Is Sugar Addiction Real?

The majority of the population does not come into contact with addictive substances until later in life- some in their teen years, others in adulthood. With processed sugar, the first exposure is in the mother’s womb and continues through breast milk or formula and an unreasonable amount of sugar in baby food (Schiestl et al., 2021). Sugar is everywhere in the food-like items consumed daily. Meals consisting of quick, convenient items are a survival tactic many minorities and low-income families have had to assume because of the lack of nutrient-dense foods in their neighborhood and the finances to afford them. People often consume an entire package of a sugar-filled item in a single sitting, not understanding why they can’t stop eating it; a cycle of overconsumption ensues and is normalized. The American Society of Addiction Medicine (2019) defines addiction as “a treatable, chronic medical disease involving complex interactions among brain circuits, genetics, the environment, and an individual’s life experiences. People with addiction use substances or engage in behaviors that become compulsive and often continue despite harmful consequences.”

The consumption of sugar causes a reaction in the brain that is similar to the response drugs evoke. The human brain has not evolved to understand the constant surplus of sugar in high caloric foods. The result has been an addiction-like reward impulse that perpetuates the continuous need for processed sugar (DiNicolantonio et al., 2018). Sugar is everywhere around us and has been added to much of the foods we consume daily. The human brain is still wired to consume calories for survival, and the brain does not understand the constant availably of food. Most people are not in a continual famine state with occasional access to high fat/high sugar foods; instead, these are the foods available in surplus. Sugar creates a reaction to consume and overindulge continuously; it is the brain’s response that perpetuates the desire for the substance.

DiNicolantonio et al. (2018) state in their article about the nature of sugar addiction: “obesity, ADHD and drug addiction to cocaine and heroin all share the same downregulation of the dopamine D2 receptors in the brain… During periods off sugar, a mild state of depression may ensue due to dopamine deficiency, which can be temporarily relieved by consuming more sugar (hence the term ‘sugar fix’). This leads to an endless and vicious cycle of dopamine highs and lows, perpetuating continued sugar intake and dependence on its intake.”

Minority populations are suffering more than any other group from the addictive nature of sugar. Drewnowski and Darmon (2005) explain, “the current structure of food prices is such that sweet and high-fat foods provide dietary energy at the lowest cost. Consumers with limited resources may select energy-dense diets high in refined grains, added sugars, and fats as an effective way to save money.” Foods higher in refined sugar cost less and are more accessible. A person can buy food-like items high in refined sugar for a fraction of the cost of a nutrient-dense, well-rounded meal. Minorities and low-income households must feed their families what is available and cost-efficient.

Foods containing refined sugars are highly marketed and made more affordable to families on a budget. Drewnowski and Darmon (2005) asserted, “the social injustice claim is based on alleged predatory marketing practices, placement of fast food outlets in low-income neighborhoods, and lack of access to fresh vegetables and fruit in the inner city. Many of these factors place minorities and the poor at a disadvantage when it comes to the adoption of healthier eating habits.” Minorities and low-income families have access to fast foods and foods high in refined sugar instead of whole, nutrient-dense foods. Out of necessity for survival, these families eat what is accessible and readily available in the neighborhood. Low-income families and minorities are not given the same options in changing their diets and eating healthier alternatives. Not having access and the income to afford whole foods is an iniquity many Americans face.

“The US diet (aged 2 and above) from 1999–2002 included an average of 22.9 teaspoons per day of added sugars” (Thompson et al., 2009). The American diet consists of a large amount of added sugars daily. Consuming unhealthy amounts of refined sugar is normalized in society, with “cravings” and needing a “sugar fix” being phrases used daily by most people.

Addiction is not a foreign concept in today’s society, and most people know someone addicted to one substance or another. The human brain is a complex organ that hasn’t adapted to understand how the foods readily available today are not the nutrient-dense substances once consumed. Instead, highly processed food-like items containing large amounts of processed sugar are everywhere, and a vicious cycle of consumption, cravings, withdrawals, and sugar fixes ensue. This cycle meets the criteria for addiction and should, at the very least, warrant more studies using human test subjects. The American people are suffering from this addiction, not realizing it is a problem. Minorities are the most extensive population suffering, never given the opportunity to make changes because the healthier options are not available. This population is inundated with fast food and highly processed food-like items because grocery stores with fresh fruits and vegetables are not placed in their neighborhoods. Every person deserves the opportunity to have access and the knowledge to understand how what they consume affects their overall health. Access to nutrient-dense, whole foods should not be a privilege reserved for certain income classes and race groups. The normalized overconsumption of sugar perpetuates the addiction many people battle daily, not even realizing it is a problem.


American Society of Addiction Medicine. (2019). Definition of addiction.

DiNicolantonio, J. J., O’Keefe, J. H., & Wilson, W. L. (2018). Sugar addiction: Is it real? a narrative review. British Journal of Sports Medicine, 52(14), 910.

Drewnowski, A., & Darmon, N. (2005). Food choices and diet costs: An economic analysis. The Journal of Nutrition, 135(4), 900–904,

Schiestl, E. T., Rios, J. M., Parnarouskis, L., Cummings, J. R., & Gearhardt, A. N. (2021). A narrative review of highly processed food addiction across the lifespan. Progress in Neuro-Psychopharmacology and Biological Psychiatry, 106, 110152.

Thompson, F. E., McNeel, T. S., Dowling, E. C., Midthune, D., Morrissette, M., & Zeruto, C. A., (2009). Interrelationships of added sugars intake, socioeconomic status, and race/ethnicity in adults in the United States: National health interview survey, 2005. Journal of the American Dietetic Association, 109(8), 1376-1383.


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