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5 Clues You Are Addicted To Sugar

5 Clues You Are Addicted To Sugar

Most of us have felt the urge, the unstoppable craving driving us to seek out something sweet and devour it in a flash. That uncontrollable yen for cookies, cake or ice cream or that whole basket of bread calling to us to finish it off. Why do you overeat? Why does that cookie have such power over you, even though you know it will make you fat and sick? Is it an indication of your moral weakness, lack of will power, or is it a powerful hardwired brain response over which you have little control?

Debate has raged recently about whether junk food, the hyper-processed, hyper-palatable food that has become our SAD (standard American diet) is addictive in the same way that heroin or cocaine is addictive. A new study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition suggests that, in fact, higher sugar, higher glycemic foods can be addictive.

David Ludwig, author of Ending the Food Fight, and his colleagues at Harvard, in a very sophisticated study, showed that foods with more sugar, foods that raise blood sugar even more than table sugar such as white flour, white potatoes and refined starch have what is called a high glycemic index, trigger a special region in the brain called the nucleus accumbens that is known to be “ground zero” for conventional addiction, such as gambling or drug abuse.

I stopped by CBS This Morning recently to talk about this groundbreaking study. Watch the interview here.

It appears part of the reason almost 70 percent of Americans are overweight or one in two Americans has pre-diabetes or Type 2 diabetes may not be gluttony, lack of willpower or absence of personal responsibility but plain old, garden variety biological addiction.

Many previous studies have shown how this region of brain, the pleasure center, lights up in response to images or eating sugary, processed or junk food. But many of these studies used very different foods as a comparison. If you compare cheesecake to boiled vegetables, there are many reasons the pleasure center can light up. It tastes better or it looks better. This is interesting data, but it’s not hard proof of addiction.

This new study took on the hard job of proving the biology of sugar addiction. The researchers did a randomized, blinded, crossover study using the most rigorous research design to ward off any criticism (which will inevitably come from the $1 trillion food industry).

They took 12 overweight or obese men between the ages of 18 and 35 and gave each a low sugar or low glycemic index (37 percent) milkshake, and then, four hours later, they measured the activity of the brain region (nucleus accumbens) that controls addiction. They also measured blood sugar and hunger.

Then, days later, they had them back for another milkshake. But this time they switched the milkshakes. They were designed to taste exactly the same and be exactly the same in every way except in how much and how quickly it spiked blood sugar. The second milkshake was designed to be high in sugar with a high glycemic index (84 percent). The shakes had exactly the same amount of calories, protein, fat and carbohydrate. Think of it as a trick milkshake. The participants didn’t know which milkshake they were getting, and their mouth couldn’t tell the difference, but their brains could.

Each participant received a brain scan and blood tests for glucose and insulin after each version of the milkshake. They were their own control group. Without exception, they all had the same response. The high sugar or glycemic index milkshake caused a spike in blood sugar and insulin and an increase in reported hunger and cravings four hours after the shake. Remember — exactly the same calories, sweetness, texture and macronutrient content.

This finding was not surprising and has been shown many times before.

But the breakthrough finding was this: When the high glycemic shake was consumed, the nucleus accumbens lit up like a Christmas tree. This pattern occurred in every single participant and was statistically significant.

This study showed two things.

First, the body responds quite differently to different calories, even if the protein, fat and carbs (and taste) are exactly the same.

And second, foods that spike blood sugar are biologically addictive.

This game-changing study must force a shift in the conversation about obesity in America. There are 600,000 processed foods in the marketplace, 80 percent of which have added hidden sugar. The average American consumes 22 teaspoons of sugar a day, mostly hidden, and the average teenage boy has 34 teaspoons a day (more than two 20 ounce sodas). One serving of Prego tomato sauce has more sugar than a serving of Oreo cookies. Sweetened yogurts can have more sugar than a can of soda.

Sugar is the core ingredient used by the food industry to make bad ingredients (processed flour and chemicals) taste good. Our consumption has increased from 10 pounds per person in 1800 to 140 pounds per person per year today.

Each year, the average American also consumes 133 pounds of white or wheat flour, which raises blood sugar more than table sugar (sucrose).

When a 12-year-old boy needs a liver transplant after a steady diet of soda and white flour, or when a 2-year-old can’t walk because he is too fat at 50 pounds, we can no longer point to personal responsibility as the solution to our obesity epidemic.

What if Kobe Bryant or LeBron James went on national television promoting the benefits of “cocaine water” to increase sports performance? Would you allow heroin dispensers in your kid’s school? Think heroin lollipops or morphine muffins. This is exactly what’s happening in America today.

No one wants to be fat or become a drug addict. No one wants their life destroyed by disability and illness. We have policies and laws that protect people from alcohol, tobacco and illegal drugs of abuse. Sugar and flour (and too much starchy white potatoes and white rice) or products containing them appear to be no different. In fact, some animal studies show that sugar is eight times as addictive as cocaine.

It is time to stop blaming the fat person. Can we really blame our children if we freely give them drugs of abuse in the school lunch line or as after school snacks? Can we really blame the average overweight person? The nutritional landscape in America is a food carnival.

Kelly Brownell from Yale’s Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity has created a validated food questionnaire to help you determine if you are a food addict. He recently also published a textbook, Food and Addiction, that lays out the science of how our hyper-processed, hyper-palatable, hyper-sweet industrial food has hijacked our brain chemistry and biology.

Here are five clues you may be addicted to sugar, flour and processed food:

  1. You consume certain foods even if you are not hungry because of cravings.
  2. You worry about cutting down on certain foods.
  3. You feel sluggish or fatigued from overeating.
  4. You have health or social problems (affecting school or work) because of food issues and yet keep eating the way you do despite negative consequences.
  5. You need more and more of the foods you crave to experience any pleasure or reduce negative emotions.

If you are among those whose brain chemistry, taste buds and hormones have been hijacked by the food industry (up to 70 percent of us, including 40 percent of children), then it is time to stop blaming yourself and consider food rehab or a sugar detox. It is time for all of us to take back our health and demand that our children be protected from addictive substances in our schools and from the insidious marketing practices directed at them from the food industry.

There are resources to help you break your food addiction and stop the cravings.

Now, I would love to hear from you.

Have you experienced uncontrollable cravings for sugar and refined foods?

How has it affected your life?

Have you blamed yourself for your behavior?

Do you think we should change food policy to protect children from marketing of foods proven to be addictive?

To your good health,
Mark Hyman, MD

Mark Hyman MD is the Medical Director at Cleveland Clinic’s Center for Functional Medicine, the Founder of The UltraWellness Center, and a ten-time #1 New York Times Bestselling author.

Comments (32)

  • Dr. Hyman, intellectually I’m completely on board with what you’re saying. My body, however, is something entirely different. It’s generally easy to stay away from pastry type sweets and sugars. My problem is potatoes.

    I can’t have wheat because I’m allergic. Most cereals are out. I tend to have eggs for breakfast, but if I just have eggs, I don’t usually feel full. Therefore, I make my eggs (over easy) and put them on top of potatoes. This is around 7:00 a.m. I leave the house around 7:30. I’m usually occupied with students right through until 4:30 p.m.

    I try to feel full enough to keep me going all day. Needless to say, I’m not losing weight, even though I need to. Badly.

    • Nine months ago I went to a new doctor who recommended not eating grains. Because I’d been veganish for awhile the only number that was sort of high was the triglycerides , and within 30 days the number dropped well within the normal range. The most important part of your article is the statement about white and whole wheat flour spiking more than sugar. Plus, now I have no use for jams, and margarine lasts forever, what with no bread or crackers to eat. Avoiding processed foods and cooking your own soups and sauces is worth the trouble- Prego is not all that delicious in the first place. The trick is to buy higher quality canned tomatoes, nice fresh onions and peppers, etc. and no-salt vegetable bouillon. Salt dulls taste buds so you eat more because you taste less, and makes you add sugar to balance the salt.

      • Good suggestions! My nutritionist told me to eliminate wheat and wheat products and I dropped 8 pounds in 3 weeks after not losing an ounce in years. I had only been gaining.
        It’s not that hard to have control of “no wheat” in your own home, but it does take some self-discipline in social situations. Sometimes, you just bring your own food to a party to be sure that you have enough fresh salad, veggie sides, or fresh fruit to keep you happy.
        Your friends will understand. And when you see others indulging in breads, pasta, and ice cream, just think that they are addicted to those evils and YOU ARE NOT GOING TO GO THERE!!!

    • Sometimes I have eggs with a healthy serving of braised greens — spinach is the best — sauteed in olive or coconut oil with onions, garlic, maybe fresh herbs. I find it filling and substantial, though I admit I don’t know if it would keep me going until 4:30pm. I suspect it isn’t good for blood sugar to go so long without eating.

      Hope this helps — good luck and keeping experimenting.

    • What Dr Hyman has not discussed is that when you combine foods with fat and protein with high glycemic other foods like potatoes, the total glycemic load changes. You could experiment with substituting other veggies for white potatoes, and see how you feel.

    • A lot of people sub cauliflower for potatoes. It’s not quite the same to me, but still pretty good (I make what I call a ‘scrambled quiche’ where I fix the cauliflower & then add it to eggs & bacon bits – even my kids like it though I have to really mash it up for my picky ones).

      Perhaps you could also snack on a few nuts inbetween students to help keep your blood sugar steady? If you don’t get carried away with the quantity, it shouldn’t affect your weight.

    • Lara:
      I’m not a DR, but have done copious reading and experimenting with my own diet. If you’re limited to non-wheat products, try some starch alternatives to white potatoes. Sweet potatoes are certainly an option, but unlikely for breakfast. Grains like quinoa are packed full of protein and fiber to satisfy your “fullness factor”. Protein shakes with fruit are a great substitute for eggs as breakfast.

      And you really DO need to eat every 3-4 hours. Especially if you’re busy with students… you have an outstanding opportunity to be a role model – bring a couple of apples along with you and a handful of almonds to snack on midday. Like you, I leave the house by 7:30, but before that, I make myself and my 2 kids the food that will keep us through the day.

      • One more comment – consider looking up Potatoes not Prozac and Your Last Diet. Kathleen deMaison has done some great work in the area of breaking sugar addiction.

    • Hi Laura,

      Like you, I am sensitive to wheat and I’ve actually given up all grains – and also sugar / all things white. I also found giving up legumes helped me.

      Instead of white potatoes, I now eat baked sweet potato/yam because it has a much lower glycemic index. The other thing that has helped me to lose weight is eating 9 cups of vegetables (no fruit) per day. I’ve lost 24 lbs in 13 weeks – but still got a long way to go. Good luck!

      • I may not like to eat all vegetables & no fruits. I eat some vegetables and some fruits. I eat some fruits sometimes at breakfast, and at lunch. I may (once in a while) have fruits at dinner, when my Mom prepares it too, and for vegetables I had salad, but several kinds of dressing stuff with/in it.

  • I think a big reason why people have a hard time believing that sugar is addictive is because we don’t see people engaging in extreme behavior to get their sugar fix. While a drug addict may sell his car or risk his job to obtain more drugs, you don’t hear someone doing that for sugar. I’m not questioning these studies. From my own experience, I definitely feel a loss of control when it comes to sugar. What would be really interesting, however, is how consumer behavior would change is the price of sugary foods increased dramatically. Imagine going to the vending machine at work and discovering that the price of a candy bar was $5 instead of 85 cents. I love candy, but I think the biggest reason I can’t resist my cravings is because it’s so cheap.

    It’s interesting to see how dangerous substances like alcohol and tobacco are regulated, but sugar is not. At a minimum, I do think there should be a tax on junk food, if for no other reason than to help pay for health care costs associated with consumption of sugary foods.

    As for my own addiction, I’ve found that I have to remove temptations. I keep no sugary foods in my home because I know I’ll finish it in one sitting. Yesterday, I did my grocery shopping and bought a bag of candy thinking I’d be able to eat a few per day. I finished the bag by dinnertime. It may not be as extreme as drug addiction, but I definitely feel like I’m not in control.

    • Being a “sugaraholic” isn’t all that much different than being an alcoholic from what I understand about the chemical models of sugar and alcohol. There is only 1 O-H group difference in the chemical structure of those molecules.

  • I listened to your interview w/Sara Gottfried and was shocked to hear the story of Jamie Oliver being rushed out of the White House b/c the FDA didn’t want his message to be delivered…
    so sad that our First Lady caved-into their pressure.
    Anyway, thank you for continuing to raise awareness and help people understand these issues better.

  • Thanks for your excellent work and this great article.

    I am someone who for awhile 20 years ago drank too much wine. When I stopped what I discovered was that it was most probably the sugar addiction that led to too much wine. As I understand the process wine turns into sugar pretty fast in your liver.

    There is one other issue I would like to see someone address about sugar addiction … whether candida overgrowth in the gut that migrates through the gut walls and becomes systemic, can also be a cause of sugar cravings. The bacteria requires sugar. So alcohol and cocaine too healers look for ‘systemic candida’ as part of the addiction.

  • I love your article and all the details you provide about this very important issue. Thank you for the great work you do. I have struggled with food, and particularly sugar addiction, my whole life. I believe it began as I was a child and given too many sugar and nutritionally empty foods. Although I try to manage my sugar cravings, I continue to find there’s no middle ground. If I eat foods with sugar–even chocolate with healthier sugar or that’s supposedly low glycemic– I invariably overeat it over time. I am happiest when I avoid all sugar (after I go through the withdrawal:-)) But it’s so easy to slip back with temptations all around us.
    What’s really sad to me is that I have a son with severe ADHD and though I tried to avoid unhealthy foods when he was little, my mother insisted on sneaking him sweets. Now, through grandparents, his father and schools, my son is addicted In-and-Out Burger, bisquick pancakes, chicken nuggets and french fries. We can only protect our children to a point – and then things become unmanageable until there is greater societal awareness. I’m going to forward your article to my mom, but old habits die hard, and some people don’t want to have their eyes opened.

  • Thank you for this excellent article. Having been a pastry chef for about 17 years I was completely addicted to sugar. Once I had my first bite of even a raspberry, my control was gone for the rest of the day. My emotions were all over the place–actually I thought I might be going crazy.

    Fortunately, I went to a retreat for an entire summer where we ate beautiful foods from the garden. I was being so nurtured on so many other levels I didn’t realize until after I returned home that the summer was virtually sugar-free. I did more research on sugar and stopped using refined white sugar and teaching others to do the same. At the time (20 years ago) I knew nothing about the effects of even whole grain flours).

    I can still go overboard with sweets so I don’t keep them in the house. And only prepare something sweet for special occasions where others are present to share it.

    Everything in moderation is fine to say. But once you become addicted to sugar, there is no such thing as moderation.

  • Dr Hyman your discussion of the research is very interesting. It does make me wonder though, those “trick milkshakes” tasted sweet. So this study, unfortunately did not test whether sugar free, low GI but sweet tasting foods are also triggering this addiction response, or the degree to which they influence insulin metabolism.

  • yes, I am a person with a sugar addiction. —
    I’m 61 years old -thin —
    but truth is —I have TONS of suffering (which NO doctor –NO diet — No person — NO book — NO nothing has been able to help me with yet —
    and I’m getting pretty frustrated.
    I follow the websites –(Mark Hyman, Frank Lipman, JJ Virgin, Gary Null, Dean Ornish, Julie Morris, Tana & Daniel Amen, Mark Bittman, Joel Axe, Kimberly Snyder, and Dr. Mercola (Dr. Mercola for years)-
    I cook at home -eat clean about 90% of the time —
    no gluten, dairy, eggs, sugar, peanuts, soy, artificial sweetners–
    I eat organic —I’ve been taking good quality supplements for over 30 years –(pure encapsulations for many of them)……..

    and I am STILL suffering —- NONE of this is a perfect science —
    I have not been able to have a bowel movement for YEARS……..(at least 10 years…..maybe longer) —-its a handicap I live with….
    Some days its such a frickin nightmare —- I won’t go to my yoga class -or gym….
    I spend approx. 6 hours (at least) a day in the bathroom trying to ‘eliminate’. I’ve tried ALL the suggestions….
    I’ve paid money to get ‘the suggestions’….
    I take probiotics..
    I’ve tried cleanse diets
    I take digestive enzymes
    fiber supplements -chia seeds –flax seeds… have a vita mix —make a healthy fiber drink each morning etc. —
    I tried Indian herbs —you name it —
    The BEST I can do —is do ALL these healthy things JUST to keep things flowing —-(otherwise –even water gets blocked in my colon) —

    I’m married 34 years –(great guy) —but we can’t be free to just take any real vacation with friends — I’m addicted to taking water enemas —(an if I don’t –I feel worse –sick ad can’t function)…
    I’ve tried to back off……….. I can’t do it —and live a life –with other responsibilities —yoga, gym, house chores, my part time job, —

    I’m up at 3:30am in the bathroom for a couple of hours —
    so I can start my day —
    later when I eat —(I worry –or have to try to time when I will need to get back home with my book/enema bag and bathroom —just to get a frickin release —
    in the meantime I eat organic —and at home –(almost never in a restaurant) —yet some days depression sets in —
    an SOME days —-I have a slight eating disorder to which makes it even more complicated…..(I will get mad —or feel too hungry and each for tons of cereal with coconut milk or almond milk —but binge on it until so full it numbs me to sleep. When I have THOSE days —I am even MORE sick my gut for days……

    sugar….yeah, Its the fight I’ve been working my ASS to GET OFF since college days –not doing well either — (much better today) —
    but at 3 years of age —I had 16 cavities in my baby teeth from eating sooooo much candy and apple juice —
    I could not ‘poop’ as a child either —and was put in a bath tub as a kid –naked at 3 and 4 years of age —-3 times a week —when a nurse came to our house to give me an enema. If I was a good girl –my older sister took me to the corner store to buy candy.

    After my dad died when I was 4 —our house was filled with package food — JUNK….
    I wasn’t fat (but lacking nutrition —only ate sugar foods) —later was a gymnast —but kept getting sick —-very anemic — and didn’t get a period until was 19 —
    I had to teach myself healthy eating…..
    but I STILL have more problems with my poop today than ever!

    an that’s my share!

    elyse walters [email protected]

    • Mostly at times it is very hard for me to control my self alone when around sugar. I’m having difficulties with consuming amounts that are small then go very big at diffrent times during the day while by myself. For a month I was on a fast in my belief if God and I did no sugar which was very hard for me I remember how hard it was the first 2 or so weeks with no sugar it was extremely hard. Then a month without sugar felt amazing until my fast was over and I went back to sugar. And I binged while alone. Honestly it sounds silly but I didn’t really want to eat the food but I ate it any way because my mind kept saying you want it. I ate so many sweets and every time I feel disguisted with myself in the end. And I’ve only ever binged on sweets. I’m a teenager a nod I’ve expirenced it for awhile now but I’m not commitmeting myself to it because I’m scard I’ll haft to make a major life change while none of my mom and dad or family knows right now. But I’m asking is it possible I have a sugar addiction?

  • Dr. Hyman,

    Thank you for including this article on the site. I find that this topic is not only the more ignored for sake of money but also a battle I personally have.

    Basically it is something very real to me and leads me to wish there was some way of just going away to a place completely sugar-free until the delectable demon no longer had a part in my life.

    Thanks again for the article and for all your work.


  • When I go long amounts of time without flour and sugar, and consuming a low carb, moderate protein, and high fat diet, I feel emotionally grounded and am able to meet my daily responsibilities. When I put sugar in my body (like I did last night) after an extended period of abstinence, the next morning (this morning) I feel like I have been beaten by a baseball bat. I never knew how sensitive my system is to sugar, until I reintroduce it. It feels like a hang over, I have to call in sick, I cannot think, I feel like I have drank a fifth of tequila. I am a recovering person, and sometimes I dismiss sugar addiction, but it is extremely tough on the body (physically and mentally).

    Thanks for doing research in the area, and I endorse complete abstinence. The nutritional community has done a grave disservice by suggesting “all things in moderation”–what about cocaine or heroin? Should these substances be used in moderation? Of course not, and yet sugar, flour or rather obesity related illnesses are killing more Americans, and the standard treatment is “all things in moderation”. Keep doing you research, I appreciate it.



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  • I WAS borderline pre-diabetic and WAS taking cholesterol medicine. I am 5’1 and weighed 155-160 pounds. I did not know how to lose the weight. I have 2 friends that joined a program called FA (Food Addicts in Recovery Anonymous). We weigh our food and do not eat flour, sugar or binge foods. I eat lots of vegetables, salad, 4 oz. of protein with every meal, grain and 6 oz. of fruit. I am full and can go for 5 hours until the next meal. It is a 12 step program modeled after AA. In 6 months I lost 35 pounds. I have weighed 125 pounds since February, 2013. I attend 3 meetings a week, have a sponsor, and take advantage of the tools that the program has to offer. It is amazing program and the only one that seems to work for members. It is not advertised which is unfortunate. I was definitely a sugar addict but now I know I do not want to go back. I went from a size 14-16 to a size 8-10.

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