Here at Sweet Spot Health, we the principles of Intuitive Eating and non-diet nutrition to help people get it together around food, body image and movement so that they can say a big stuff you to diet BS and develop a sustainable way to care for their health.
Hi! I’m Maddi
founder of sweet spot health
Is Sugar Addiction a Thing? Here’s What the Research Says

The diet industry loves to sound the alarm on various foods, particularly sugar, suggesting it’s as addictive as drugs. But what’s the real story?

Researchers studying rats have found a link between sugar consumption and the risk of weight gain and Type II diabetes (1). 

Typing ‘is sugar addiction real?’ into Google yields over 42 million results in 0.36 seconds. It’s overwhelming and often misleading.

Professionals, academics, and fitness influencers often engage in fear-mongering by comparing sugar addiction to drug and alcohol addiction or the development of chronic illnesses. When it’s not these, it’s making out like you’re a really shitty person for enjoying something sweet.

People can say anything, often using anecdotal evidence to lend ‘truth’ to their claims. It gives big Dr Nick vibes – Simpsons fans you know who you are.

But what does the actual evidence say (like, you know, the credible stuff) – let’s dive in shall we?

Is sugar addiction even a thing?

Food addiction sparks greater conflict in the health space than the debates between vegans and carnivore-diet enthusiasts do.

Both parties think they’re right. Both beliefs are shoved down our throats when given the chance.

Let’s start off with the evidence that particular foods can activate reward transmitters in the brain (2). 

A natural part of being human is to crave and enjoy particular foods. But some believe this can lead to addiction, and these reward centres are activated in the brain in a similar way that alcohol and cigarettes are (3)

There is absolutely nothing wrong with eating something for pleasure (hot cinnamon donuts we are looking at you). However the term ‘food addiction’ has become the poster child for diet culture and the broader dieting industry.

Few scientific reports and case studies in self-help books support the so-called food addiction (4)

Here’s the twist. Calling foods ‘good’ or ‘bad’ might make us obsess over them more. It’s a paradox where the more we try to avoid certain foods, the more we end up wanting them.

Yep, restricting yourself from the foods you enjoy and crave, or bouncing from one yo-yo diet to the next only increases your fixation and the hype about said foods.

Constantly focusing on your next meal and its timing signals you might not be eating enough.

A natural biological response to famine, this situation could signal trouble in your relationship with food.

That’s the thing about being a human, our bodies are constantly trying to keep us alive (annoying right?).

Your natural drive to eat enough does not at all mean you are ‘addicted’ to food. 

You can diminish your food obsession over time by finding peace with your body and fostering a sweeter relationship with food. The longer you restrict, the longer you fixate. 

Sugar and Dopamine: What’s the Real Deal?

Dopamine, a neurotransmitter the body releases, carries messages between the nervous system’s nerve cells (5). 

It is a key part of our brains rewards circuit and has been associated with addictive behaviour due to releasing a pleasurable ‘high’ (6).

Sugar releases short bursts of energy and dopamine into the body (7). Sugar’s release of dopamine into the brain draws comparisons to drug addiction.

However, these studies fail to mention that it’s not only sugar, drugs or alcohol that releases this neurotransmitter. Dopamine is released when you are doing something pleasurable – socialising, dancing, hugging (8).

Siren the alarms, there’s a serial hugger on the loose!

Conveniently, diet culture opts to leave this fact out to further push the narrative that sugar is the same as drug and alcohol addiction. This further demonises the very foods that the diet industry makes a disgusting amount of money helping you ‘quit’.

Those “credible” studies are done on rats, not humans!

To date, one website alone lists over 1,270 studies on sugar addiction. Most of these studies all have one key thing in common – they’ve been performed on rats, not humans.

In a 2007 study of giving rats sugar, researchers noticed behavioural and psychological shifts that mirror the effects of substance abuse (8).

Another study even showed that intermittent sugar consumption has been shown to cause rats to have addictive, out of control behaviours that are akin to binging (9)

However when using these findings to support the whole ‘sugar is the new heroin’ narrative, the diet industry left out one very important element – before these rats were fed sugar, they were fasted for 12 hours. 

This raises the question: Did hunger, not addiction, drive the rats?

Interestingly, when the rats had unlimited access to sugar in a setting that we can only imagine resembles that scene from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (au revoir Augustus Gloop), they did not show addiction-like behaviour. They could take or leave the sugar as they pleased.

In our opinion instead of confirming addiction, this just goes to show the biological drive to crave a food after a period of restriction. It’s how we, as humans, survive and it turns out our little rodent friends are no different. 

Unfortunately, diet culture has clung to these studies and used them as fuel to justify disordered behaviours like cutting out whole food groups – making lots and lots of bank in the process.

Do we even need sugar?

Despite the likes of Sarah Evans (circa. I Quit Sugar era) telling you we don’t need sugar – we very much do.

Before we go on, here’s what you need to know:

  • Carbohydrates turn into sugar
  • Sugar becomes glucose
  • Glucose means energy

We need glucose for our bodies and brains to function. Without it, we wouldn’t survive. This need for glucose is why we crave sugary foods, but craving isn’t the same as addiction.

In no way does craving sugar mean that you are addicted – it simply means you are human.

Our bodies don’t process carbohydrates as ‘good’ and ‘bad’. Metabolism is not that simple. 

Brain function, physical activity, cellular processes – all require lots and lots of sugar. Once glucose is in the body, it travels through the blood and tissues that need energy.

Because glucose is crucial, our bodies store excess glucose as glycogen. Our metabolic processes are regulated by this storage and release of glycogen!

Low glucose and carbohydrate intake put the body at risk for metabolic and physiological complications.

Don’t eliminate sugar or carbs; the real enemy is diet culture.

It’s harmful AF to your relationship with food

Labelling foods as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ contributes nothing to your health. It’s incredibly unhealthy as it promotes disordered thoughts around food.

Now before the wellness gurus come – this is not to recommend you go and consume a diet of only sugar from here on in.

The same as a diet consisting of only cucumbers would be poor for your health, so too is a diet of only sugar.

Having a personal history of sugar restriction in the past, when having access to sugar again, you may develop intense cravings on foods you label ‘bad’.

This is due to your body being deprived of it, and this is a survival response! It would be no different if you banned yourself from broccoli for the year. 

Labelling foods as bad or unhealthy fuels a cycle of shame and guilt after eating and sets the stage for binge eating to occur as well as just feeling really shitty around food overall.

So, this is your daily reminder that all foods fit.

In a balanced, varied and diverse diet, sugar has a very important position and wanting sugar does not mean you are addicted.

There is nothing healthy about restricting, or a disordered relationship with food. 

Summarising the research on sugar addiction

Some of the research (on rats) concludes addictive-like behaviour in sugar consumption. But these findings have never been found substantially in human trials (which is important because you are not Remi and this is not Ratatouille). 

There is little evidence to support sugar addictions in humans.

In rats, bingeing on sugar only occurred when it was restricted in the first place (11). These behaviours were found to likely be a result of this intermittent access – not the addictive effects of sugar (12)

Citing insufficient evidence, these researchers have recommended against including ‘sugar addiction’ in scientific literature and public policy (13). 

In a nutshell, the hysteria behind sugar including the ingrained beliefs that carbohydrates and sugars are ‘bad’ for us all stems from diet culture. The studies performed on rats that support sugar addiction have been used as fuel by the diet industry which has bombarded us with this narrative.

Where to from here?

Eat the cake. Stop fearing bananas because someone on Instagram said they are bad. Enjoy popcorn and lollies at the movies with friends and family. 

Sugar is an essential part of the human experience.

Based on current science, human sugar addiction seems more myth than fact.

A Non-Diet Dietitian can educate you beyond these myths and help debunk this type of misinformation and the team at Sweet Spot Health are just that.

We are passionate about helping you find your sweet spot with food and sky-rocket your physical, mental and emotional health.

So, it you’re ready to ditch the mental acrobatics around food and get it together around food, book in for a free discovery call today.

This blog post was co-written by our student intern Tara Finn. Tara is a 21 year old student, studying Nutrition and Dietetics (Honours). Having battled with an eating disorder for the majority of her life, she understands the complexity behind why the behaviours manifest and has learnt skills to overcome them. Tara is firmly in recovery and is passionate about helping others find their sweet spot with food. Learn more about Tara here.


A person holding a colorful sprinkled donut, highlighting the theme of sugar addiction as discussed in the blog post.
Here at Sweet Spot Health, we the principles of Intuitive Eating and non-diet nutrition to help people get it together around food, body image and movement so that they can say a big stuff you to diet BS and develop a sustainable way to care for their health.
Hi! I’m Maddi
sweet spot health founder