Is Sugar Addictive or Just Rewarding: A Closer Look at the Research

Girl with short hair eating a donut

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Sugar cravings can come out of nowhere—all of a sudden, you're thinking about mouth-watering donuts or sweet, creamy ice cream—almost like an addiction. While an indulgence here and there is part of a balanced diet, many people with a sweet tooth might wonder: can you become addicted to sugar? A quick review of the research will answer the question: is sugar addiction real, or is it just rewarding?

Is Sugar Addiction Real?

Here's the thing about sugar—regardless of the source, it's still sugar, and the body processes it the same way it does all other sugar. So whether you eat cookies sweetened with granular sugar or cookies sweetened with agave, it's still sugar. And what about fruit and dairy? Both contain natural sugars, but nobody seems to be addicted to those foods.

6 Main Types of Sugar

There are over 60 names for sugar, but when it comes to science, there are two basic building blocks of all sugars: monosaccharides and disaccharides. Monosaccharides are the simplest forms of sugars, whereas disaccharides are combinations of two monosaccharides.

Monosaccharides

  • Glucose
  • Fructose (fruit sugar)
  • Galactose

Disaccharides

  • Lactose (dairy sugar)
  • Sucrose (table sugar)
  • Maltose (grain sugar)

The sugar in candy and other sweetened foods (glucose) often doesn't have any other nutrients involved, so it's digested rapidly and spikes blood sugar immediately. Whereas fruit contains fiber which helps slow the digestion of fructose. Dairy products contain protein and fat, which slows the digestion of lactose. Knowing this, is it the sugar that feels addictive or the food itself?

Sugar Signals Pleasure Pathways in the Brain

Some research suggests that highly palatable foods are addictive and signal the pleasure-seeking pathway in the brain. On the other hand, it's also been shown that restriction, or limited access to sugar, increases the pleasure reaction, even when hunger doesn't exist. This may be a consequence of extreme dieting and food restriction. When foods are labeled "good" or "bad" and are restricted from your diet, the drive to eat them becomes more pronounced.

Restriction and Exposure May Influence Response

Another review of studies on rats to determine sugar dependence and addiction found that only rats who were deprived of a sugar solution for 12 hours binged on sugar during the feed window, while rats who were given 24-hour access to the sugar solution controlled their intake. It's also worth noting that in both groups the rats reduced their chow intake to compensate for the calories ingested from the sugar solution, therefore, their weight remained the same.

To make sense of this, the rats who binged on the sugar solution were restricted from it in the first place. This suggests that restrictive-style diets often lead to binge eating and disordered eating patterns.

Reward, Taste, and Satiety is Likely Driver of Sugar Consumption

Instead of sweet foods being addictive, some scientists believe their reward value and satiating potency may be why people keep coming back to them. That means the reason for overconsumption is because they taste so good, but don't provide satisfying nutrients like protein and fiber that fills you up.

There are some brain imaging studies showing similarities in terms of the areas of the brain that are activated when individuals view certain foods, such as sugary, high carb, high fat foods, similar to those activated in individuals with substance abuse. There's definitely something here in terms of reward, and executive control, that we see in these brain imaging studies, but it's not necessarily evidence for us to call it an "addiction".

The addictive nature of sugar continues to be a hot topic that is often up for debate in the medical and research communities. There is evidence to support both sides, but more research is needed to make a conclusive statement.

Research Varies on Whether Sugar Elicits an Addictive Response

Some evidence suggests that sugar does not elicit an addictive response similar to drugs and alcohol, whereas some medical experts strongly support that research shows sugar causes a food addiction.

  • Evidence That Suggests Sugar Does Not Elicit Addictive Response: A review of literature on food and sugar addiction concludes that there is little evidence to support the claim on sugar addiction in humans and animal-studies suggest that "addiction-like behaviours, such as bingeing" only occur when sugar is restricted. Scientists believe that the restriction is the issue, not the effects that sugar has on the brain, but highlight that more research is needed.
  • Evidence That Supports Sugar Eliciting a Highly Addictive Response: Dr. Nicole Avena, an expert in the field of food and addiction, suggests that foods that we love to eat can influence our brains and lead to addictive-like eating. She compares food addiction to other non-drug addictions like gambling. Gearhardt and colleagues created a Yale Food Addiction scale and argue that "hyperpalatable foods rich in fats, sugars, and/or salts, which are often comprised of synthetic combinations of many ingredients, may have greater addictive potential than traditional foods such as fruits, vegetables and lean protein." These experts suggest that food, like sugar, can elicit addictive responses.

What Causes Sugar Cravings?

Sugar cravings can come at any time and for a number of reasons, which can be both physical and psychological. A sugar craving may be the body's natural response to hunger; however, there are many other reasons you may want to reach for something sweet. Be aware that some sugar cravings may be indicative of an underlying medical issue.

Brain's Response to Sugar

Sugar is the primary fuel source for the brain. All types of sugar are converted into energy that supports daily activities and functioning. When you eat foods containing sugar, insulin is released, signaling blood cells to begin absorbing sugar to transport throughout the body.

Additionally, carbohydrates and sugar-rich foods are a great energy source. When you eat sweet foods, the reward system in the brain is triggered by releasing dopamine. Dopamine is a "feel good" hormone that continues the cycle of motivation, reward, and reinforcement.

Even the mere thought of a sweet treat can trigger dopamine release. That reward system in the brain can absolutely have you coming back for more, almost like a drug, which is why so many believe sugar is addictive.

It's important to note that carbohydrates and sugars are necessary in the diet; however, choosing complex carbohydrates (such as fruits, vegetables, and whole grains) is preferable to selecting simple sugars (candy, fruit juice, etc.).

While you may think it is a good idea to remove all sugar from your diet, you may just want to reduce your simple sugar intake and focus on high-fiber complex carbohydrates. Without sugar or carbohydrates in the diet, for instance, when following a ketogenic diet, you may experience brain fog and feel extremely sluggish. This is because, in the absence of glucose (sugar), the body produces ketones to provide energy to the brain and body. Since the brain prefers sugar over ketones, it doesn't function as well.

Diabetic Hyperphagia

If you have diabetes, your sugar cravings may be due to glycosuria (sometimes called glucosuria), an increase in sugar in the urine. When this happens, you may experience diabetic hyperphagia, which causes an increased appetite for sugar. This occurs to compensate for any negative energy balance caused by glycosuria.

If you think you have glycosuria, diabetic hyperphagia, or blood sugar problems, speak with a healthcare professional to help you develop a treatment plan that works best for you and your lifestyle.

Depression and Other Mood Disorders

While emotional eating isn't necessarily a bad thing, the cravings you get for comfort foods and sweets when you're feeling down are real, and diving in could be contributing to your depressive mood. Evidence shows that the foods we eat impact our mood, and a diet higher in sugar and carbs, and less in fruit, vegetables and whole grains, may lead to a decrease mood.

Researchers have studied the relationship between sugar intake from sweets and depressive symptoms. Turns out eating sweet foods can affect your mood, but whether or not a depressed mood causes you to eat more sweets is still up for interpretation. In fact, the research is inconclusive.

It's difficult to determine whether sugar intake alone is exacerbated by depression or whether comfort foods are just a general preference for some folks. The fact remains that highly palatable foods, including comfort foods and sweet foods, do turn on that reward system in the brain, which feels good when you're in a funk.

Other Potential Causes

Sometimes the best effort to limit sweets actually works against you. If your diet is unbalanced and lacking anywhere (including enjoyable foods), you may experience more cravings for the foods you're missing.

For example, one study addressed food cravings in women who were trying to lose weight. Compared to non-dieters, the dieters experienced stronger cravings that were more difficult to resist, and were more likely to crave foods they were restricted from eating.

Similarly, another study found that for those who deprived themselves of specific foods or food groups, cravings for those foods increased, especially in the short term. While this research makes sense, a conclusive relationship between food cravings and restrictive diets is still unclear, and more research is needed.

How to Address Sugar Cravings

The average adult consumes 17 teaspoons of sugar in a single day. That's far more than the USDA's recommendation of no more than ten teaspoons of sugar per day.

Here are some tips for reducing daily sugar intake:

  • Read food labels carefully, familiarize yourself with the multiple names for sugar, and choose food items that contain the least amount of added sugar
  • Skip sugar-sweetened beverages such as soda and juice; choose water instead
  • Serve smaller portions of sweets and sugary foods you enjoy
  • Avoid offering sweets as a reward; try to "level the playing field" so that sugary foods lose their luster
  • Talk to a Registered Dietitian to help determine how you can make adjustments to your diet to reduce your sugar intake

When to See a Healthcare Provider

If you're experiencing any of the following symptoms, it could be an indicator that you have an underlying health condition and should discuss with your healthcare provider:


  • Extreme hunger or thirst
  • Extreme dehydration
  • More frequent urination, or accidental urination
  • Fatigue
  • Unexplained weight loss


If you're experiencing binge eating episodes or feelings of being out of control while eating, speak with a healthcare professional (physician, therapist, or Registered Dietitian) about your symptoms to help you develop a plan that works for you.

A Word From Verywell

The question of whether or not sugar is addictive or just rewarding may not be completely answered. The fact remains that for some people, it may very well feel like an addiction to sweets. If you're struggling with your appetite for sugary foods, first determine why you're having cravings so you can best determine a treatment plan. Speaking with a healthcare professional or a Registered Dietitian can help you pinpoint where your cravings are coming from and how to reduce them without causing feelings of restriction.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What are the signs of addiction?

    According the American Addiction Centers, the early signs of addiction include loss of energy or motivation, neglecting one's appearance, problems at work or school, spending excessive amounts of money on the substance, obsessing about the next dose, performing risky behaviors while intoxicated, experiencing withdrawal symptoms, developing a tolerance, lying about consumption habits, and compulsively taking the drug or being unable to stop.

  • How do you know if you are addicted to sugar?

    While sugar may feel addictive, the evidence is inconclusive as to whether or not sugar is actually addictive. The best indication of an unhealthy relationship with sugar is feelings of being out of control while eating sugar, obsessing over sugary foods and when you can eat them next, and being unable to stop eating even when not hungry.

  • How much sugar is included in a balanced diet?

    The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend no more than ten teaspoons of added sugar per day be included in a balanced diet.

  • How long does it take to stop eating too much sugar?

    You can reduce sugar in your diet immediately by reducing your portion sizes and frequency of consumption. Remember that it takes time to create new habits, sometimes up to 3-4 weeks, and setting SMART goals is a great way to make it happen.

16 Sources
Verywell Fit uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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