Nobody would argue against the fact that drugs are, well…
An awful thing.
Cocaine, heroin, meth—all of these chemicals come hand in hand with addiction, overdose risk, and severe health issues even after a single use.
But what if I told you there’s a drug that’s addictive qualities is in the same league as cocaine—and you likely have it in your kitchen?
Nope, I’m not joking.
It’s regular sugar.
What makes a substance addictive?
Let’s start with a brief clarification of terms (that’s kind of important in the context of sugar use).
Addiction is a severe form of what’s called substance use disorder (SUD). There are 11 criteria divided into 4 major categories to define SUD:
- Taking more of the substance than intended, or for longer periods of time (bingeing)
- Having a persistent and strong desire to use the substance (cravings)
- Spending a lot of time on finding, buying, preparing, consuming, or thinking about the substance
- Repeated (and failed) attempts to quit or decrease the use of the substance
- Having trouble at work, school, or home due to the use of the substance
- Taking the substance despite the harm it does to once social life
- Giving up social or working activities to use the substance
- Using the substance even in scenarios when the usage could be physically dangerous
- Taking the substance despite physical or psychological harm it does
- Needing to gradually increase the dose of the substance, feeling less satisfied by the current dose (tolerance)
- Feeling negative effects after stopping taking substance usage (withdrawal)
Now, here’s the thing.
- Experiencing 2-3 of these symptoms during the last 12 months is classified as mild substance use disorder
- 4-5 symptoms indicate moderate substance use disorder
- 6 or more symptoms equal severe substance use disorder
But how does this apply to sugar?
If the list above sounds like it has nothing to do with sugar, here’s an adapted version:
- Eating more than the daily recommended limit of added sugar, which is 9 teaspoons (36 grams) for men or 6 teaspoons (25 grams) for women according to the American Heart Association. A single can of coke contains 35 grams of pure sugar, just so you know
- Sugar cravings
- Failed attempts to start eating healthy and reduce sugar consumption
- Eating too much sugar despite having excess weight, metabolic syndrome, diabetes, increased cardiovascular risk, or any other sort of health condition
- Gradually ramping up your consumption of sugar over time
- Feeling down, bored, or lethargic without eating sugar
If you’ve experienced at least 2 of these points during the last 12 months, you may have sugar use disorder. Having 5-6 points from this list could suggest you have sugar addiction.
The deadly problem with sugar addiction and why it’s as dangerous as Cocaine:
So, sugar use disorder shows ALL the peculiar traits of any other addiction. Bingeing, withdrawal, craving, and even cross-sensitization (increased response to other substances during withdrawal)—multiple studies have confirmed all of these effects in cases of sugar use disorder.
But the worst thing about sugar abuse and addiction is how accessible this substance is all around the world.
- Sold everywhere and in different forms
- Heavily marketed
- Generally considered ”not a big deal”
- Freely given to children
You can’t say the same about cocaine. The core danger of sugar consumption is that we don’t consider it dangerous, significant, or addictive.
We don’t consider it a drug.
According to a survey conducted by Delphi Behavioral Health Group in 2017, 930 thousand people admitted using cocaine within the previous year (2016) at least once. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, cocaine and cocaine were involved in 13,942 deaths due to drug overdose in 2017.
At the same time, more than 2 in 3 adults are considered to have excess weight or obesity in the United States. Although sugar isn’t the only factor that contributes to this number, it’s one of the main reasons. Excess weight and obesity are among the main risk factors for such conditions like diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and some forms of cancer—indirectly killing millions every year.
That’s why you really can consider sugar abuse a real thing, a full-blown addiction that’s killing more people than cocaine.
Sounds too dramatic? Maybe, but it serves to make a point: sugar isn’t just ”not good” for you, it’s downright deadly.
Now let’s move on to the really useful stuff: how to fix this bittersweet situation.
How sugar addiction works and what you can do about it
Just like any other kind of addiction, sugar addiction is based on an intricate hijacking of the brain’s dopamine system.
Dopamine is a neurotransmitter (molecular messenger in the nervous system) that plays an essential role in the functioning of the ”reward system” in the brain. From an evolutionary point of view, its goal is to inform us when something is really good for our survival.
Eating a tasty fruit, escaping from a hungry tiger, bonding with our family or the people from our tribe, learning to make a fire—all of these activities are triggers for dopamine release. The point is to reinforce certain behaviors that are potentially beneficial for survival.
Sugar is a powerful and universal trigger for dopamine release, and in ancient times the only source of sugar were ripe fruits. Now, sugar is everywhere—and in doses that are dozens of times higher than centuries ago.
When something triggers too much dopamine release, the body’s natural answer is to cut off dopamine sensitivity (increase dopamine tolerance) to prevent overstimulation. That’s how tolerance is developed. Higher doses are needed to feel that dopamine high the user craves.
Failing to satisfy this new effective dose (withdrawal) leads to cravings for the substance in question. This is also accompanied by cross-sensitization—a state of increased sensitivity for other substances that may trigger dopamine release, including other drugs and not so harmless activities like extreme sports.
So, the 4 stages of addiction include:
- Bingeing and tolerance
Escape the sweet trap
Now that you know how this process works, here’s a quick list of hacks that may help you escape sugar addiction:
- Don’t let it grow into something serious. Control your sugar intake TODAY to prevent sugar-related problems TOMORROW. Remember: no more than 9 teaspoons for men, no more than 6 teaspoons for women
- Indulge in alternative (and safe) sources of pleasure. This way you’ll satisfy your body’s craving for dopamine without bingeing on sugar. Make art, visit the gym, chill with your friends, cuddle with your loved ones – everything counts!
- Instead of going ”cold turkey,” try gradually decreasing your daily dose of sugar over the course of several weeks. For most people, this will make the cravings much easier to deal with
- Eat a lot of fruit and vegetables. The vitamins and antioxidants in them will help you throughout the withdrawal process
We all love have a bit of a sweet tooth, don’t we? The point here is to remember that dietary sugar is as far from ”harmless” as cocaine is from ”safe.” And still, sugar is sold freely all around, so that makes it much more dangerous—in a certain sense.
Moral of the story: stay alert, consume responsibly, and always be mindful of your own health.
– The Cost Plus Nutrition Team