The Relationship Between Sugar and Addiction


Sugar and addiction are two things that are intrinsically related to one another in multiple ways. For example, There’s a biological component to people who struggle with substance abuse that often turn to sugar when in recovery.

Sugar on its own can also be an addictive substance, and our society may have many more sugar addicts than we even realize because of the standard American diet. 

Below we explore more about the relationship between sugar and addiction and the implications.


Is Sugar Addictive?

To begin considering whether or not sugar is addictive, we should look at how we view it in our society.

  • Sugary beverages and treats are considered a treat. 
  • We reward ourselves and our children using sugar. For example, if your child gets a good grade, you may go for ice cream. That’s not inherently a bad thing, but growing research indicates too much sugar could have as much addiction potential as some street drugs.
  • Sugar may also have similar effects on the brain, including on dopamine receptors. 
  • When you eat sugar or foods with sweet tastes, they release dopamine and opioids.
  • Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that’s a central component of the reward circuit. 
  • The reward circuit in the brain is what drives addictive behavior, including illicit drugs and alcohol. If you engage in any particular behavior and there’s excess dopamine released. As a result, you’ll have a sense of pleasure or a high.

When you experience pleasure from a stimulus, your brain will compel you to want to continue to experience the pleasurable feeling, creating a sugar craving similar to addictive drugs. 

  • The more you repeat the behavior, such as increasing your sugar intake and consuming sweet foods, the lower the dopamine levels your brain will release in response. 
  • This effect then contributes to more intense cravings to try and keep your dopamine levels up. 
  • Then, you’ll use more of the pleasure-creating substance to chase the same feeling you got initially.

Sugar, because of these effects, may have more addictive properties than even cocaine.

  • Sugar activates your opiate receptors, leading to compulsive behavior. 
  • You may have negative consequences like weight gain, hormonal imbalances, and headaches, and you could know they’re due to excess sugar, yet you continue to have sweets anyway.
  • Each time you indulge in a high-sugar food or beverage, you’re reinforcing those pathways in your brain, and your brain is getting hardwired to crave more. You’re also building a tolerance. 
  • All of this is precisely what happens with an addiction to drugs and alcohol.

An animal study from Connecticut College found Oreos active more pleasure center neurons in a rat’s brain than cocaine. Researchers in France found rewards your brain experiences after having sugar are more attractive than the effects of cocaine.

Along with having potentially even more dramatic effects on the same area of the brain involved in addiction, sugar is also socially acceptable and widely available, so it’s difficult to avoid.

  • According to the World Health Organization (WHO), an adult on a standard 2,000 calorie-a-day diet should have no more than around 25 grams of sugar daily. (One can of Coke has approximately 44 grams to provide perspective on the issue.)
  • The average American consumes 17 teaspoons of sugar a day, which is more than 71 grams. 
  • That’s around three times more sugar content than the recommended amount for a healthy diet.

So what does all of this mean? Is sugar addictive? The answer is yes, although we still need to learn more about what this means exactly.

Your body can also develop a physical dependence on sugar. This is why if you reduce your consumption, you might experience withdrawal symptoms like irritability or headaches. 


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Are Alcoholism and Sugar Addiction Related?

Why does it seem like when someone’s recovering from long-term alcohol dependence, they suddenly develop a strong desire for sweets? The effect isn’t uncommon, and again, like sugar addiction in general, there’s a reason for it. It all goes back to what we talked about above.

When you have something high in sugar, your brain releases dopamine.

When you stop drinking alcohol, you’ll probably have cravings. To satisfy those cravings, you might develop a replacement addiction in the form of sugar. If you’re having cravings as a newly sober person, it means your body is still trying to find balance and adjust.

If you’re in recovery, the following are tips that can help you avoid the development of sugar addiction:

  • Recognize what your cravings are and what they’re not. Realize your brain and body are sending you mixed signals during your early days of recovery.
  • Eating a balanced diet can help reduce sugar cravings and even alcohol cravings because you’re fueling your body with what it needs to adjust to sobriety.
  • When you begin to learn to follow your hunger cues without automatically turning to sugar, and you’re regularly eating, you can reduce food and alcohol cravings.
  • Be mindful of everything you’re consuming, especially in the initial days of your recovery. If you’re swapping out alcohol for sugar, it can impact your detox and contribute to a relapse. The phenomenon is called addiction transfer. Sugary foods and sugar consumption activate the brain in the same ways as drugs and alcohol, and that can cause you to relapse when you activate those pathways.
  • The consumption of sugar can cause blood sugar spikes, leading to changes in mood and cravings. Again, be mindful of these effects so you can work to avoid them.


How to Overcome Sugar and Carb Addiction

Breaking a sugar addiction has benefits beyond weight loss purposes only; whether you’re addicted to sugar as a replacement for alcohol, or you’re addicted to dopamine-producing foods in general, there are steps you can take to help you break the cycle. A few tips on how to overcome sugar and carb addiction include:

  • Start to recognize your hunger cues, and if you’re experiencing them, have a healthy, satisfying meal. Your body may need energy, and if you get any kind of sugar or carb craving while you’re hungry, satisfying it with a nutritious meal will help you.
  • If you have a sugar or carb craving, take a hot shower. Let the water run over your back for at least 5 to 10 minutes. It sounds strange, but anecdotally this helps a lot of people deal with cravings in general.
  • Add healthy fat foods to your diet. High-fat, healthy foods include nuts, avocado, fruits, and vegetables. When you have these foods, they don’t create an insulin release, so your blood sugar levels will stay more stable, reducing your cravings for sugary or starchy items.
  • If you have carbs, make sure they’re the “right” ones, such as non-starchy vegetables like tomatoes, zucchini, mushrooms, grains, and fruits.
  • To reduce your sugar habit, try to integrate protein into every meal, such as eggs, fish, seeds, nuts, or grass-fed, lean meats. 
  • Find ways to cope with stress that don’t rely on eating or using substances. You might begin to keep a journal so you can identify your triggers. The more proactively you spot these triggers, the better prepared you’ll be to deal with them when they happen.

If you’re dealing with alcohol abuse or drug addiction, we encourage you to call 855-953-1345  and talk to the team at Opus Health. Our team provides holistic care so that in addition to treating the addiction you currently have, we work with you to heal your mind, body, and spirit. This includes creating nutritional wellness plans so that you can replace the nutrients your body needs and craves, rather than replacing one addiction with another in the form of sugar.

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