Now sugar is ‘addictive’

The current ‘debate’ about sugar and health descended into farce last Sunday night with the broadcast of a 60 Minutes program in which it was suggested that sugar ‘is as addictive as the hardest drugs’.

The argument behind this claim rests on the supposedly similar responses in the brain to sugar and cocaine. The brain contains a reward centre that is designed encourage survival behaviours, such as eating and sex. If these things were not pleasurable humans would not eat or reproduce and the species would disappear. Foods, sugar, fat and especially the combination of sugar and fat trigger this reward centre, and so does cocaine. So, with a huge leap of faith and imagination, sugar equals cocaine.

An American neuropsychologist on the program claimed that … sugar kills way more people than any psychoactive drug – an absurd claim that simply cannot be supported scientifically. I have never seen any credible scientific study that attempted to associate sugar intake with increased risk of death. Scientists have gone to great lengths to investigate the role of dietary factors in preventable disease but sugar intake simply does not feature in their calculations. In susceptible people, the risk for tooth decay may increase with the consumption of carbohydrates i.e. added sugars, natural sugars in fruits and even breast milk, and starch. But that’s it – that’s the health risk posed by sugar. Eating sugar does not kill people.

The 60 Minutes program featured an overweight woman who reportedly lost weight when she gave up sugar. She admitted to previously binge eating and eating large amounts of ice cream and chocolate. But giving up these foods hardly amounts to giving up sugar. Any dietitian will tell you that the majority of calories in ice cream and chocolate does not come from sugar. This woman lowered her calorie intake and that is why she lost weight. In fact, lowering calorie intake below the body’s requirements is the only way to lose weight.

The neuropsychologist’s claim that sugar is addictive reminds me of a quote from George Orwell: One has to belong to the intelligentsia to believe things like that: no ordinary man would be such a fool.

 Image: source



19 thoughts on “Now sugar is ‘addictive’

  1. Hi Bill,

    The 60 minutes piece was a tragic comedy. The best (worst) bit was that they fed the woman coca cola – not pure sugar. Coke is of course full of caffeine…I wonder if that might be addictive…mmm…I wonder if it might have in some way influenced the results….Doh…if they had some incling of what they were doing (or weren’t just interested in sensationalising the issue) they would have fed her a cup ful of pure sugar. Also, they should have given her on a seperate occasion a piece of white bread. I think that the pure sugar versus white bread scans would have been identical and vastly different from the coca cola scan…bad science, that’s all that fructophobia is…

  2. Fructophobia, do you work for CSR? what does it matter to you if the world comes to believe that sugar is harmful, addictive and can attribute to death, God forbid if people with weight and health problems take the sweet stuff out of their diet, and if it means less calories eaten, isn’t that a good thing? what is your point? so your not addicted to sugar, good for you, you probably don’t have diabetes either or any other health issues, recently there has been a lot of people that have put the theory to the test and have had positive results, is there a scientist that can show us how cutting sugar out of our diet has had a negative effect? The food industry may have to rethink their products and stop filling them with sugar , salt and fat, these 3 things in excess will kill you! start reading the labels on the products you normally buy and you will be surprised at how much Sugar is in the food especially the 98% fat free foods. People trying to get healthier is a Good Thing!

    • My point is that telling people that sugar is as addictive as cocaine is misleading and deceptive. It’s just not true. If you read my previous blogs you will notice that I don’t recommend that people eat more carbohydrate in general or more sugar in particular. I advocate they eat less.
      The core issue is that carbohydrates are a greater risk to health than previously thought – posing similar risk for coronary heart disease to saturated fat. There is an urgent need to work out what represents ‘good’ and ‘bad’ carbohydrate and to cut back on the ‘bad’ carbohydrate. But the sugar content of a food is a poor measure of its nutritional quality. Some foods containing sugar are rich in nutrients; some are poor in nutrients. Some foods containing sugar have high GIs; some have low GIs. Some foods containing sugar are high in fibre; some are low in fibre. Therefore advice to just give up sugar could result in people cutting out foods that are high in essential nutrients and fibre, and low in GI. In other words, they would be cutting nutritious foods from their diet.
      For most of us, cutting some calories out of the diet would be a good thing. If these calories are from nutrient-poor, low fibre, high GI, carbohydrate-rich foods and beverages there will be benefit, irrespective of whether the carbohydrate is in the form of sugar or starch. Regards, Bill

      • Now this is quality. I wish this very reply had featured in the above post! I will be brave enough to suggest that the initial post is a little sensationalist and emotive itself. Skepticism relies heavily on objective and factual tendencies – much more like the response I’m giving kudos to.
        Agree that: sugar kills way more people than any psychoactive drug – an absurd claim that simply cannot be supported scientifically.
        Disagree: Eating sugar does not kill people. Mainly on the basis that most broad generalisations and sweeping statements do, frankly, suck the big one. People who have lost loved ones due to obesity related illness or type II diabetes might disagree more strongly than I will. I’ll just put forth that this statement is sensationalist.
        Black and white is rarely right. The truth will be somewhere in the grey area. I think it might be located somewhere near “balance”.
        Nutritional value. This is where the gold stuff is.

        • Hello Eliza and Deb. Thanks for your contribution. On the issue of ‘sugar kills’ we need to be careful not to make assumptions i.e. people eat sugar, therefore they get fat, therefore they develop type 2 diabetes. There are hardly any studies that link the consumption of sugar in solid foods to increased risk for obesity (though there are some studies showing that sugar-sweetened beverages pose a risk).

          Calorie-for-calorie sugar is no more fattening than starch, fat, protein or alcohol. Obesity only develops when total calorie intake exceeds requirements, so it’s not good science to say it was the sugar calories that did it (or to blame the fat calories as was done in the past). It’s the total calorie intake that matters. And the degree of obesity determines the type 2 diabetes risk, not the amount of sugar in the diet.

          I hope you read my recent blog ‘Do calorie-rich foods make you fat’? The Harvard researchers insight was important: ‘Several dietary metrics that are currently emphasised, such as fat content, energy density and added sugars, would not have reliably identified the dietary factors that we found to be associated with long-term weight gain’. Obesity prevention strategies over the last 20 years have mostly failed and one of the reasons is that the experts have been pulling the wrong levers.

          I think nutrient density is a much better measure of the quality of a carbohydrate-rich food than its sugar content. This approach bumps soft drinks (and many other poor quality foods) out of my recommendations for a healthy diet.

          If you want to use sugar content as a measure of carbohydrate quality, you have to have a sound basis for doing so and, importantly, you have to apply it universally. Are you happy to assess fruit negatively on the basis of its sugar content? Regards, Bill

          • Hi Bill,

            I’m not sure I am the Eliza you are referring to but just in case :)

            I have to say I do disagree with the basic sentiment of viewing foods as their macronutrient profile or caloric value in general, as food is so much more complex and beautiful than this. I would never exclude a high calorie food if it was nutrient dense, and would rarely consume a low calorie option if it was nutrient poor. I don’t count calories and I believe being on calorie restricted diets can damage the metabolism in the long-term. I believe in eating whole foods with plenty of fat (yes, even the maligned saturated fat if from good quality, grass-fed sources), protein and natural carbohydrates. I believe fruit absolutely has a place in the diet and have no problem with natural, unrefined carbohydrates and sugars. We are all biochemically individual, but I personally thrive with minimal grains in my diet and more meats and vegetables, I know others who thrive with lots of grains though and less animal products though. Using whole, unrefined foods as a base and experimenting with your own personal thresholds is really the only way.

            My issue is with refined sugar and other refined, industrialised foods that wreak havoc on the balance of our body as a whole and do not provide us with any sustenance whatsoever.

          • Hi Eliza. Your thoughts and mine are closer than you might think. But you are putting a very black and white case whereas I’m a pragmatist.

            What do you think about a yoghurt that has a little added sugar to increase its palatability for children? It’s not going to ‘wreak havoc’ and it’s still full of sustenance. And now a child may actually eat it rather than something less desirable. Is sweetened yoghurt a bad food? Regards, Bill

    • Typical Julian, doesn’t have the scientific literacy to debate a topic so goes for the ad hominem. Unfortunately, like David Gillespie, you then leave the discussion thinking that ‘poisoning the well’ debunks everything the person has to say (and you claim to be a science teacher, your poor students!) instead of then discussing the evidence. Those tactics aren’t even allowed in a court of law!
      You believe in Climate Change (rightly so in my opinion), what do you say when deniers claim that scientists shouldn’t be listened to because the just want more research to be done, so it is a conflict of interest?
      Your comments are as ridiculous as your double standards for evidence!

  3. The irony of the story was the types of foods that contain sugar that the lady had on her table. She didn’t eliminate all sugar and yet she got results – going against the whole premise of the ridiculous story!
    The Q & A section of this sugar symposium has some interesting comments, one particularly about cocaine and addiction (similar to what you alluded to above) as well as showing how much worse Lustig doesn’t when being questioned by his peers vs a youtube video!
    Any real study would have compared sucrose, glucose, artificial sweeteners and a slow digesting carb to see what the effect really was (carbs, sweetness, energy etc) – maybe also with other calorie containing foods (as you’ve suggested!). 60 Minutes has just become A Current Affair on Sunday night!

  4. Hi Bill,
    with respect I think you missed the point of Wendee’s comment, she is making an informed decision to identify the food she’s eating that is loaded with sugar, even food she considered healthy, basically she means fructose etc, I think you can substitute the sugar in the diet and still have nutritional value. But to me the “whole” point is why cant the food manufacturers make healthy food with less sugar or use a healthier substitute. Dont forget our forefathers didnt have the obesity problems we do and didnt have processed food, I was just saying

  5. I agree with Julian, you have lost all credibility here, and all that mumbo jumbo you are going on about people losing important nutrients by cutting out sugar is rubbish! you can still eat good carbs get plenty of fiber, and actually be healthier cutting the added sugar out of your diet, it is a shame though, for you that your client “Kelloggs” doesn’t have any products that are actually low in sugar.
    So how can you as a “nutritionist/dietitian” say that by cutting out sugar you are cutting out nutrients, so far I have not heard one person say what sugar is good for?

    • Wendee, I encourage you to read more deeply on this issue.

      One of the few concerns about the amount of sugar in our diet is ‘nutrient dilution’. For example, if one is eating a healthy, nutrient-rich diet and then replace some of these calories with soft drink (no nutrients), the total amount of calories in the diet may remain the same but it contains fewer nutrients, hence nutrient dilution. This would be a real problem for people with low nutrient intakes to start with.

      But sugar intake is NOT consistently associated with nutrient dilution in modern western diets. Here is an extract from The European Food Safety Authority report on sugar and health (2010):

      “A systematic review of 15 cross-sectional studies comprising children and adults shows that there are insufficient and conflicting data with respect to the relation between intake of added sugars and nutrient density, with no clear evidence of micronutrient dilution or a threshold for a quantitative amount of added sugar intake for any of the micronutrients … The association between added sugar intake and micronutrient density of the diet is mainly dependent on the intake patterns of the food groups from which added sugars in the diet are derived … The available data are not sufficient to set an upper limit for (added) sugar intake.”

      The key point is that nutrient density is ‘mainly dependent on the intake patterns of the food groups’. If the sugar in a diet comes from soft drink, nutrient dilution occurs. But if the sugar in a diet is coming from a nutrient-rich beverage like chocolate milk the outcome is nutrient enrichment of the diet. Chocolate milk was removed from sale in some schools in the United States by people concerned about its sugar content. But the kids’ diets got worse as a result and the move was reversed.

      The sugar content of a food is a poor measure of its nutritional quality. We would be much better off forgetting about sugar and focussing on the nutrient density of foods.
      Regards, Bill

  6. I’m not sure what Lustig says about sugar and addicition in the lay press, but at a science conference on April 22 of this year he didn;t support the 60 Minutes ‘findings’.

    Lustig starts talking about addiction at around 16 mins, talking about food addiction generally then moving onto rat data and specifically sugar/fructose. At about 18mins – Dr Lustig moves to human – “How about humans, well we don’t have any data yet!”

    • Julian, David, Wendee and Andrew
      Thanks for your contributions but I need to outline a few ground rules for this blog. Firstly, at all times, let’s treat each other with respect. This blog is about issues – food, nutrition science and health. It’s not about individuals, where they work, who they vote for, or whether they believe in or deny global warming. If contributors want to attack people I will have to block them, which I don’t want to do.

      Julian, the commercial interest attack is the last resort of people who can’t argue a point scientifically. If you disagree with me, I respect that. But outline your case reasonably and scientifically.

      I have been frank about who my current clients are. They have interests in carbohydrate-rich and fat-rich foods, and previous clients have had interests in protein-rich foods. Together this is called food. My advice to my clients on issues of carbohydrate quality is EXACTLY the same as that I have advanced in this blog.

      Telling manufacturers of bread and cereals that people would be better off eating less carbohydrate is hardly an example of commercial bias. In relation to sugar in cereals, this is a minor issue – the amount of sugar coming from breakfast cereals in the typical Australian child’s diet is just 4% of total sugar intake.
      Regards, Bill

      • Sorry, my bad – brought bad experiences from other sites (similar to other dietitians) with Julian to this one – I’ll do my best ;-)
        The global warming point was only to ask why follow scientific consensus in one area and then use the tactics of the ‘deniers’ in another??

  7. Most things on 60 minutes and the like should be taken with a grain of salt, in my opinion. Weight loss (or gain) is a very complex metabolic process. It does not just simply equal “less or more of X = less or more weight”. It’s tragic how so many people still believe this, and how misinformed they are about what’s actually behind weight loss and/or gain.
    Great article!

  8. It sounds like that 60 Minutes report was pretty flawed, but I don’t think we can expect much better from them to be honest…

    When we leave sensationalised news stories behind and look at the facts, sugar does have a lot to answer for. It is not only stored in the body as fat when it is not used, but also can directly effect nutrient absorption in the gut by feeding pathogenic gut flora (most notably Candida albicans) and thus effecting the health of the entire organism. This can happen even in a nutrient-rich diet if sugar is still over-consumed. I’d recommend reading Gut and Psychology Syndrome by Dr McBride for more information on gut flora and the detrimental effects of sugar on digestion.

    In terms of obesity, it doesn’t just cause weight gain by being stored in adipose tissue when consumed in excess, it causes weight gain by slowly putting our delicate insulin/glucagon feedback mechanism out of balance and causing insulin resistance, which is a pre-cursor to Type-2 Diabetes and many hormonal disorders such a Poly-Cystic Ovarian Syndrome in women which can lead to infertility.

    Refined sugar in large quantities is not good gear.

    It is a fallacy to say tooth decay is the only possible negative health repercussion of sugar is tooth decay. Many people think tooth decay occurs in the mouth when sugar comes into contact with the teeth, but this is not the case. Sugar actually wreaks havoc with our body’s blood calcium levels and thus causes our body to leech calcium from the teeth and bones in a desperate attempt to maintain stable Ca levels in the blood. So it is not just tooth decay, but also bone demineralisation that occurs as a result of excess sugar consumption. Bone demineralisation which is better known as osteoporosis.

    Obviously it was shock tactics of 60 Minutes to compare sugar to cocaine, however sugar is still an addictive substance for many. Personally, I think inhibiting nutrient absorption, feeding candida, contributing to hormonal imbalances, and causing dental and bone demineralisation is a pretty good reason to avoid this processed, industrialised food.

    I’d recommend “Primal Body, Primal Mind” by Nora Gedgaudus, “Nutrition and Physical Degeneration” by Dr Weston Price, and “Nourishing Traditions” by Sally Fallon to anyone who wants to learn more about the detrimental effects of sugar (and all industrialised food such as highly processed – and highly toxic – seed oils).

    As a final note, I respect the sentiment of not believing everything you see on TV when it comes to food, as most of the information you will find there is rubbish. Nutrition is a complicated thing, but when we look to what our ancestors ate to enjoy good health, it becomes a whole lot less complex and radiant health comes much easier!

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