How People Discovered the Truth about Sugar

sugar lipsScientists often view anecdotal evidence with suspicion. What happens in laboratories is given more weight than reports from everyday people about things that happen in real life (referred to as “self-reported” evidence, and often taken with a large grain of salt). But perhaps the idea of sugar’s addictiveness was first taken seriously because the anecdotal evidence was so overwhelming. For hundreds of years, the world has contained millions of people who have deliberately given up sugar, with varying degrees of success.

One particular shared experience has generated much of the anecdotal evidence about the addictive properties of sugar: Lent. Many Christians observe the liturgical season of Lent, the 40 days leading up to Easter, when they try to quit something that is very hard to give up. What are the top ten choices for sacrificial deprivation? According to the Twitter Lent Tracker, which counted more than 125,000 responses, the top ten are:

social networking
fast food

Okay, some of the answers are facetious—like giving up school. But as separate entities, chocolate, soda, and sweets are all predominant, along with fast food, which accounts for a lot of gratuitous sugar. Plenty more finds its way into coffee cups. When looked at by genre, food is the overall top category.

Historically, sweets would have been the obvious frill for people to give up, because they did not have a wealth of other choices. Throughout the two millennia since Christianity took hold, most people in most places have experienced not abundance but scarcity. When deciding what to give up for several weeks, they did not have a wide variety of luxuries from which to pick.

This has been especially true for children, who have always had a narrower range of available pleasures than adults. Most kids already did not swear, gamble, or smoke. What else but candy was there for them to give up?

The Science

It turns out, scientific research backs up anecdotes about the difficulty of giving up sugar. Jordan Gaines Lewis explained for The Conversation how the mesolimbic pathway operates.

When we do something pleasurable, a bundle of neurons called the ventral tegmental area uses the neurotransmitter dopamine to signal to a part of the brain called the nucleus accumbens…

Like drugs, sugar spikes dopamine release in the nucleus accumbens. Over the long term, regular sugar consumption actually changes the gene expression and availability of dopamine receptors in both the midbrain and frontal cortex…

Regular sugar consumption also inhibits the action of the dopamine transporter, a protein which pumps dopamine out of the synapse and back into the neuron after firing.

When confronted with sugar, part of the brain shrugs and asks, “What’s not to like?” We can prevail only by making determined use of other brain areas—the ones that think. A large percentage of the world’s inhabitants have come to know, first-hand, the difficulty of living without sugar. This is why so many clamorous, insistent voices can be heard affirming that it is indeed an addictive substance.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “2015 Twitter Lent Tracker,”, 02/15/15
Source: “Here’s what happens to your brain when you give up sugar for Lent,” The, 02/18/15
Image by Jeanny


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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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