Sugar’s Addictive Grip

skull sugar cubes

Food can be addictive, and especially sugar. Over the years, many brave medical professionals fought the tide of prevailing opinion and asserted the addictiveness of food, especially sugar. And their number has been growing over the years. Childhood Obesity News has mentioned Dr. Theron Randolph, co-founder of the American Academy of Environmental Medicine. His study of cravings led to the conclusion that addiction is addiction, across the board, whether the substance is alcohol, nicotine, cocaine, or sugar.

Dr. Douglas Hunt found an experimental subject close at hand — himself. A medical doctor and a psychiatrist, he realized that his love for chocolate was not only inappropriate but constituted an extremely powerful force against which he was helpless. Just like an addict. And it wasn’t only chocolate. Dr. Hunt, author of No More Cravings, realized that he was also a slave to sugar-sweetened beverages.

Dr. Mark Hyman studied recovering alcoholics and made the dismaying discovery that they tend to make a lateral move to another addiction, often sugar. Laboratory research found that a drug called naltrexone, which is used to treat addiction, works the same way against sugar because it blocks the body’s ability to appreciate opiates. In other words, the narcotic effect of the substance is taken away, whether it be heroin or sugar. If an anti-addiction drug is effective to quell sugar cravings, by reasoning backward, it’s easy to accept the idea that sugar is addictive.

In Breaking the Food Seduction, Dr. Neal Barnard noted that the staffs of neonatal nurseries have known about this for years. A baby who needs a “heel stick” to get a blood sample can be doped up with sugar:

As sugar touches the tongue, the taste buds send a nerve impulse to the brain, causing opiates to be released. In turn, these opiates trigger the release of dopamine, the brain’s ultimate pleasure chemical.

It’s the earliest, simplest form of pain medication, and shows that sugar meets the definition of “gateway drug.” It’s the first substance a baby encounters that alleviates discomfort and causes bliss. Dr. Pretlow has written about the unnecessarily sugary baby formulas.

And, of course, there were the Princeton University researchers who found that rat brains looked pretty much the same, whether responding to heroin or sugar. Dr. Frank Lipman wrote about the French study where the rats were more attached to sugar than to cocaine. He connects the emotional level with the sheer chemical level:

For most of us, sugar is a symbol of love and nurturance. 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.

Jennifer Walker, a civilian intent on reclaiming her health, elaborated on that same study:

They used saccharin instead of plain sugar so that the calorie intake would not be a factor in their study. 94% of the rats chose the saccharin and in rats previously addicted to cocaine, they changed their addiction over to the saccharin. They concluded that the saccharin could replace the reward the addicted rats sought from cocaine. I find that absolutely incredible! No wonder there are so many North Americans […] wandering around obese and unhappy.

Let’s put that another way. Just like recovering alcoholics who tend to shed one addiction only to pick up another, the rats who had previously been cocaine addicts changed over to sugar — and they didn’t even go to any 12-step meetings!

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Are You A Sugar Addict?,”, 02/15/09
Source: “Getting out of the Rat Race: Sugar Addiction,” Year of the Detox, 05/06/12
Image by Cy-v (Samantha).

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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.

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