Is Sugar a Drug?
Thinking of sugar as a drug is difficult. We connect sugar to birthday parties, holidays, and special occasions. Our children love us when we give them sweet treats and it’s as socially acceptable as caffeine and alcohol. But wait... aren’t caffeine and alcohol drugs?
As a nutritional therapist when I talk about eliminating fast foods most of my clients are in agreement that these items should be reduced or eliminated. But at the first mention of reducing sugar intake, they get defensive. My clients feel edgy, uncomfortable, and quite frankly act as if I am asking them to cut off their left arm!
When I tell them that my intention is not to ruin their life by eliminating their sugar intake completely, but to just reduce it, they are visibly relieved. That is until I tell them what the current American Heart Association recommendations are (read on to find out!). Then, their heads drop, their shoulders fall forward and they get overcome with this defeated look. My clients then inevitably ask me, “Is sugar really that bad?” I had one client ask me the fateful question, "Is sugar a drug?"... and I didn't know quite what to say.
Now, I try not to refer to a food as good or bad per say, and I also try not to completely vilify sugar. After all, the holidays wouldn’t be quite as amazing without it! It would be like a steak without a glass of red wine, or a burger without a beer, or a delicious egg breakfast without coffee. I completely understand that there is a time and place for sugar. Therefore, I have found that analyzing food from a cause and effect perspective (rather than good vs bad) has suited me well. So while sugar is not currently classified as a drug like caffeine, alcohol, and nicotine, I began to delve into the reasons why it very well could be...
Does sugar effect the body like a drug? Does it give us the same high that we may get from other substances? I wondered if that innocent sweet tooth, that craving for something sweet isn’t our body and mind wanting to reach for sugar in the same way a drug addict reaches for cocaine. In order to understand more about the potential for sugar to be classified as a drug I needed to find out what defined a substance as being a drug and hold sugar up to that same criteria with an open mind.
A Drug by Many Definitions
There are many definitions of what defines a substance as a drug. Here are just a few:
- A substance that is used in medicine.
- An illegal and often harmful substance (such as heroin, cocaine, or LSD) that people take for pleasure.
- A habit-forming medicinal or illicit substance, especially a narcotic.
- A medicine or other substance, which has a physiological effect when ingested or otherwise introduced into the body.
In other words, in order for a substance to be classified as a drug it must affect the way your body works. A drug must be able to pass from your body into your brain. Once inside your brain, drugs can change the messages your brain cells are sending to each other and to the rest of your body. They do this by interfering with your brain's own chemical signals; neurotransmitters that transfer signals across synapses. This is what makes you drunk when you drink too much alcohol or jacked up when you consume a lot of coffee.
Now let’s apply these questions to sugar and see where it gets us. Maybe it can help us answer the question once and for all, “Is sugar a drug?”
Is sugar a substance used in medicine?
Technically there have been many placebo pills composed of sugar, but to be fair, there is really no health giving qualities of sugar that the medical community has found useful.
Is sugar illegal?
No, but Paul van der Velpen, head of Amsterdam's health services, is warning people that sugar is a drug, “just like alcohol and tobacco.” He is calling for stronger government action regarding sugar and proposed regulating the amount of sugar allowed in foods [III]. So, even though there are some individuals seeking regulation, sugar is currently legal in the United States.
Do people take it for pleasure?
Absolutely. I wouldn’t be drooling over a piece of chocolate cake if it wasn’t filled with refined sugar, and a cookie is just not a cookie without a dose of the sweet stuff. From a biological perspective our brains are hardwired to seek out pleasure and avoid pain. It is this survival mechanism that makes sure that we do things that are essential for survival, such as eating and having sex. Two very enjoyable things if you ask me. Anyways, anything that stimulates this “reward circuitry” triggers the release of dopamine, a very pleasurable substance that is interpreted by the brain as something that is essential for survival and should be repeated. This drives us to repeat the behavior as essential for survival.
Now, there are many things that are not necessary for life that stimulate our “reward circuits” and trigger the release of dopamine. Certain drugs such as cocaine, meth, and heroine trigger the release of dopamine and give us pleasure. Fatty foods, sugar, and salt also trigger the release of dopamine and are combined by the food industry purposefully because they know this combination is the ultimate dopamine releasing trifecta that can be difficult to resist. Does this mean that fat and salt could also hold potential to be classified as drugs? Say it isn’t so!
Is sugar habit forming?
We know that sugar follows the same pathways in the brain as a habit-forming drug. Brain imaging techniques show similarities between the brains of people who are obese and people who abuse drugs and alcohol. So the potential for sugar to be habit-forming is definitely present. According to Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews, ““Food addiction seems plausible because brain pathways that evolved to respond to natural rewards are also activated by addictive drugs. Sugar is noteworthy as a substance that releases opioids and dopamine and thus might be expected to have addictive potential.”[I]
Does sugar affect the way your body works?
Both human and animal studies have demonstrated that in some brains the consumption of sugar-rich foods or drinks primes the release of euphoric endorphins and dopamine in a manner similar to some drugs of abuse [II].
What Do You Think?
It certainly looks like sugar has some potential to be classified as a drug... what do you think?
Sugar has been called addictive, a toxin, a poison, and other not so nice adjectives. In the recent movie Hungry For Change it was also called a drug. Although I can't help but suppose that if it were classified as a drug not much would change. It would be lumped in with alcohol and coffee and tobacco and I am sure we would still consume it just as much. So, what’s the big deal?
Does it Really Matter?
Many people consume sugar daily, in large amounts. Perhaps the big deal is that we consume way more than the recommended amounts and over-consumption of sugar has been linked to cancer, depression, diabetes, obesity, heart disease, and more.
Now don’t get me wrong, as a woman who enjoys her chocolate cake, I would never suggest eliminating sugar from your diet completely. I mean, seriously, life is much too short not to eat chocolate or tickle your dopamine center from time to time. In fact, I love it when my eyes roll into the back of my head after a bite of something deliciously sweet! However, life is also too short to feel sick and tired all the time. I strongly believe that when you make Good Decisions Most of the Time your body is well equipped to handle the occasional sweet indulgence.
The problem is that most people do not consume sugar occasionally and in my own practice I see people every day who have a very difficult time moving away from sugar's sweet temptation. People want to lose weight, and of the millions of individuals who diet, sometimes three to four times a year unsuccessfully, many of them will admit that sugar is their down fall; their kryptonite. At the same time, it is also their savior that is always there to comfort them in hard times. If these individuals were to answer the question, “Is sugar a drug?”, they would probably say yes.
So, How Much of the Sweet Stuff is Too Much?
In 2009, the American Heart Association (AHA) recommended that we consume no more than 5 percent of our total daily calories from added sugar. To clarify, let’s take the standard 2,000 calorie diet, which is based on calorie information found on food labels. Five percent of this 2,000-calorie diet is 100 calories, which is the equivalent of 25 grams of sugar. According to these recommendations, we should consume no more than 100 calories from sugar sources daily, or no more than 25 grams. One single can of Pepsi contains a whopping 41 grams of sugar! That’s roughly 10 cubes of sugar (not to mention more than 160 calories). An average blueberry muffin contains 28 grams of sugar and 112 calories from sugar. As you can see, one sweet splurge is all it takes to throw you over your allotted amount, yet just enough to keep you addicted.
If the recommendations are to keep sugar intake so low, why do so many people feel safe consuming it in large amounts?
While the debate continues within the scientific community as to whether or not sugar will eventually end up with a warning label alongside cigarettes and alcohol, it would serve us well to look at how much sugar we consume on a daily basis and begin to tit-rate back. Don't you think?
How Do I get Off This Drug?
If you feel that you would like some help drop kicking sugar to the moon check out our 30 Day No Sugar Challenge. It contains shopping lists, daily menu plans, tactics, and support to help you every step of the way.
[I] Avena NM, Rada P, Hoebel BG. "Evidence for sugar addiction: Behavioral and neurochemical effects of intermittent, excessive sugar intake". Neuroscience and Biobehavioral reviews. 2008;32(1):20-39. Web. September. 2016. <http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0149763407000589>.
[II] Fortuna JL1. "Sweet preference, sugar addiction and the familial history of alcohol dependence: shared neural pathways and genes". J Psychoactive Drugs. 2010 Jun;42(2):147-51. Web. September. 2016. <http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20648910>.
[II] Van der Velpen, P. "Sugar, the most dangerous drug of today". GGD GHOR Nederland. 2013. Web. September. 2016. <http://www.ggdghor.nl/nieuws/2013/09/12/suiker-de-gevaarlijkste-drug-van-deze-tijd/>.