Is sugar an addictive drug?

by The Health Sciences Academy — Get free science updates here.

Those who have a "sweet tooth", which in fact is most of us, are being closely studied by scientists.

They tell us that most of us have a food addiction of some sort. Even thin people!

In fact, they've found many similarities between substance abuse and sugar consumption.

What are the common elements of a substance addiction?

  1. Loss of control
  2. Continued use despite adverse consequences
  3. Withdrawal symptoms
  4. Relapse
  5. Tolerance (need more to feel the same effect)

So, is sugar an addictive drug?

According to researchers at the University of Bordeaux, the answer is yes.

In 2007, they discovered that sugar has a bigger impact than hard drugs in the brain:

Their experiments showed that refined sugar is 4 times more addictive than cocaine!

Today, the impact of sweetness on the human brain’s pleasure centres is uncontested.

Many other studies compare sugar’s effects to those of "opiates", because of sugar’s impact on endorphin function.

This means that sugar has a heroin-like effect on your brain, making your endorphin centres get all lit up. Almost like a broken traffic light, flashing all 3 colours at once, because your pleasure centres have now taken over!

The abnormally high stimulation of these receptors by sugar-rich foods generates excessive reward signals in your brain, which have the potential to override normal self-control mechanisms, leading to addiction.

In other words, refined sugar highjacks all the brain receptors that are meant to regulate your appetite. Now, it's not hunger but your cravings running the show.

Scientists speculate that the sweet receptors (two protein receptors on your tongue) have not adapted to our high-sugar consumption. Even when that sweet flavour is somehow "hidden".

This goes beyond ice cream or biscuits. We are talking about anything that has added sugars too, including Pringles and deli meats like cured ham and pepperoni!

The truth is that refined and added sugars make food tastier. And manufacturers have long realised how addictive sugar can be.

Most experts believe that refined sugar is fuelling a global obesity pandemic, contributing to 35 million deaths annually worldwide from noncommunicable diseases like diabetes, heart disease and cancer.

So the question you need to ask yourself: Is your sugar addiction lack of self-control? Or is it an inevitable consequence of today's food products and hidden sugars in most of them?

P.S. Here's the full 2007 study conducted by the University of Bordeaux (you're most welcome!)

P.P.S. CLICK HERE for tips on how to break the sugar habit.


The scientific evidence of sugar's addictive power is irrefutable. Knowing that it's 4 times more addictive than hard drugs makes me realise that self-control and "mindfulness" around it may not work.

I'll leave you with this for now. But I want to hear from you.

  1. Do you have a sweet tooth?
  2. Which foods are your "weakness"?
  3. Do you believe that is lack of self-control... or something else?

Let me know in the comments below!

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  • Diane Corriette

    Reply Reply July 3, 2014

    I always found it difficult to give up bread and things like pizza. I have never been one for sweets (although I do love thick custard poured over just about any kind of cake!) but it is the sugar in our foods that hooked me.
    Thanks for the link to the research – need to read this one.

    I used to struggle with my “addictions”. Luckily learning with the health science academy is educating me about what I need to eat and I think education is a big key for me. This is why even though its not what I do as a profession I decided to learn about weight loss and in particular cravings and what keeps me stuck. When I know why things affect me in the way that they do and I know what I can do about it I am empowered to make changes.

    • Alex

      Reply Reply July 3, 2014

      Diane — thanks so much for sharing. Glad you’re enjoying your course! We’ll talk more about food addictions and emotional eating in upcoming blog posts, stay tuned :-)

    • Sarah Eddie

      Reply Reply July 3, 2014

      Diane, I have the same problem, I love my starches!! I always think that if I just give up bread and biscuits I’ll be slim again. They’re so addictive! I’m training for the Advanced Clinical Weight Loss Practitioner, I’m loving it, I’ve just made it to Module 2, everything seems like a big discovery. My hope is to help myself first so then I can help others with the same problem.

      Alex, thanks for the PDF, everything you teach is cutting edge, even your free stuff! Your third question is a trick question, isn’t it? Because once you’re addicted, I’m not sure willpower will work. But what will then?? I can’t wait to make it to make it to the Food Addiction Module…

      Oh this is so exciting, I’m learning so much, thank youuuuuuuuuuuuuu


      • Alex

        Reply Reply July 3, 2014

        Thank you so much, Sarah! It’s great to have you on board, and yes, fasten your seat-belt in the Food Addiction module :-)

    • Sylvia

      Reply Reply January 31, 2020

      HI Diane, I read you like bread and pizza, that`s fine, however what about making your own? We have a bread maker which we love and make all bread ourself, I even put third of recommended sugar in the bread, in 600g flour I put half a teaspoon. Bread is amazing, also it makes pizza dough in 45 min ready to roll. I hope it is good advice.

  • parker

    Reply Reply July 22, 2014

    i am sooo addicted. do you have any research or thoughts on groups like overeaters anon. or other groups to help address this problem.

  • Ayesha

    Reply Reply July 26, 2014

    This is very true and I am pretty sure that I have a sweet tooth myself now that I have read this.Its very hard for me to go through the day without consuming something sweet or sugary even if in a little quantity.I always thought that I was the only one with this problem.By the thanks for sharing this valuable information with us Alejandra.

    • Alex

      Reply Reply July 26, 2014

      Ayesha, thanks for sharing and commenting! Hope to hear more from you :-)

  • kyle

    Reply Reply August 22, 2014

    I deff have a sweet tooth and woukd like to moderate it. I was hoping for more direction in good alterbatives. Ex. Fruits, chewing gum? Also we do not use GMO sugar when baking and cut out a lot of non cane sugars in our ingredients. We try our hardest if we have sugar or foods with sugar that we use and eat 100% pure cane sugar. Any thoughts on this being a better alternative to white sugar?

  • Vickie

    Reply Reply August 24, 2014

    Bread and Crisps, and I’ve always believed it’s something else like addiction even if just psychological, I don’t overeat anything until these are available then I really can’t stop until they’re gone!

  • William

    Reply Reply September 2, 2014

    I don’t think I have a sweet tooth (anymore), but of course like every other human being you have cravings sometimes! My weakness would be ice cream, pastries or cookies. I have figured out(based on personal experience) that the less you eat something, the less you crave it. I’m sure there’s some type of scientific evidence to that?

    I’d say to change your bad eating habits you should change up your environment, so you make it a hassle for yourself to make it happen in the first place. If you have cookies in your shelf, eventually you will give in and eat them, versus having to go all the way to the store to buy them.

    Very interesting article, will definetly pass it around :)

  • Mary

    Reply Reply September 4, 2014

    I did not give much thought to sugar being addictive. I thought it was just the convenience of grabbing a cookie vs peeling a piece of fruit. I did find that I do much better if a have things to snack on available that are better for me.

    I do admit that once I start on potato chips, ice cream etc. I do not stop till it is gone. Thanks for the insight

  • Naomi

    Reply Reply September 9, 2014

    Interested to hear your thoughts on this:
    I have cut out most refined sugars over the last 5 months, and eaten extremely cleanly. Recently, I ate a slice of cake – and I really felt totally exhausted & not very well afterwards – it’s happened more than once (at first I didn’t link the cake – I thought it was a different food allergy). It’s not that I haven’t been having sweet treats over the last 5 months, just all natural sweet treats… Interested if anyone else has felt similar, what might be causing this. IT’s like my system goes into shock from the sugar now.

    • admin

      Reply Reply September 9, 2014

      Hi Naomi, the symptoms you felt when reintroducing refined sugar aren’t unusual — in fact, it’s not different from what children feel when they’re given something with a large concentration of refined sugar for the first time, many of them also get a stomach ache or even a headache… Thanks for sharing!

      • Naomi Yorston

        Reply Reply September 9, 2014

        I think I’m going to call it having a “sugar attack” as opposed to “heart attack” I genuinely felt really awful. Scary.

  • Diane

    Reply Reply September 13, 2014

    Sugar is definitely my food addiction, particularly in the form of ice cream. I know exactly what Naomi is talking about. I have, in the past, binged on sugary things. I know that binging on sugar could give me a hangover not much different than after a night of drinking too much.

  • Sharon

    Reply Reply September 22, 2014

    I am enjoying this course info. I have been aware of media reports about the addictive power of sugar but I had not understood the scale of which it is used in our food. Thanks for the info. very interesting.

  • Ewa

    Reply Reply September 24, 2014

    Thank you for this info. I am wondering about how it goes with my ‘nuts addiction’. Most of the time I can’t stop eating almonds, walnuts, cashews and all kind of trail mixes. Once A while I’m making commitment to myself and I am not eating it at all, but when I just start – I am done.. :( Dried fruits are kind of sweet addiction, but almonds, etc? I was thinking that maybe my body just sends me a message once a while, that I need some minerals or vitamins from nuts?! I would be more pleased to hear your opinion.

  • Lindsay

    Reply Reply September 29, 2014

    I am so addicted to food, but all the wrong food, sugars etc.. Sugar is my main addiction every time I try to cut it out of my diet I fail I become so ill with the withdrawal symptoms that I cave in, the headaches are unbearable.
    I have had a keen interest in foods for the past few years I know want to change this forever and eventually study to be a nutrionist, I believe the right food can cure/prevent most things and that is amazing.

  • Debbie

    Reply Reply October 1, 2014

    yes, I have a sweet tooth.
    My weakness tends to mainly be chocolate chip cookies, and sometimes just chocolate. Sometimes it is lack of control, especially when I feel stressed.

  • Katerina

    Reply Reply February 11, 2015

    I am addicted to sugar. When I first heard about its effects on the body and the brain, Im always trying to stop eating it, but even 1 day of avoiding just sweet stuff, i am imagining having a cheesecake or whatever I enjoyed lately that my brain remembers, and I feel a strong need of it, I am almost shaking, and this is how I realized I am addicted to it. So I try going for alternatives, or drinking tea (without any sweetener or sugar) or eating seeds for anxiety.. Ill just keep trying, still love fruits and veggies. Is there any article about sweeteners? they are not good for the body as far as I am aware… Excited about finishing Detox Specialist to go for more courses. Loving this academy, keep it up!

  • Vally

    Reply Reply May 7, 2015

    Was a carboholic and sweet tooth. Overcame gradually, starting in the late 1990’s by no longer counting calories, but focusing on making what I ate count, ie superfoods and healthy fats. Switched to sweet potatoes, yams and brown rice pasta for my carb fixes, limited the pasta portions and increased the veggies – pasta is great with leek sauteed in organic butter. Sprouted grain bread (read labels, Ezekiel is good, not great since uses wheat berries; spelt would be better)Had nut butters (not peanut butter) or oatmeal with organic raspberries for breakfast. Buy my org. berries frozen from Trader Joes or Costco, more affordable. Had almonds for snacking during the day. Made a thermos full of green or white tea which helped keep cravings at bay.

    Also incorporated an hour minimum a day of hill walking as well as weight lifting twice a week (the Super Slow aka Slow Burn method, seems most effective)- time better spent rather than sitting in front of the tv. Still was hooked on chocolate chip cookies and ice cream,but knew with inner resolve and continuing on this path would eventually get over the carbs. And I did.

    No longer any cravings at all for dough, nor ice cream. I make sure the foods I eat are clean foods, ie the way we ate before food manufacturing came onto the scene, most importantly no vegetable oils, nothing processed, don’t eat factory farmed meat at all,always read labels also when it says ‘organic’ or considered ‘healthy’, eat wild caught fish, organic, free range meat when possible, organic free-range eggs etc. It’s possible to find such foods in affordable ways. I do have dark chocolate in the house at all times though. Keeps me out of trouble!

  • Susan Caroll

    Reply Reply May 22, 2015

    Hi, In response to sugar addictions, If I am going to the gym, and really putting in a good effort with the workout, I am reluctant to eat sugary foods. My brain seems to tell me that because I have worked so hard to reduce my weight and energy out put, I am then strict with what sugary foods I eat.

    However if I go on holiday, and do not work out at the gym, once I eat a cake,chocolate biscuit,sweets, etc it is a continual addiction to these foods, and eating them on a daily basis with no limits to them.

  • Lydia

    Reply Reply May 26, 2015

    I love all the desserts that I make as well as a few types of ice cream. So that is the hardest to avoid.
    Now I have found that chips and such, if you never put one in your mouth, you can avoid the temptation easier. Someone once told me that some of the additive and preservatives in the processed foods actually make you crave more. Is this true? They used to advertise “Once you start, you can’t stop!” There may actually be something to that. Best not to have even a taste!

  • Pascal

    Reply Reply November 8, 2015

    How do you conclude that sugar is 4x more addictive than cocaine based on the study?
    I read the study and couldn’t find where this was mentioned or how you did the math?

  • Pooja Paul

    Reply Reply February 15, 2017

    Yes I believe in lack of self control and weakness. And my weakness is in soft drinks and first food. Pls give a good advice how to overcome this.

  • lucy morrice

    Reply Reply August 26, 2018

    Hi william

    I agree with you about changing your environment. and I actually believe that your tastes change really quite quickly. For me the answer lies in avoiding processed foods as far as practicable and mainly eating a plant based diet. I never thought I had a sweet tooth, but cheese and crisps etc were my addiction. I don’t really find myself wanting these anything like as much.
    Put lemon juice on everything! :)

  • Jean

    Reply Reply October 31, 2018

    My sweet tooth is limited to my obsessive use of cane sugar in my coffee ☕. Cakes and cookies and candy don’t really do it for me…but 3 heaping teaspoons of cane sugar in a 10 ounce cup of coffee is just the thing!

    I definitely see this as an addiction – my tolerance keeps increasing, my attempts to moderate my use always fail, continued use despite negative consequences, and so on. But I blame myself not anyone else.

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