Food and Behaviour Research

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Evidence for sugar addiction: behavioral and neurochemical effects of intermittent, excessive sugar intake

Avena NM, Rada P, Hoebel BG. (2008) Neurosci Biobehav Rev. 32(1): 20-39. Epub 2007 May 18. 

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Abstract:

The experimental question is whether or not sugar can be a substance of abuse and lead to a natural form of addiction.

"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.

This review summarizes evidence of sugar dependence in an animal model. Four components of addiction are analyzed. "Bingeing," "withdrawal," "craving" and "cross-sensitization" are each given operational definitions and demonstrated behaviorally with sugar bingeing as the reinforcer. These behaviors are then related to neurochemical changes in the brain that also occur with addictive drugs. Neural adaptations include changes in dopamine and opioid receptor binding, enkephalin mRNA expression and dopamine and acetylcholine release in the nucleus accumbens.

The evidence supports the hypothesis that under certain circumstances rats can become sugar dependent. This may translate to some human conditions as suggested by the literature on eating disorders and obesity.

FAB RESEARCH COMMENT:

Previous research has already shown that sugar can activate the same brain reward systems as opioids and other drugs of abuse, and that excessive, intermittent sugar consumption leads to a withdrawal syndrome that is indistiguishable from opioid withdrawal. See:

This study provides an excellent review of the now substantial evidence in this area, and also gives careful and systematic consideration to the various terms used to define 'addiction'.

This is important, because it is largely because the concept of addiction so difficult to define that the whole issue of 'food addiction' or 'sugar addiction' is such a controversial one.  The ambiguity and resulting confusion is naturally of huge benefit to the food industry, but extremely damaging to public health.  

For more information on this subject, please see: