A box of Oreos in the office is a dangerous thing. Ever sworn to yourself that you would eat just one but look down half an hour later to find your desk covered in crumbs? As it turns out, binging on cookies and other sugary foods may not just be a matter of weak willpower – it might be an addiction.
As LiveScience explained, the concept of sugar addiction stems from a study conducted by students at Connecticut College that put rats in a maze that led to two different rewards. In the first trial, one path led to Oreos and the other to plain rice cakes, and the students timed how long the rats spent with each reward. They then timed the rats in another maze that led to either a cocaine injection or a saline injection. The study found that the rats spent an equal amount of time on the Oreo side of the rice cake maze as they did on the cocaine side of the saline maze.
Many people were quick to point to the study as evidence that sugar is as addicting as drugs and other vices, and that addiction to the sweet stuff does indeed exist. Other studies have reached similar results, for example one published in the journal PLOS ONE that asserted that intense sweetness can be more rewarding than cocaine.
Cookies: Science shows they really are irresistible.
However, not everyone in the scientific community is convinced that sugar addiction is real. The psychological and physiological mechanics of addiction are incredibly complicated, with some scientists arguing that these and similar studies just prove that sugar makes people feel good, and not that binging on it represents an actual addiction.
“We are biologically wired to respond to certain tastes, textures and colors, but that doesn’t mean it’s an addiction,” said Gabriel Harris, assistant professor of food science at North Carolina State University, in an interview with LiveScience.
An addicting cycle
Others are convinced there’s something more going on. An article on Cheat Sheet pointed to the fact that sugar causes a rush of dopamine in the brain, which is a chemical that causes strong feelings of pleasure much like the highs you would get from gazing into a loved one’s eyes or gambling. According to the article, sugar rewires the pleasure-seeking pathways of the brain much like hard drugs do, in turn causing a sugar dependency. And when you’re cut off from sugar, you experience major withdrawal symptoms similar to the ones drug addicts feel. Cheat Sheet cited a study by Princeton that found that sugar withdrawal in rats causes anxiety, tremors and behavioral depression, among other side effects.
Furthermore, the PLOS study traced sugar addiction back to evolution. Early humans followed diets low in sugar, and consequently they did not develop sweet receptors that were well-adapted to diets high in sugar. The paper argues that “The supranormal stimulation of these receptors by sugar-rich diets, such as those now widely available in modern societies, would generate a supranormal reward signal in the brain, with the potential to override self-control mechanisms and thus to lead to addiction.”
Whether sugar addiction is real or not, it’s a good idea to reduce your daily sugar intake to support your overall health.