18 November 2018Last updated

Healthy body

Is sugar really as addictive as crack?

Or is this just a myth promoted by the media to create exciting headlines? We asked two of our go-to experts for their opinions

Louisa Wilkins
10 Nov 2014 | 05:36 pm
  • This picture is for illustrative purpose only.


Keith Littlewood, a rehabilitation and performance coach and writes a regular health column for Aquarius. For more from Keith, visit, says no.

If you read much of the mainstream or social media, you have probably been exposed to messages such as ‘sugar is as addictive as crack’ or ‘sugar feeds and causes cancer’.

If something is said enough times by enough people, it seems to be perceived as the truth. However, neither of these strong statements is factually correct.

In the same way that issues associated with gluten spawned a generation of parents who are neurotic about keeping their children away from gluten, the demonisation of sugar appears to be rife. So, should we be worried about sugar and is it addictive?

The answer is simply no. So you can put down your dried organic spelt, non-wheat, non-sugar and dairy-free cracker, and pick up that doughnut that you have been dreaming about but denying yourself. While many ‘holistic’ nutritionists have suggested hypotheses such as those above, there is no scientific proof to back up any of these statements.

I have to admit that five or six years ago, I also believed that sugar was bad news. Since then, however, I have educated myself further on the topic, and I now understand the biological implications of sugar. Over-eating appears to be an addiction that many people are struggling with. But instead of taking responsibility for ourselves and our lack of control over our eating habits, we look for a scapegoat and play the blame game. “It’s that damn sugar’s fault, you see.” But as many studies have in fact proven, our weight issues are to do with our over-eating, rather than the fault of one food product.”

Sugar isn’t the only food to come under fire – carbohydrates, for example, get a bad rap. While they may not be good for you if eaten in excess, there are far more damaging, even toxic, food types. Such as vegetable oils – and in particular heated oils, which are far more potent with damaging factors than simple carbohydrates. Similarly, fructose – the sugar found in fruits – is not bad for you, but high-fructose corn syrups may pose more problems.

It all comes down to balance – excess of anything will cause problems. Eating too many vegetables could result in a health complaint. As could drinking too much water, breathing too much oxygen, or eating too much meat. So, if your diet is made up primarily of sugar, you will most likely have health implications. But in a balanced diet, sugar poses no problems.

Dr Saliha Afridi, a clinical psychologist, director of The LightHouse Arabia and an Aquarius Ambassador, visit, says yes.

I think it’s a very catchy phrase. Is raw sugar as addictive biologically and medically as crack cocaine? Obviously not. But sugar is in our kitchens and our homes and it is very difficult for people to control how much they consume.

Also, there are similarities in the way that these two substances affect you. Studies show that the same parts of the brain light up when you eat sugar and when you take cocaine. Obviously cocaine is more physically addictive – you would have much stronger side effects coming off cocaine than cutting out sugar. But how do we really know how addictive anything is until we rehab from it and see how our mind and body responds? I have had many clients saying to me that they’ve felt depressed when they cut sugar out of their diet. One client said there was no joy left in their life. Others said they didn’t see any reason in living without sugar. These are the same expressions people use when going through withdrawal from an addictive substance – they are having the same experience.

The reason we say sugar is addictive is because when you consume sugar, the reward system in your brain is activated, which triggers the release of dopamine. This happens when you have anything pleasurable – including addictive drugs, such as alcohol or cigarettes. With addictive drugs, the reward system effect is very intense, so there will be a higher spike in dopamine. With sugar, the dopamine release will be less intense, but will still be addictive.

As a human being, I want things that make me feel good. Period. We seek pleasure in whatever form it comes. We have a certain amount of willpower... What can you say no to in this moment? When you are surrounded by sugar all the time, how many times in one day can you say no before you run out of willpower and grab the next cookie that goes past?

This debate about sugar being a chemical... refined sugar is a toxic substance. It wreaks havoc on our bodies and disrupts our health. It is linked with so many illnesses and yet many people cannot control their consumption, or stay away from it. In that way it is addictive, because it is something we are drawn to, which we find hard to control. I challenge anyone reading this article to detox from sugar for three days and then tell me how you feel about life. Because I’ve done that detox, and I felt that something very important and fundamental in my life was missing. It is painful.

Louisa Wilkins

By Louisa Wilkins