Is sugar addiction real? Here's why it's so hard to resist sweet treats

After you learn why it's so hard to stop eating sugar, you'll never look at candy the same way again.

Caroline Roberts Digital Editorial Intern
Caroline Roberts writes articles and notifications for CNET. She studies English at Cal Poly, and loves philosophy, Karl the Fog and a strong cup of black coffee.
Caroline Roberts
5 min read
brown and white sugar

Sugar addiction is a real thing.

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When you think of a substance addiction, sugar probably isn't the first thing that comes to mind. But on the other hand, if you know anyone with a serious sweet tooth (or if you are that person), you know just how hard it is to resist sugar -- and in the US, sugar is in nearly all packaged and fast foods.

While some people say that using the term "sugar addiction" is fear-mongering, many researchers agree that it's a real and harmful phenomenon. Keep reading to learn why sugar is so addictive and how we ended up here in the first place.

What exactly 'sugar addiction' means

The American Psychiatric Association lists several key markers for addiction, including intense cravings for the drug, intoxication (an intense pleasure, calm or high), failed attempts to cut down on substance use, tolerance and withdrawal symptoms upon termination of substance use. These all fit the bill for dependence on sugar.

Sugar has addictive potential because it releases opioids and dopamine in the brain. Eating sugar also increases the release of serotonin, a neurotransmitter that gives us a "happy" feeling. Simply put, eating sugar causes chemical changes in the brain that make us feel good, and once that feeling has worn off, we're left wanting more.

Read moreSugar vs. artificial sweeteners: Which one you should choose


Typically, foods you would call "junk food" -- cookies, candy, potato chips, cheese puffs, and the like -- are very palatable, which gives them their addictive qualities.

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One of the main reasons that sugar is so addictive is because we feel like we can never eat enough (unless you're one of those people with incredible self control). This is because sugar is absorbed into the blood as glucose (increasing our glucose level) but that sugar intake also causes the release of insulin, which normalizes the glucose level. Thus, eating sugar can turn into a vicious cycle, in which we're wanting to eat more once our glucose reaches a low level. This can turn into sugar bingeing -- a behavior common to sugar addiction.

Finally, when people stop eating a diet rich in sugar, they've been shown to experience typical symptoms of drug withdrawal. Sugar withdrawal symptoms include fatigue, a headache, irritability, nervousness and feeling down or depressed. Sugar withdrawal may also come with intense cravings, leading you to hop right back on the sweet train.

Why are we addicted to sugar?

So maybe now you've accepted that sugar addiction isn't a hoax, or even admitted that you have at least a small addiction to sugar (I know I do) -- but if it's so dangerously addictive, why are sugary foods so commonplace?

One reason that we eat so many sugary items is because of the global rise in sugar-rich fast food consumption. The fast food market was worth more than $539 billion in 2016, and is expected to top $690 billion in 2022. Not only is the fast food economy growing, but the portions are too -- an analysis of serving sizes at 10 popular US fast food restaurants showed that entrees, sides and desserts increased significantly in size and calories from 1986 to 2016. Almost all fast food meals, including everything from a cheeseburger to a Chipotle burrito bowl, contain a surprisingly high amount of sugar.


Any fast food meal is loaded with added sugar.

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But even if you cook for yourself most of the time, it's still harder than you think to completely avoid sugar. For starters, food with added sugar is easy on the wallet -- one comprehensive study found that grains and sugar food groups were cheaper than vegetables and fruits per calorie.

No matter where you shop -- at a 7-Eleven or Whole Foods -- almost all of the processed foods on the shelves contain added sugar. Sugar is added to food for several different reasons, including the fact that it simply tastes good, and sweetened foods have an almost universal appeal. Sugar also preserves food, like jam and jelly, helps bread rise, acts as a bulking agent in baked goods and balances the acidity of food that contains tomato or vinegar -- like ketchup or BBQ sauce.

So, even if you try to avoid obvious culprits such as donuts and ice cream, sugar is lurking in more of your staple groceries than you may think. Foods often labeled "healthy" such as fruit-flavored yogurt, granola, dried fruit and canned soup all contain a significant amount of added sugar.

Our uncontrollable sweet tooth wasn't always like this

Two hundred years ago, the average American ate two pounds of sugar per year -- today, we're up to 152 pounds per year. How did that much added sugar get into our diet in the first place?

Unfortunately, American sugar addiction has less than sweet roots. Back in olden times, sugarcane was a labor-intensive crop that had to be cut by hand and immediately harvested for juices. In 1795, a New Orleans farmer figured out how to granulate the first sugar crystals, and it became a product that could last longer than just a few days before spoiling. Sugar plantations appeared on both sides of the Mississippi River, and thus the proliferation of the sweet stuff became just another marker of the United States' legacy of slave labor.

The factors that led to our state of sugar consumption are further entwined with American history. During the Prohibition of the 1920s and '30s, people turned to soda to replace (or supplement) their nightcaps, and sugary drinks became a staple in the American diet. By the time Prohibition ended, we were too hooked on soda to let go.


When we added alcohol back into our drinks post Prohibition, we kept the soda and sugary juice too.


The final straw was when in 1977 the Senate Select Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs published its first edition of dietary guidelines for the United States. This report was focused on curbing excessive intake of fat, which was believed to directly cause heart attacks. Americans were instead encouraged to eat a diet high in carbohydrates instead, and thus the low-fat craze was born.

The only problem is that when you take the fat out of foods, it doesn't taste as good. So food manufacturers started putting in extra sugar to restore the palatability of their products. Americans started buying more fat-free yogurt, fat-free milk and fat-free muffins -- all loaded with tons of added sugar. Fast forward a few decades, and we have scientific consensus on the existence of sugar addiction.

Long story short, sugar addiction has its roots in the foundation of the United States. Even though it's hard to beat, that doesn't mean we should stop trying.

The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.