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Sugar addiction ‘should be treated as a form of drug abuse’

Sugar addiction ‘should be treated as a form of drug abuse’


Withdrawal from chronic sugar consumption would be similar to going ‘cold turkey’ from drugs, say Australian scientists

Chronic exposure to sucrose can cause eating disorders and change the behaviour of individuals FRANCOIS NASCIMBENI/AFP/Getty Images

It is widely thought to affect the brain in a similar way to cocaine, and now a new study has suggested people addicted to sugar should be treated in the same way as other drug abusers.

According to researchers from Queensland University ofTechnology (QUT), excessive sugar consumption increases the dopamine levels in a similar way to other drugs such as cocaine.

The study found that long-term consumption of sugar will eventually cause a reduction in dopamine levels. That means, they say, people need to consume higher and higher levels of sugar in order;to reach the same reward levels and avoid mild states of depression.

The researchers also found in a separate study that chronic exposure to sucrose can cause eating disorders and change the behaviour of individuals.

Professor Selena Bartlett, a neuroscientist from the university’s Institute of Health and Biomedical Innovation, says the research indicates that drugs used to treat nicotine addiction could be used to treat addiction to sugar.


  •  “Excess sugar consumption has been proven to contribute directly to weight gain,” she said. It has also been shown to repeatedly elevate dopamine levels which control the brain’s reward and pleas pleasure centers in a way that is similar to many drugs of abuse including tobacco, cocaine
  • cocaine and morphine.

“We have also found that as well as an increased risk of weight gain, animals that maintain high sugar consumption and binge eating into adulthood may also face neurological and psychiatric consequences affecting mood and motivation.”

The amounts of sugar in food and drink

Professor Bartlett added: “Our study found that Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved drugs like varenicline, a prescription medication trading as Champix which treats nicotine addiction, can work the same way when it comes to sugar cravings.”

“Like other drugs of abuse, withdrawal from chronic sucrose exposure can result in an imbalance in dopamine levels and be as difficult as going ‘cold turkey’ from them.”

The findings are at odds to previous research such as a 2014 Edinburgh University study which stated sugar addiction was not a biochemical dependency but a psychological one similar to gambling.

Scientists, writing in the Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews, said they could find no evidence that people could become addicted to substances in foods.

Dr John Menzies, research fellow in Edinburgh University’s centre for integrative physiology, told the BBC: “People try to find rational explanations for being over-weight and it is easy to blame food.

“More avenues for treatment may open up if we think about this condition as a behavioural addiction rather than a substance-based addiction.”

However, in 2015, Dr James DiNicolantonio published a review into the dangers of sugar, telling told Here & Now: “When you look at animal studies comparing sugar to cocaine, even when you get the rats hooked on IV cocaine, once you introduce sugar, almost all of them switch to the sugar.”