Why Sugar Leaves Us Craving More—and the First Step to Taking Control

“I’m addicted to sugar.”

We’ve all heard or thought this before. Considering the American palate for highly processed, overly sweetened foods and the ubiquitous nature of sugar in advertising, we see evidence of a concerning shift. Sugar’s role in the American diet has moved beyond a character actor and into a starring role. Further, as discussed in the previous post, Sugar. How Much Is Too Much?, we consume far more sugar than is recommended for our health. But the question remains—are we addicted?

More please: How sugar affects the brain

While an ICD-10 code for “sugar addiction,” has yet to be established, an increasing body of research tells us that sugar has addictive effects on the brain.1,2 Like sex and drugs, consuming sugar stimulates the release of dopamine, a neurotransmitter that gives us a sense of euphoria and controls the reward and pleasure centers in the brain. But what may have evolved as a survival mechanism has gone rogue.

The caveman sweet tooth

From an anthropological perspective, we are hard-wired for sweetness. The pleasing taste of sweet foods was a conditioned reward, one which could increase early man’s survival odds. In times of food scarcity, a preference for more nutritionally dense foods might have provided the energy required to continue the hunt, outrun a predator, or simply avoid starvation.

Flash forward a few hundred thousand years, and sugar is exponentially more abundant. Consistent intake of concentrated sugar can lead to changes in the brain’s dopamine receptors. Similar to increased drug or alcohol tolerance, over time, more sugar is needed for the same “high.”

Cookies and cocaine

So, the more you eat, the more you want. But, as for being “addictive” per se, animal studies have shown sugar consumption to have drug-like effects. These include sugar-related bingeing, craving, tolerance, and withdrawal. In fact, according to a Connecticut College study, Oreo cookies cause more neural activation in the brains of rats than cocaine.3

Taking control

For many individuals, the only way to stop overconsuming sugar is to stop the cravings. But the only way to end the cravings is to stop feeding them with sugar. So, in addition to cutting out the obvious forms of sugar—candy, baked goods, etc.—it is important to be aware of the less obvious forms of sugar in your diet. Over the course of a day, small quantities can add up, keep your cravings alive, and thwart your efforts to take control of sugar. So become a sugar sleuth. Here are five tips to get you started.


5 Tips for Identifying Added Sugars

  1. Beware of marketing geared toward dieters—Be especially cautious with foods you might consider healthy, such as yogurt or energy bars and any items marketed as “low-fat.” Typically, when fat is removed, sugar is added to these products to add flavor and texture. See the yogurt example below.
  1. Read ingredient labels, especially the first three ingredients—As a rule, skip any product that has sugar listed as the first or second ingredient listed on the label.
    • A typical ingredient list for low-fat yogurt:
  1. Beware of alternate forms and names for sugar
    • Often more than one form of sugar is used in smaller quantities with hard-to-recognize names. In fact, there are over 60 different forms of added sugars. These are some of the most common ones you may find listed:
      Cane Juice, Dehydrated Cane Juice, Cane Juice Solids, Cane Juice Crystals, Dextrin, Maltodextrin, Dextran, Barley Malt, Beet Sugar, Corn Syrup, Corn Syrup Solids, Caramel, Carob Syrup, Brown Sugar, Date Sugar, Malt Syrup, Diatastic Malt, Fruit Juice, Fruit Juice Concentrate, Dehydrated Fruit Juice, Fruit Juice Crystals, Golden Syrup, Turbinado, Sorghum Syrup, Refiner’s Syrup, Ethyl Maltol, Maple Syrup, Yellow Sugar, High-Fructose Corn Syrup
  1. Natural versus added sugars
    • Naturally occurring sugars are not an issue. Fruits, starchy vegetables (sweet potatoes, butternut squash, etc.), and dairy products contain sugars naturally. Yogurt, even plain, will list sugars on the label, but those sugars are from lactose, natural milk sugar, rather than added.
  1. Watch for -ose and -ol (and others)
    • Be on the lookout for the following, as they are likely a form of added sugar!
    • Words that end in -ose
      • Ex. sucrose, maltose, dextrose, fructose, glucose, galactose, high-fructose corn syrup)
    • Words that end in -ol (commonly known as sugar alcohols)
      • Ex. erythritol, glycol, isomalt(ol), lacitol, maltitol, mannitol, ribotol, sorbitol, xylitol
    • Any juices or syrups


The journey to a healthy relationship with sugar starts with awareness. Watch for the next post in this series, which will feature strategies for taking control of sugar.



  1. Ahmed SH et al. Sugar addiction: pushing the drug-sugar analogy to the limit. Curr Opin Clin Nutr Metab Care. 2013;16(4):434-439.
  2. Colantuoni Cet al. Evidence that intermittent, excessive sugar intake causes endogenous opioid dependence. Obes Res.2002;10(6):478-488.
  3. Connecticut College. “Are Oreos addictive? Research says yes.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 15 October 2013. https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/10/131015123341.htm (Accessed June 2, 2018)


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