Tip: Sugar Is Not Addictive

Some fitness and diet experts have taken the term addiction a little too far. Here's a reality check.

Well-meaning dolts post memes about it every day, all with the same underlying message: Sugar is addictive.

To those people, sugar is their white whale, or more precisely, their granulated, cane, or even turbinado whale. If this mob had been alive more than a century ago, they'd be wearing long skirts and carrying axes and helping bulldog-faced Carrie Nation in her fight to be history's greatest killjoy by busting up bars, speakeasies, and liquor bottles in her fight against killer alcohol.

The difference is that alcohol was and is a real addiction. Sugar is not.

You Don't See Spiders When You Stop Using Sugar

Addiction, as explained by the American Society of Addiction Medicine, is a "primary, chronic disease of brain reward, motivation, memory, and related circuitry."

It's characterized by an inability to consistently abstain (from the object of addiction); impairment in behavioral control; craving, diminished recognition of significant problems with one's behavior and interpersonal relationships; and a dysfunctional emotional response.

Cycles of relapse and remission are common and, without treatment, addiction is progressive and can lead to disability or death.

It's such a complex disorder that it's difficult to do it justice in just a couple of short paragraphs, but as dietitian Thalia Prum points out, sudden cessation from a truly addictive drug would often cause a hell storm of repercussions like anxiety, nausea, hot and cold flashes, diarrhea, and insomnia, along with a bunch of other more obscure but terrible sounding side effects like tachycardia, dysphoria, myalgia, and please-let-me-die-ia.

People who are denied a Pop Tart don't experience those things. Instead, at worst, they get a bit peevish.

The Truth About Neural Reward Pathways

People say that eating sugar lights up neural reward pathways, just like it does with drugs. Sure, but these same pathways also light up from sex, working out, and playing video games.

However, it's the act of doing those things that lights up your brain circuitry like the Vegas strip – not the substance. Therefore, you can't go nutritional Sherlock Holmes on us and say that sugar, since it lights up the same pathways as drugs, is addictive.

If something has addictive qualities, it implies that it has some intrinsic property that makes susceptible people fall in psychological but mostly chemical love with it. Sugar has no such intrinsic properties.

After all, when bearded buggerer Alan Ginsberg wrote that he "saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked, dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix," he sure as hell wasn't talking about sugar.

Hard-Wired For Donuts

Further, don't mistake ordinary cravings for true addiction. If you jones for something sweet or fatty, you're merely responding to your genetic blueprint.

Humans are hard-wired to crave Dunkin' Donuts and its ilk. Food in general was hard to come by in pre-agricultural societies, so we were programmed to scarf up stuff that was high in calories and easily absorbable, i.e., fat and sugars. But our genetic programming doesn't match the current landscape. We don't need that stuff, even though the cravings still remain.

So if you love a particular food, or love it because of its sugary sweetness, it's not because you're addicted to it; it's because it lights up the reward center in your brain that's leftover from your cave-dwelling days.

Yes, sugar is a big problem. It's a leading contributor to obesity. It can lead to diabetes, and heart and liver disease, but if you can't stop yourself from eating it, or giving it some medical power that it doesn't possess, well, that's on you.


  1. American Society of Addiction Medicine
  2. Prum, Thalia. "4 Things to Wrap Your Sugar-Addicted Brain Around." The Pie-Hole Blogger, August 16th, 2017.