October 25


4 Surprising Reasons Why You Feel Addicted to Sugar

By Sunny Brigham, MS, CNS, LDN

October 25, 2016

minutes read time


Updated: September 14, 2021

Who loves Oreos??? Woot Woot!!! I do I do!!! Man do I love some Oreos. I'm so glad they've come out with gluten-free Oreos!

If (when) I indulge, they are my go-to snack. There’s something about twisting those bad boys apart, eating the crème center and then crunching on each of the cookies that is so intoxicating. I don’t know what it is! Wait? I do know what it is! It’s sugar!  

In this blog, you're going to learn why sugar has a strong hold on many people, including you, and how you can manage your response to sugar.

Let's start with a short video to help you understand why you feel like sugar has a hold on you.

The video talked about dopamine. Dopamine levels out after eating "boring" meals...you know...broccoli. You'll eat some and then when you're getting full or when your brain says you're done, you don't want anymore. That process can or can't happen with sugar.

The more you have it, the more you want it. And dopamine won't level out during a meal. The less you have it, the less effect it has on the brain. And dopamine can level out...like it can with broccoli. 

For those of you that don't know, dopamine is one of your happy hormones. When you're low in dopamine, you get a case of the blahs. You...

  • Have little to no motivation
  • Troubles sleeping
  • Don't want to do anything
  • Can even have more headaches and body pains too!

When you're feeling this way, your body can start to crave something that will bring up dopamine levels. Care to guess that the might be?


Sugar is like cocaine. Or is it?

Let's chat about commonly used research that shows sugar is addicting. The rat experiment. 

In 2013, a psychology and neuroscience professor (and his students) conducted an experiment to see what the effects of high sugar and high fat foods do to rats. Two groups of rats were used: one group conditioned with Oreo cookies and rice cakes and the other with a drug (either morphine or cocaine) and saline.

The first group was placed in a maze. One side had Oreo cookies while the other side had rice cakes. The second group went through the same process, only with drugs instead of cookies. In the end, rats spent the same amount of time looking for cookies as they did looking for drugs. The Oreos stimulated more pleasure neurons in the brain than the drugs did.  

Ever been down in the dumps and all you needed was a cupcake pick-me-up?  That would be why. 

Sugar does activate the reward response in a similar manner to addictive drugs. Studies have shown long-term sucrose (table sugar) intake caused alterations in the brain very similar to those exposed to long-term drug use - amphetamines and cocaine specifically.

Just know this...and it's important...all studies showing that sugar is addicting have only been done on animals. While animal studies are important, they don't always translate well to the human model. 

Genetics have a hand in the game...

There are a few studies (here and here), and hopefully more to come, linking a genetic mutation on the dopamine receptor causing a higher dependency of foods (high sugar/ high fat) and drugs.  

This mutation causes alterations to insulin function in the body. Do you know who else struggles with insulin function? Diabetics. This mutation can create some cravings and feelings of dependency on certain foods. Sugar would be one of these foods. 

Interestingly enough, these mutations were found to be higher in women than in men. Now, that doesn’t mean that men can’t struggle with insane cravings to foods. It’s just that women are at a higher risk, given the population studies. Genes can be altered with time; you aren’t a prisoner to them…they just make things a bit harder.

Nutrients and Proteins

Aside from being low in dopamine and having an altered gene pattern, diet can play a role in your desire for sugar as well. Being low in certain nutrients and amino acids can create stronger cravings...or desire for sugars. 

Being low in these nutrients and amino acids could come from lack of absorption due to increased intestinal permeability aka leaky gut. It could also be due to lack of nutrient intake through the diet. Maybe you have more of a processed food diet. Or you eat much of the same thing every day. Little diversity in the diet can cause fewer nutrients to be ingested. 

Magnesium is one that comes to mind easily. 

As a population, we're often low in magnesium. Many daily body processes use a ton of magnesium. We use magnesium a lot when inflammation is high and when stress is high. Based on the current stressors we deal with often AND the high intake of food sensitivities, magnesium is often very low in most people. 

When magnesium is low, we often want more sugar. Why? Because magnesium plays a role in insulin function. 

L-glutamine is an amino acid that we're also often low in. L-glutamine is used to build up the wall of the digestive tract. But it's also used in large amounts during high stress periods and during the inflammatory response. With diseases like Hashimoto's, your need for l-glutamine and magnesium are much higher than others. 

Best Approach

Should you go cold turkey and cut out sugar 100%? 

No. Don't do that. 

Let's not live in the realm of extremes when it comes to foods. Our brains are smart organs (badum tsss). Once we cut out something completely, we crave it so much more. Putting sugar in the off limits category creates a chemical response to those foods...making us want them even more. 

Instead...get to the bottom of your cravings. Why do you feel drawn to sugar more than other foods. Is it...

  • a broken insulin response in the body that needs to be repaired (insulin resistance)?
  • a processed food diet that creates internal inflammation and nutrient absorption issues?
  • a lack of sufficient nutrient intake overall?
  • a broken genetic response?
  • because you eat a lot of sugar right now?

Understanding where your cravings are coming from gives you power over them. You can fix them!

In the comments, let me know the food you crave the most and what you think is behind the cravings. I can't wait to read your responses!


Barnard, N. D., Noble, E. P., Ritchie, T., Cohen, J., Jenkins, D. J. A., Turner-McGrievy, G., … Ferdowsian, H. (2009). D2 Dopamine receptor Taq1A polymorphism, body weight, and dietary intake in type 2 diabetes. Nutrition (Burbank, Los Angeles County, Calif.), 25(1), 58–65. http://doi.org/10.1016/j.nut.2008.07.012

Greene, D. (2013, October 15). Addicted to oreos? You truly might be - TODAY.com. Retrieved from http://www.today.com/health/addicted-oreos-you-truly-might-be-8C11399682

Klenowski, P. M., Shariff, M. R., Belmer, A., Fogarty, M. J., Mu, E. W. H., Bellingham, M. C., & Bartlett, S. E. (2016). Prolonged Consumption of Sucrose in a Binge-Like Manner, Alters the Morphology of Medium Spiny Neurons in the Nucleus Accumbens Shell. Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience, 10, 54. http://doi.org/10.3389/fnbeh.2016.00054

Rats may require Oreo rehab. (2014). Advanced Materials & Processes, 172(1), 47.

Yeh, J., Trang, A., Henning, S. M., Wilhalme, H., Carpenter, C., Heber, D., & Li, Z. (2016). Food Cravings, Food Addiction, and a Dopamine-Resistant (DRD2 A1) Receptor Polymorphism in Asian American College Students. Asia Pacific Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 25(2), 424–429.

  • Man, this article and video were so, SO good. I’m in the process now of trying to eliminate much of the sugar from my diet. It truly is addictive and a battle that’s hard to overcome. Not just because of the chemical hold it has on you, but because it’s EVERYWHERE and acceptable to almost everyone. Drug users may have to go out their way to find and use an addictive drug (and not on the cheap). But I literally can get a sugar hit from ANY store for under $2. Family, work, TV all encourage it. It’s like trying to overcome a cocaine addition when you’re locked in a room…with cocaine! The willpower, distraction, replacements, supplements and everything else seem to have to be a perfect storm to break the cycle. This article and knowledge definitely helped with my understanding & motivates me to continue to try.

    • You’re right…it’s everywhere. The less you have it, the more your brain can regulate the intake of it. It’s getting through the cravings that are the toughest part. But, your brain wants dopamine. So do other things that give you a dopamine hit…things that make you happy!

  • Stress and boredom cause me to want something to eat. It doesn’t have to be sweet, it can be anything that is in the pantry.

    • This is super common for a lot of people. We can eat our feelings very easily. Make a list of things you can do when bored and have it handy so that when you’re going to food, you can choose something on the list instead. With stress, do some meditation or breathing to help reduce the stress instead of going to the pantry.

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