Winning the War on Sugar: Understanding the Addictive Power of Sugar

In our last blog, we talked about the desperate need to wage a War on Sugar, akin to the 1980s “War on Drugs.” Using science writer Gary Taubes as our champion, we identified the prevalence of added sugars in our American diet as the real stimulant affecting type 2 diabetes. We referenced compelling arguments from his recently published book, The Case Against Sugar, to dispel the long-held notion asserted by government authorities that overeating and lack of exercise were the root causes of insulin resistance.

In this blog, we go beyond the need to raise awareness to this national epidemic to address the second and perhaps more troubling challenge: the addictive qualities of sugar. 

Sugar Time BombLike the War on Drugs, we are fighting a powerful narcotic that is truly addictive in a literal sense, and that has contributed to this national health crisis. Unlike the War on Drugs, we can’t rely on government leadership or even support in this Herculean fight. On the contrary, and Taubes gives several factual examples on this point, our government has been complicit with the sugar and broader food industry in covering up the warning signs that were there in the early part of the last century.

A comparison to hard core recreational drugs is NOT an exaggeration when it comes to added sugars. According to medical scientists James J. DiNicolantonio and Sean C. Lucan, “similar refinement processes transform other plants like poppies and coca into heroin and cocaine,” and the end products including refined sugar affect people’s bodies and brains.[i] In their 2014 New York Times article “Sugar Season. It’s Everywhere, and Addictive,” the two scholars cite research studies conducted on animals showing that sugar produces cravings, tolerance and withdrawal, which are three symptoms consistent with dependence. 

“Animals experience sugar like a drug and can become sugar addicted. One study has shown that rats will choose sugar over cocaine ... because the reward is greater; the ‘high’ is more pleasurable.”[ii]

One study they are referring to was published by the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI, part of the National Institutes of Health) in 2013. Entitled “Sugar Addiction: Pushing the Drug-Sugar Analogy to the Limit,” the report concludes that “the biological robustness in the neural substrates of sugar and sweet reward … explain why many people …have difficulty controlling the consumption of foods high in sugar when continuously exposed to them.”[iii]

The continuous exposure to added sugars in our diet is the metaphoric element to the national addiction. There is the physical dependence, and then there is the overwhelming presence of concentrated sugars throughout the American diet that makes it hard to avoid. 

Taubes gives a brief history of this phenomenon in his recent Wall Street Journal article (based on his book) “Is Sugar Killing Us?”

  • A few centuries ago, there were virtually no added sugars in the human diet. Taubes holds that prior to the 1850s there were no hospital records for diabetes patients. Then there was an outpouring of sugar consumption with the emergence of the candy, chocolate and ice cream industries. This was followed by the introduction of soft drinks in the 1880s. And when the nation turned to sugar in place of alcohol during prohibition in the 1920s, yearly sugar sales surpassed 100 pounds per person for the first time. 

  • When affordable home refrigerators became available in the 1930s, there was more added sugar to the diet now that Americans could enjoy soft drinks without leaving the house. After World War II, frozen concentrates were invented and fruit juices were poured at the breakfast table. Around the same time, cereals originally created as health food were transformed into what Taubes calls “low-fat dessert” as the sugary options marketed to children wielded greater profit potential. 

  • The “final ingredient,” as Taubes calls it, “in the sweetening of the national diet” came in the 1970s in the form of high-fructose corn syrup. These sweeteners appear in many if not most of our processed foods, and in 1999, their sales had skyrocketed to more than 150 pounds per person in direct relationship with the staggering rise in Americans with obesity and diabetes.

It is estimated that added sugar is used in nearly 75% of consumer packaged foods available in the United States today.[iv] Compare this to just a couple hundred years ago when there was no concentrated sugar in the diet, except for that rare bit of honey. Back then, an occasional craving for something sugary was healthy for building fat and storing energy. But when you consider as DiNicolantonio and Lucan contend, that a single can of soda today contains more added sugar than what people in those days consumed in an entire year, “the sweet craving that once offered a survival advantage now works against us.”[v] 

No sugar sign made of sugarAs all type 2 diabetes patients and pre-diabetics know from our youth, an addictive drug is more powerful when it is easily accessible. With sugar, this new war is not about fighting Columbian drug cartels and urban gangs. 

In this new War on Drugs (that is, the War on Sugar), we are fighting the enemy within that has manifested a daily dietary lifestyle deemed acceptable. As Taubes asserts, the government has been in cahoots with the food industry in successfully convincing us that a calorie is a calorie, and that overeating and sloth causes type 2 diabetes. The presence of sugar just happens to be a coincidence and manufacturers don’t feel they should apologize if sweeter taste compels people to eat too much of their products. 

According to Taubes, proper government authorities like the National Institutes of Health could never justify the great expense for clinical trials on the harmful effects of sugar. As long ago as the 1960s, British nutritionist John Yudkin discovered a cluster of abnormal biochemical conditions produced by added sugar consumption that lead to cardiovascular diseases and type 2 diabetes. One of these abnormalities just happened to be the resistance to the insulin hormone. But when the results of Yudkin’s study (which included trials on animals AND humans) was published, health care experts remained nearly unanimous in their belief that fat was “the primary dietary evil,” and that sugar was “relatively benign.”[vi]

Today, Yudkin’s cluster is known as metabolic syndrome, and it affects 75 million Americans thanks to 50 years of disregard for the truth behind sugar.[vii] 

For the 29 million that already have type 2 diabetes and the 86 million with pre-diabetic conditions, it’s on us to lead our own clinical trials. The first step starts with “Just say NO to sugar!”

View Living Healthy Recipes

[i] “Sugar Season.  It’s Everywhere, and Addictive,” by James J. DiNicolantonio and Sean C. Lucan, New York Times, December 22, 2014.

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] “Sugar addiction: pushing the drug-sugar analogy to the limit,” by Ahmed SH, Guillem K., Vandaele Y., NCBI, NIH, July, 2013.

[iv] “Sugar Season”

[v] “Sugar Season”

[vi] “Is Sugar Killing Us?” Gary Taubes, Wall Street Journal, December 9, 2016

[vii] “Is Sugar Killing Us?”

Sean Browne

Sean Browne

Former Chief Revenue Officer, CCS Medical

Subscribe to Blog Updates