Is Sugar More Addictive Than Cocaine? Doctors Explain Why Less Is Better


Our relationship with sugar begins fairly early in life. Chocolates, cakes, and ice creams are rewards or treats. Colas, processed foods like pastries, and pizzas follow and the love affair with sugar strengthens. As adults, we find that our brains still perceive sugar as beneficial, and huge amounts of the “feel-good” hormone dopamine are released into our bloodstream when we consume sugary, high-calorie foods.

A study by the Queensland University of Technology, Australia, found that excessive sugar consumption increases dopamine levels in the brain — and that the threshold keeps increasing. Simply put, one needs higher and higher levels of sugar to achieve the same reward levels. Over a period, when denied excess sugar, the person may also witness mild states of depression.

Research on rats carried out by scientists at the Connecticut College has shown that everyone’s favourite Oreo cookies are just “as addictive as cocaine”. Eating an Oreo biscuit activated more neurons in the pleasure centre of the rats’ brains than cocaine does. Not surprisingly, just like us humans, the rats too went for the sugary filling first.

Professor Joseph, an assistant professor of neuroscience, and his team of researchers at Connecticut College had designed this study to shed light on the potential addictiveness of high-fat/ high-sugar foods, and they found that rats formed an equally strong association between the pleasurable effects of eating Oreos and a specific environment as they did between cocaine or morphine and a specific environment. Eating cookies activated more neurons in the brain’s “pleasure centre” than exposure to drugs of abuse.

“Our research supports the theory that high-fat/ high-sugar foods stimulate the brain in the same way that drugs do,” Schroeder said. “It may explain why some people can’t resist these foods despite the fact that they know they are bad for them.”

And why did they choose Oreo biscuits? That is because they wanted a food that is palatable to humans and contributes to obesity in the same way cocaine is pleasurable and addictive to humans. Sugar, we can say, is deadlier than cocaine in the respect of scale as it is widely available and its dangers are not well understood or acted upon by humans.

How Much ‘Added Sugar’ Do We Consume Daily?

Most people (across the world) are unaware of how “Salt Sugar Fat” make the trifecta of the proximate determinants of the non-communicable diseases (NCD) epidemic, as explained by Michael Moss in his Pulitzer Prize-winning book.

As per the American Heart Association, the average American’s diet contains 22 teaspoons of added sugar per day. Given that every teaspoonful of sugar is 16 calories, their daily calorie intake contains almost 400 hollow, fibre-less calories of just added sugars.  

An average Indian may not be consuming such a high load of added sugar, but awareness of the dangers of consuming added sugar is not too widespread. 

As per data providers The Helgi Library, the sugar consumption per capita in India reached an all-time high of 22.7 kg in 2018 — which translates into 62+ calories from nearly 4 to 5 teaspoons of added sugar. 

So, why and how is binging on sugar repeatedly a bad thing for health? 

Due to the addictive nature of sugar.

Excessive intake of this white substance is shown to elevate the reward part of the brain — an effect one sees in the brains of those who are into drug abuse such as cocaine and morphine. The more our brain begins to appreciate the rewards that come with sugar, the tougher it gets to stay away from stocking and consuming sugary foods.

Excessive consumption of added sugar does not come only from the spoonfuls you add to tea, coffee lemonades alone. As a measure to add to the taste and appeal as well as to extend the item’s shelf-life, most food manufacturers add sugar.

Be aware of sugar creeping in through soft drinks, fruit drinks, flavoured yoghurts, cereals, cookies, cakes, candy, and most processed foods. Don’t forget to read the labels on soups, bread, cured meats, and ketchup.

Good way to abort the temptation is to not shop for or stock sugary foods | Photo: Getty
Good way to abort the temptation is to not shop for or stock sugary foods | Photo: Getty

Excess Sugar Brings Health Maladies

The ill effects of excess sugar consumption are well-documented. But look at these diseases that follow sugar abuse.

  • Obesity
  • Diabetes
  • Heart health
  • Blood pressure
  • Chronic inflammation
  • Damage to gut microbiota
  • Fatty liver disease
  • Damage to kidneys due to diabetes and hypertension
  • Risk to eye health and eyesight
  • Lower immunity, wounds that do not heal, risk of amputation

That does sound too bad a deal for the tango between our tastebuds and the brain. Have you ever wondered why drinking colas, sodas, and juices seems so energising and yet contributes to unwanted weight gain? The reason is that liquid calories are not as satisfying as calories from solid foods and the added sugars in them trick your body into turning off its appetite-control system. So one ends up piling more calories into the regular diet when consuming sugary beverages.

Do We Need To Give Up Sugar Completely?

Should we eliminate all foods that have natural sugars? Well, not really! All foods that have carbohydrates — such as fruits and vegetables, grains, and dairy — contain sugar naturally. Consuming these foods whole (like eating fruits instead of juicing them) is good as plant foods also have high amounts of fibre, essential minerals, and antioxidants. You need dairy products for your requirement of protein and calcium.

Harvard experts state that since your body takes its own time to digest the whole foods and in the process the slow consumption of the calories in them offers a steady supply of energy to your cells. 

Per capita sugar consumption in India reached all-time high of 22.7 kg in 2018 | Photo: Getty
Per capita sugar consumption in India reached all-time high of 22.7 kg in 2018 | Photo: Getty

How To Beat Sugar Addiction

  • Increase your intake of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains instead. This has shown to reduce the risk of chronic diseases, such as diabetes, heart disease, and some cancers.
  • If you buy packaged foods, learn to read labels well. Speak to your nutritionist and learn how to locate foods that contain added sugar. There are more than 60 names for added sugar.
  • Ready-to-eat breakfast cereals sold on superstore shelves contain too much sugar. Start making your own whole wheat cereals with dry fruits, blueberries, cranberries, etc. with some advice from nutritionists or dieticians.
  • Watch for hidden sugars in foods. Fat-free may not necessarily be sugar-free. Manufacturers may cut one healthy food ingredient but add another for reasons of economy.
  • Abort the temptation by NOT shopping for or stocking sugary foods. Keep sugary foods away and not easily seen or reachable when setting items inside your cupboards and fridge. Strategically, keep fruits in sight and reachable, instead. 
  • When a sugar craving strikes, get up and take a walk. Or run. Literally! Any form of exercise and activity that engages the body and mind helps release endorphins, or “feel good” chemicals in your brain, and in turn, can help turn off the switch that triggered the unwarranted craving. Can’t go outside for an awe-walk? Do some spot stretches. Divert. Invest in your health. In mind and in body.
  • Some swear by 5-10 minutes long warm water baths. They say when they feel the (tolerably) hot water on their backs, they sense relief from the craving. No harm in trying this one.
  • Eat your lunch or dinner. Maybe you are genuinely hungry and need a wholesome protein-rich meal. Don’t fool your body with quick-fix chocolate bars or granolas you bought from a shop. Eat a healthy meal, instead.

It’s Time We Banished Added Sugar

Dr. Michelle Hauser, certified chef and nutrition educator, and clinical fellow in medicine at Harvard Medical School writes in Harvard Health that though health guidelines say that women shouldn’t get more than 100 of our daily calories (25 grams or about 6 teaspoons) from added sugar, and that men should consume no more than 9 teaspoons (36 grams or 150 calories) of added sugar per day, in reality “you don’t need any added sugar”.

Dr Deepthi Vemuri, Assistant Professor, General Medicine, GITAM Institute of Medical Sciences and Research, says we must retrain our taste buds. “You don’t need sugar as much as you think you do. In fact, you can train your taste buds to enjoy things that aren’t as sweet. Try cutting out one sweet food from your diet each week. For example, pass on dessert after dinner. Start putting less sugar in your coffee or cereal. Over time, you will lose your need for that sugar taste. Start taking more fruits instead of refined sugary foods. Add protein and fibre to the diet.” 

Dr Aniket Mule, consultant internal medicine, Wockhardt Hospitals, Mira Road, Mumbai, advises gradual reduction: “Rather than going cold turkey, gradually reduce your sugar intake. This can prevent overwhelming cravings and withdrawal symptoms,” Dr Mule says, adding that quality sleep is vital in beating sugar cravings.

A study by scholars from Jawaharlal Nehru University, Ministry of Health, and a global study group titled ‘Sugar, Salt, Fat, and Chronic Disease Epidemic in India: Is There Need for Policy Interventions?’ notes that “Discussion, dialogue, and decisions in India on this complex but critical issue (of sensitising the public to the threat of excessive consumption of fats, sugar, salt) must start in true earnest immediately lest we are late in the night of this seemingly unhealthy party, fuelling the NCD epidemic to unmanageable magnitudes.”

The author is an independent journalist. 

The Cost Of Sugar, Part II: Is Added Sugar Alone To Be Blamed For Diabetes? What Makes Sugar The Villain?   

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