The Case for Treating Sugar as a Drug


The world is facing a tsunami of lifestyle-related chronic diseases

that will cost our global economy $47 trillion over the next twenty years. These diseases are eminently preventable and treatable and yet currently, every year, they kill twice as many people around the world as infectious diseases do.

According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), in America more than 1/3 of adults are obese as are approximately 12.5 million children. In South Africa our nation’s battle with the bulge is fast becoming a health epidemic.  A survey by global healthcare company GlaxoSmithKline earlier this year confirmed that at least 60% or nearly two out of every three South Africans are overweight, obese or morbidly obese.

There are experts who believe that the greatest driver of global obesity is added sugar in our food. Up until approximately 150 years ago sugar was not a staple in our diet yet today we are consuming approximately 29 teaspoons of added sugar a day, almost 4 times as much as is suggested by the World Health Organisation (WHO).

A powerful study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition proves that higher-sugar, higher-glycemic foods are addictive in the same way as cocaine and heroin.

What happens to your brain on sugar?

Recent studies have shown that for certain individuals the consumption of sugar lights up the same centres in the brain (on fPET scans) as cocaine does in cocaine addicts. When sugar addicts consume sugar and carbs (carbs are included as they digest to sugar in the body) dopamine is released in the brain – this could produce a “high” similar to the high experienced by illicit drug user. For some people just seeing pictures or even thinking of high-sugar foods, such as a milkshake, can trigger brain effects like these.  This “high” (which is a neuro-chemical addiction) can provide the individual with further motivation to eat sugar. Once the effect of the sugar and carbs wear off the cravings start which creates an addiction cycle.

Very simply the sugar-high cycle can be illustrated as follows:

Hunger or cravings for sugar to give you a lift

Blood sugar drops which causes a “low”

Consumption of Sugar or Carbohydrate

Blood Sugar Spikes: Brain Chemical Dopamine released creating a “high”

With the continued consumption of sugar and starchy foods (specifically junk food, processed and artificial foods) our bodies become adaptable to the amount of sugar consumed and our tolerance/threshold increases. This means that more of these foods are needed to create the same effect (this is the same effect experienced by drug addicts and alcoholics). All we are doing is continually stimulating our primitive neurochemical reward centres situated in the brain.

The ordinary biological signals that control hunger become overwhelmed through this stimulation and our bodies (and brains) no longer understand the hunger and not-hungry signals.

Our society often views obese or overweight people as lazy and gluttonous: “Why don’t they just eat less?” or “Just say no”, we would not have a world facing a health crisis if it was indeed this simple. The truth is that sugar and carbs are addictive. Sugar and carbohydrate addicts are not weak willed, chocolate guzzling individuals; instead we suffer from the disease of addiction.

In addition to sugar and carbs being chemically addictive we also believe sugar and carbs to have strong emotional and behavioural addictive properties.

Dr. David Ludwig from Harvard proved that foods with more sugar—those that raise blood sugar quickly or have what is called a high glycemic index—trigger a special region in the brain called the nucleus accumbens, the brain area that controls addiction. This pleasure center in the brain becomes activated; it makes us feel good and drives us to seek out more of that feeling, much the same way as conventional addictions such as gambling or drug abuse.

This, and previous studies, have revealed how this region of the brain lights up in response to images or when someone eats sugary, processed, or junk food.

A newer study was conducted recently, taking on the hard job of proving the biology of sugar addiction. To confirm their results, the researchers did a blind crossover study in which they took 12 overweight or obese men, all within the same age range, and gave each a low-sugar, low-glycemic index (37 percent) milkshake.

Four hours later, they learned by measuring that the low-glycemic index milkshake triggered no response in the nucleus accumbens.

Days later, a second batch of milkshakes containing more sugar with a high glycemic index (84 percent) was given to the same group of men. Not only were the two sets of milkshakes engineered to deliver precisely the same flavour and texture; they also had exactly the same amount of calories, protein, fat and carbohydrate. The high-sugar, high-glycemic index milkshake yielded reports of increased hunger and cravings after consumed. However, the breakthrough finding: When the high-glycemic shake was consumed, the nucleus accumbens lit up like a Christmas tree.

This study clearly brings to light two things: that the body responds quite differently to different calories, and that foods that spike the blood sugar are biologically addictive.

This study proves that food addiction is real and that the reason so many people are overweight and sick is that they are stuck in a vicious cycle of cravings. They eat sugary foods, the brain’s pleasure center lights up which triggers more cravings, driving them to seek out more and more of the substance that gives them this high.


Sugar stimulates the brain’s pleasure or reward centers through the neurotransmitter dopamine exactly like other addictive drugs.


Brain imaging

Brain imaging shows that high-sugar and high-fat foods work just like heroin, opium, or morphine in the brain.



Brain imaging shows that obese people and drug addicts have lower numbers of dopamine receptors, making them more likely to crave things that boost dopamine. This is, in part, genetically determined.



Drugs we use to block the brain’s receptors for heroin and morphine (naltrexone) also reduce the consumption and preference for sweet and high-fat foods in both normal-weight and obese binge eaters.



People develop a tolerance to sugar— they need more and more of the substance to satisfy themselves; this is true of drugs such as alcohol or heroin.



Obese individuals continue to eat large amounts of unhealthy foods despite severe social and personal negative consequences, just like addicts and alcoholics.


Animals and humans experience “withdrawal” when suddenly cut off from sugar, just like addicts detoxifying from drugs. Just like drugs, after an initial period of “enjoyment” of the food the user consumes it not to get high but to feel normal.

If you suspect that you or a loved one may be suffering from sugar or carbohydrate addiction, contact us now to join the next 21-day HELP program.