Sugar – our favourite legal high

In National Obesity Awareness Week we look at one of the most common modern day dependencies – our growing addiction to sugar.

Christmas pudding and mince pies, sugar-laden confectionary and biscuits, sweet mulled wine and festive cocktails – it’s not just the kids who were on a sugar high this holiday season. For those of us with a sweet tooth, Christmas seriously feeds our sugar addiction.

We hearchristmas celebrations a lot about addiction to caffeine, sleeping pills and alcohol… Can we really add sugar to that list? According to an increasing number of ‘sugar experts’ the answer is yes.

Studies in mice have clearly shown that sugar is addictive. By manipulating their diet to include more or less sugar, or to produce a sugar withdrawal effect, scientists can produce similar behaviour to true drug addiction. What’s more, in a study by French scientists, rats chose sugar over cocaine – even when they were addicted to cocaine!

Not surprisingly, in humans such studies are a bit more difficult to do. However, research using brain scans found that drinking sugary milkshakes triggered the same ‘reward centre’. What’s more, increasing the amount of fat in the milkshake didn’t really affect it – sugar was the culprit.

And as with any potentially addictive substance, the more we consume, the more our reward receptors get numbed to it – so we look for even more to re-create that ‘high’. Drug addicts do it, alcoholics do it… and there is increasing evidence that sugar causes similar behaviour. And the double whammy is that these receptors seem to get fewer as we pile on the weight – possibly why people can get into a downward weight spiral. So the heavier we get, the less of a high we get from food, and the more we look for it.

So if after Christmas you find yourself constantly craving sugary treats (even more than usual!), the less than sweet truth is it may be more than a bad habit you’ve picked up over the festive season. You may have one the most common modern-day dependencies – sugar addiction.

All this goes some way to explain why we are consuming increasing amounts of this particular legal but deadly white substance. What’s more, modern diets – and the amount of hidden sugar contained in processed foods and many drinks – mean even those who aren’t addicted can find it hard to reduce their sugar consumption.

How much sugar do we really consume?

too much sugarThe average Briton consumes way over the recommended six teaspoons a day recommended by the World Health Organisation –and it’s easy to see why when you consider a can of coke or glass of orange juice can contain around nine teaspoons, a bowl of cereal over three teaspoons and a shop bought sandwich a teaspoon or more (We won’t even think about the 20 teaspoons reportedly found in a large chai latte from a major coffee shop chain). It soon adds up!

But the good news is that with the right information and support we can learn to manage our sugar cravings, as well as avoid some of those hidden sugars (made easier by the release this New Year of Public Health England’s free app).

And with overconsumption of sugar now deemed as harmful to our health as alcohol or tobacco – contributing to rising rates of obesity, type 2 diabetes, cardio-vascular problems and some cancers – cutting back on the white stuff could just be one of the best things you do to improve your health and weight this year. So make 2016 the year to kick substance abuse – and see how much better life feels as an ex-addict!

Want to find out more about improving your health or weight or need support to make those changes happen? Check out our on-line programmes.


Ahmed SH, Guillem K, Vandaele Y. Sugar addiction: pushing the drug-sugar analogy to the limit. Curr Opin Clin Nutr Metab Care. 2013 Jul

Lenoir, Magalie et al. Intense Sweetness Surpasses Cocaine Reward. PLoS ONE 2.8 2007

Morris MJ, Beilharz JE, Maniam J, et al. Why is obesity such a problem in the 21st century? The intersection of palatable food, cues and reward pathways, stress, and cognition. Neurosci Biobehav Rev. 2015 Nov