Is Sugar Addictive?

Sugar is one of the main causes of obesity worldwide. According to the Australian institute of health and welfare, approximately 63% of Australian adults are overweight and obese. The rate of obesity increases with age with 79.4% of men and 65.7% of women aged over 45 years being obese. Obesity in itself is linked to various other health conditions such as diabetes, high blood pressure, and heart conditions.

While the average Perth citizen may already know about the health dangers of sugar, not everyone is familiar with it’s effect on the human brain. Whilst most people may enjoy the pleasures of sugar, just how addictive can sugar be….?


A research article published by the Public Library of Science (PLOS ONE) found that refined sugar is in fact more addictive than cocaine. The study was conducted using rats as subjects mainly because rats and humans while different share a common basic physiology. We even share certain diseases, respond similarly towards infections and injuries and have nervous systems that are wired to work in the same way.

The study points out that when rats were given a chance to choose exclusively between sugar water and cocaine, would choose sugar water. Rats who were previously addicted to cocaine would also swap addiction towards sugar when given a chance.

When it comes to addiction and willingness to work, rats were also shown to work harder to receive sugar.

Sugar has a unique effect on the human brain.

When sugar is consumed, a region of the mid-brain that controls dopamine (a neurotransmitter linked to reward and pleasure) signaling in the ventral striatum part of the brain is activated. This region has much to do with providing signaling during a reward and learning process. In short, sugar primes our brain to provide us with reward signals; with time sugar exposure conditions the brain to seek and pursue these reward signals. The study also found that sweet consumption may deliver a dopamine signal that is more intense than cocaine.

Another study pointed out that refined sugar is fairly new to the human diet. Highly sweetened foods and drinks that are commonly available may be providing society with a supernormal stimuli (a stimulus more effective than a naturally occuring stimulus). The significance of refined sugar being a supernormal stimuli is that it may override normal human cravings and behaviors as well as perceptions in self-control. Either way it is concerning that sugar addiction can take precedence over such an addictive drug as cocaine.

By West Perth Physio Wayne Sun


LENOIR, M., SERRE, F., CANTIN, L., AHMED, S. H., & BAUNE, B. (2007). Intense Sweetness Surpasses Cocaine Reward. PLoS ONE. 2, e698.

TINBERGEN, N. The study of instinct. Oxford, Clarendon Press.

NORGREN, R., HAJNAL, A., & MUNGARNDEE, S. (2006). Gustatory reward and the nucleus accumbens. Physiology & Behavior. 89, 531-535.

VOLKOW ND, & WISE RA. (2005). How can drug addiction help us understand obesity? Nature Neuroscience. 8, 555-60.

Australian Bureau of Statistics