Refined sugar is one of the most commonly consumed substances in the world, and it is present in a variety of foods and drinks we reach for every day. Although these sweets are a common component of our diet, their compulsive consumption has been said to be closely related to the addicting feelings observed in drugs.
In this blog, I share insights on sugar and three common sweeteners, talk about our need for sugar, as well as its comparisons to drug addictions.
Common Sugars and Sweeteners
Other than sucrose, there are many types of sweeteners in grocery store isles today. To keep this simple, I’ll be focusing on three common sweeteners, high-fructose corn syrup, aspartame, and stevia.
Sucrose, also known as table sugar, is a disaccharide made up of glucose and fructose. It is a natural sweetener found in many fruits and vegetables, as well as sugarcane and sugar beets. Sucrose is often used in baking, cooking, and as a sweetener for beverages.
High-fructose corn syrup
High-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) is a sweetener derived from corn starch. It is created by breaking down the corn starch into glucose and then converting some glucose into fructose through a chemical process. HFCS is typically 45% glucose and 55% fructose (6).
Perhaps the most controversial sweetener I’ll share in this blog post, aspartame is a commonly used sugar substitute used to sweeten soft drinks and other food. It is made up of two amino acids, phenylalanine and aspartic acid, in addition to a small amount of methanol (4).
Stevia is a natural, non-caloric sweetener derived from the leaves of the stevia rebaudiana plant (2). It is a zero-calorie sweetener often used as an alternative to sugar in beverages and foods, including many supplements such as whey protein. Stevia is much sweeter than regular sugar, in fact, a study found a baker’s pinch of stevia white extract is comparable to 1/4 cup of granulated sugar (2).
Do we need sugar?
The quick answer to this is no, sugar is not essential for our bodies to operate. Unlike other carbohydrates, there is no need for our bodies to have “a single gram of added sugar,” as found by a 2018 review (1).
Throughout human evolution, other than for the euphoric reward response we get when consuming sugar, it’s believed it was consumed to increase fat stores when they would be low, like during food scarcity (1). Fast forward to the 21st century, the need for sugar has decreased while we continue to increase our sugar consumption.
Soft drinks, juices and even popular ready-to-consume alcoholic beverages contain a lot of sugar, and the calories consumed from most of these beverages do not exhibit adequate feelings of satiety or feelings of fullness, leading you to consume more food that your body actually requires (3,5).
Interestingly enough, a 2022 systematic review and meta-analysis from the World Health Organization found the consumption of sugar alternatives to have an inverse effect in some studies, causing a desire to eat (5).
Is sugar more addicting than drugs?
It may seem like a bit of a reach to compare sugar to drug addictions, but there are numerous aspects of sugar and our relationship with sugar that make for a valid argument.
There are three key things that need to be observed when classifying something as addictive, cravings, tolerance and withdrawal (1). A 2018 review looked into 60 other studies and found the psychological reward, cravings, mood-altering/dopamine effect, and withdrawals we receive from sugar are quite similar to drug addictions (1).
Dopamine is a neurotransmitter, and its regulation is important for maintaining mental and physical health. When you have a decrease in the number of dopamine receptors in the brain, you have an increased risk of addictive behaviours and a reduced ability to experience pleasure (1). This reduction is classified as dopamine deficiency.
A reduction in dopamine after chronic sugar intake can lead to withdrawals, which can then be mitigated by consuming more sugar. Withdrawal symptoms can vary person-to-person, but the study found sugar withdrawals to include “hyperactivity, attention-deficit, distraction and decreased performance” (1). Interestingly, ADHD, obesity, and cocaine and heroin addictions all exhibit the same dopamine deficiency response (1).
Recommendations for consuming less sugar
I don’t believe in cutting out the foods you love from your diet. However, it is paramount to understand that sugary foods and beverages should be consumed in moderation as our body doesn’t receive the same feeling of fullness in comparison to other carbohydrates, making you susceptible to overindulgence.
Rather than reaching for sugary beverages, carbonated water without added sugars, like Bubly, is a great substitution. A 2016 review looked into a study of three large US groups who saw 0.50kg less weight gain over a 4-year period after replacing one serving of sugar-sweetened beverages per day with one cup of water per day (3).
When it comes to fruit juices, purchase ones with less or no added sugars, or make your own juice at home with fresh fruit and no added sugar.
There are also sugar alternatives, like stevia. Interestingly, stevia does not spike blood sugar levels. A 2010 study had subjects consume aqueous extracts from 5 grams of stevia leaves every six hours for three days. Before and after administration of the extracts, a glucose tolerance test was performed, and the study found stevia extracts can produce a direct effect on beta cells in the pancreas to release insulin, which is a hormone that regulates blood sugar levels in the body.
This may explain the glucose-lowering effects of stevia observed in the study. The study concluded that stevia may have potential therapeutic applications in the management of type 2 diabetes and other conditions related to abnormal blood sugar levels (2). Overall, stevia is a natural product found to be safe for consumption and comes with many benefits, such as unaffected blood sugar levels post-consumption (2). However, remember that these alternatives also don’t promote feelings of fullness, so again, consume in moderation (5).
Our world is full of sugar and sweeteners, each with its own unique properties, benefits, and drawbacks. I’m a sucker for sweets myself, and I believe you shouldn’t have to restrict yourself and cut out the foods you love. However, it is important to consume sugary foods and beverages in moderation as our body doesn’t feel full post-consumption, making it extremely easy to overindulge.
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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), 910-913.
Goyal, S. K., Samsher, N., & Goyal, R. K. (2010). Stevia (Stevia rebaudiana) a bio-sweetener: a review. International journal of food sciences and nutrition, 61(1), 1-10.
Bes‐Rastrollo, M., Sayon‐Orea, C., Ruiz‐Canela, M., & Martinez‐Gonzalez, M. A. (2016). Impact of sugars and sugar taxation on body weight control: a comprehensive literature review. Obesity, 24(7), 1410-1426.
Butchko, H. H., Stargel, W. W., Comer, C. P., Mayhew, D. A., Benninger, C., Blackburn, G. L., ... & Trefz, F. K. (2002). Aspartame: review of safety. Regulatory Toxicology and Pharmacology, 35(2), S1-S93.
Rios-Leyvraz, M., Montez, J., & World Health Organization. (2022). Health effects of the use of non-sugar sweeteners: a systematic review and meta-analysis.
Malik, V. S., Pan, A., Willett, W. C., & Hu, F. B. (2013). Sugar-sweetened beverages and weight gain in children and adults: a systematic review and meta-analysis. The American journal of clinical nutrition, 98(4), 1084-1102.