Chocoholic - Can there really be such a thing? | News | Rowett Centenary | The University of Aberdeen

Chocoholic - Can there really be such a thing?

Chocoholic - Can there really be such a thing?

Sugar is one of the suspected culprits that features highly in discussions around obesity, and the question of whether or not sugar is addictive is a hot topic with many people claiming that they are addicted to the sweet stuff.

Sixty years ago children and adults alike were eagerly awaiting the opportunity to get their hands on sweet treats without a ration book. 

February 5, 1953 marked the end of sweet rationing in the UK – and the beginning of an era which has seen our appetite for sugar continually increase. 

In the war years, the Rowett Institute was at the forefront of efforts to feed the nation – today it is leading a very different health battle as obesity levels rise. 

Sugar is one of the suspected culprits that features highly in discussions around obesity, and the question of whether or not sugar is addictive is a hot topic with many people claiming that they are addicted to the sweet stuff.

It is one of the many issues connected to diet and nutrition in which work is currently underway at the Rowett and forms part of a European Union funded project known as NeuroFAST, examining the integrated neurobiology of food intake, addiction and stress. 

Professor Julian Mercer is leading work on the NeuroFAST project and on the neurobiology of diet choices and says that although our relationship with sugar is complicated, there remains insufficient evidence that it is an addictive substance.

He said: “Sugar is often discussed as being addictive and one of the reasons for this may be the instant ‘hit’ it gives us.

“Sugar is extremely fast working and it gives us a rush of energy, which may give us that boost we need to get through whatever it is we are doing at the time.

“However, if we define addiction as a state in which we are physically dependent on a substance, then there is no evidence at present that sugar falls into this category.

“In order to survive, we must eat food, whereas with specific chemical substances such as alcohol and drugs, there is no physical reason why we need these, other than addiction.”

Professor Mercer suggests that a so-called addiction to sugar, may have more to do with behavioural issues.

“Sugar interacts with the reward systems in the brain, and some of these interactions are quite similar to the changes you see with an addictive drug,” he added.

"What we think is driving our over-consumption of calories is that the reward centres in the brain are over-riding the 'energy balance' centres in a different part of the brain.

"We find taking in sugar much more rewarding and the origin of this probably goes far back in our evolution.

“Our brains are pre-programmed for survival and the instant energy that could be obtained from simple sugars requiring little digestion would have been advantageous in times when survival was a battle and we had to work hard to feed ourselves – this may be why people may crave the instant sugar hit that comes with a can of fizzy juice.

“At the present time, food is not classified as a substance that a person can be addicted to, and neither is sugar, although there are eating disorders such as binge eating disorder which have characteristics that might fit into such a classification of behavioural addiction in the future.

“Perhaps one day some eating disorders may be reclassified as occurring as a result of a behavioural addiction; however this is not the case at present.”

Professor Mercer will be continuing research in this area as part of the NeuroFAST project for the next three years, at the end of which it is hoped that there will be a clearer understanding of the relationship between food, individual food components such as sugar, and behavioural addiction, and their possible contribution to the obesity problem in developed countries.

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