The Gateway Drug: Sugar, Part 1

I have always found it strange that the medical profession does not recognize this problem. I would say the majority of my patients are sugar addicts too, although most only become aware of it when they try to stop it.

Those are the words of Frank Lipman, M.D., who confesses to being a sugar addict, and a still-struggling one at that. He quotes a Princeton University study led by Professor Bart Hoebel, meant to establish just how closely the love affair between rats and sugar resembles addiction in humans. Dr. Lipman says,

Their most recent experiment showed craving and relapse as well, critical components of addiction, to complete the picture. In other words, excess sugar leads to not only bingeing and withdrawal but a craving for sweets as well.

And get this. A French study demonstrated that rats would rather drink sugar water than shoot up cocaine. Really! The author emphasizes the point:

When the rats were offered larger doses of cocaine, it did not alter their preference for the saccharin or sugar water. In other words, intense sweetness was more rewarding to the brain than cocaine.

And then Dr. Lipman goes on to say,

As infants, our first food is lactose, or milk sugar. As we leave the breast of our mothers, they continue to ‘nurture’ us with sugar treats, which become a reward system. This leads to being conditioned to need something sweet to feel complete or satisfied. Sugar is the first addiction for almost everyone with addictions later in life.

Yes, somebody came right out and said it: “Sugar is the first addiction for almost everyone with addictions later in life.” How early it starts! Here’s a piece called “Sugar Water for Babies” from a pediatrician named Dr. Reynolds, recommending sugar water for everything from hiccups (it works; voice of experience) to the pain and distress of circumcision:

This site is dedicated to understanding the role of sugar water for the treatment of pain, anxiety, and other unpleasant things that newborns must endure.

The best thing that can be said about this is, it’s probably better than giving babies morphine. Nobody wants babies to suffer, although herbalists would probably vote for some kind of infusion that alleviates pain but does not add calories or rot teeth.

The worst thing that can be said of the sugar-water treatment modality is, it enables the latent tendency of humans to become addicted. The individual gets accustomed to the idea that the answer to “pain, anxiety, and other unpleasant things” is a substance. This is how alcoholics and junkies are made.

A baby has no choice over what is done to it or what it is fed. A child, a teenager, and especially an adult, needs to find and evoke from within oneself other ways of dealing with pain, anxiety, and general unpleasantness, ways that do not involve substance abuse. Tragically, many are never able to make that transition.

In “Food Supplements and Childhood Obesity,” Dr. Pretlow discusses PediaSure, a formula for infants and toddlers, and notes the strong possibility that such supplements could predispose children to food addiction. He mentions one of the concerns of addiction medicine:

Supposedly, a gateway drug opens a door to the use of ‘harder’ drugs. The controversy over gateway drugs will not be settled any time soon, but if childhood obesity is a concern, we might stop to wonder: If there is such a thing as a gateway drug to food addiction, what might that substance be?

The Encyclopedia of Public Health says this about the Gateway Drug Theory:

The theory suggests that, all other things being equal, an adolescent who uses any one drug is more likely to use another drug. In practice, early introduction to substance use for adolescents is often through tobacco and/or alcohol. These two drugs are considered the first ‘gate’ for most adolescents.

Minds may have to change about that. Supposedly, a gateway drug opens a door to the use of “harder” drugs, and the whole discussion can get complicated, because someone will bring up the logical fallacy known in Latin as post hoc ergo propter hoc. In other words, “after this, therefore because of this.” It is an illogical way of thinking, as philosophers have explained for thousands of years. The renowned rhetorician George Carlin said, “Mother’s milk leads to everything” (emphasis ours).

Well, of course it does, in the sense of being the earliest stimulus, the one that comes before anything else in the timeline. Human breast milk is about 10% sugar, and about 50% of its calories are in that sugar. Formula is full of sugar, too. New research shows that mother’s milk and formula may both, in the most literal sense, lead to all other addictions. Maybe we need to accept the obvious: the fabled Gateway Drug is actually neither tobacco nor alcohol, but sugar.

(To be continued…)

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Are You A Sugar Addict?,”, 02/15/10
Source: “Sugar Water for Babies,”
Source: “Gateway Drug Theory,”
Image by woodleywonderworks, used under its Creative Commons license.

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OVERWEIGHT: What Kids Say explores the obesity problem from the often-overlooked perspective of children struggling with being overweight.

About Dr. Robert A. Pretlow

Dr. Robert A. Pretlow is a pediatrician and childhood obesity specialist. He has been researching and spreading awareness on the childhood obesity epidemic in the US for more than a decade.
You can contact Dr. Pretlow at:


Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the American Society of Animal Science 2020 Conference
What’s Causing Obesity in Companion Animals and What Can We Do About It

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the World Obesity Federation 2019 Conference:
Food/Eating Addiction and the Displacement Mechanism

Dr. Pretlow’s Multi-Center Clinical Trial Kick-off Speech 2018:
Obesity: Tackling the Root Cause

Dr. Pretlow’s 2017 Workshop on
Treatment of Obesity Using the Addiction Model

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation for
TEC and UNC 2016

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the 2015 Obesity Summit in London, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s invited keynote at the 2014 European Childhood Obesity Group Congress in Salzburg, Austria.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2013 European Congress on Obesity in Liverpool, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2011 International Conference on Childhood Obesity in Lisbon, Portugal.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2010 Uniting Against Childhood Obesity Conference in Houston, TX.

Food & Health Resources