key is to eat whole sweets in the form of fruits and veggies. The more whole foods you eat, the fewer processed, stripped and sugary foods you will crave.

The first step in doing that is to make a conscious decision to change. You need to learn the best way to change your habits as well as how to deal with cravings.

Follow these tips to successfully overcome cravings and eliminate sugars from your diet.

  1. Avoid all refined carbohydrates. Focus on eating whole, plant foods.
  2. Banish bad food. Out of sight, out of mind. Avoid bringing sugary or refined foods into the house. You are a lot less likely to grab that snack if it means grabbing your keys and going out to the store.
  3. Be prepared. When hunger strikes, you need to be prepared with plenty of whole food options at hand. Eat a whole food meal with whole (intact) carbohydrates for energy. If you must have something sweet, eat a whole piece of fruit.
  4. Drink water. It is well known that ‘cravings’ and ‘hunger’ may often be another word for thirst. Many (most) of us do not drink enough water. If you feel hungry or as though you are ‘missing’ something, try drinking a tall glass of water with lemon to take the edge off.
  5. Go for a walk or a bike ride. Daily exercise helps to keep you on track for healthful eating. A strong healthy body bolstered by exercise will naturally gravitate towards healthier food choices.
  6. Take a shower. Nothing like a hot, steamy shower to clear the mind and refresh you physically.
  7. Talk to a friend. Sometimes moral support is what you need more than a candy bar. Reach out to people who will help you through those weak moments.
  8. Get to bed on time. Lack of sleep has a negative impact on appetite and willpower.
  9. De-clutter. Keep your environment clean, not just of junk foods, but of junk. Clearing out messes can help clear your head, too.
  10. Read the labels. Sugars are hidden everywhere. Avoid letting them derail your attempt to shake the sweet stuff. You should aim to eat only whole foods, but when that is not possible, make sure you check labels before eating. If the food has added sugar, choose something else. Download our free Food Label Cheat Sheet to learn more about reading food labels.

The Bottom Line

While I do not think we are prepared to call sugar the ‘food heroin’, it is clear that an overconsumption of sugar can have the exact same addictive effect on your brain as cocaine or alcohol.

The urge for sweet is a natural one. The best way to satiate that need is simply by turning to the natural solution–i.e. Eating a delicious variety of whole fruits, vegetables, and starches.

If you take that approach, you can ‘have your cake and eat it too’ by satiating your sweet tooth with foods that nourish and build your body.

Rosane Oliveira, DVM, PhD

President & CEO, Plant-Based Life Foundation | Dr. Rosane Oliveira combines a lifelong passion for nutrition with 25 years of genetics research to create programs that help people develop healthy habits on their journey towards a more plant-based lifestyle. She is a Visiting Clinical Professor in Public Health Sciences and was the founding director of the first Integrative Medicine program at the UC Davis School of Medicine. She completed her postgraduate studies in Brazil and did her postdoctoral training in immunogenetics and functional genomics at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.