Back in the 1970s, Gloria Swanson claimed sugar was poison that she never touched. The star of the silent screen of the 1920s faithfully followed a macrobiotic vegetarian diet all her adult life and spread her aversion to sugar while promoting Sugar Blues, a book written by hubby #6, William Dufty. Her book and her ultra-healthy diet led her to friendships with John Lennon, Yoko Ono, and other health-conscious celebrities. Modern medical science seems to confirm Swanson’s claim of poison; some scientists are even suggesting sugar cravings are a form of addiction.

If a craving for sweet treats hits with the force of addiction for the average eater, it’s especially hard to ignore during pregnancy, when food cravings can get way out of whack. What’s more, binging on sugary foods and beverages is now considered a bona fide psychological disorder.

The body has no physiological need for sugar; it can manufacture the glucose it needs for fuel from the nutritious foods we eat. We have no physiological need for alcohol, tobacco, caffeine, and street drugs, either, but all are well known to be addictive.

Most of the sweets we crave the most are loaded with fat but people don’t usually crave a bowl full of Crisco. Sweetened Crisco, yes, in the form of cookies, cakes, and other sweet treats but not it its stand-alone form. To determine if it’s the fat we crave or the sugar, Dr. Eric Stice, of the Oregon Health Sciences University, enlisted 106 kids aged 14 to 16 to sip on milkshakes while in an MRI scanner.

Each adolescent got a milkshake heavy in fat and a second one heavy on the sugar; both formulas of milkshake contained the same number of calories. The research team watched for brain activity while the study participants’ brains lit up as they drank.

The shakes heavy on fat stimulated the somatosensory cortex, reflecting their pleasure in the mouth feel of the fattier milkshake but there was little, if any, stimulation of the brain’s reward center. The sweetest milkshake created substantial reaction in the reward center.

The reward center releases the neurotransmitter dopamine when it’s excited. It also puts the brakes on dopamine secretion while waiting for the next exposure to the stimulating substance, meaning the next time the exciting substance comes along, more of it will be needed to produce the same happy effect. Needing more to produce the same is the beginning of the classic cycle of addiction.

The American Psychiatric Association publishes the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual-V (DSM-V) on which it relies for medical diagnoses. Insurance companies will usually pay for part or all of treatment associated with a diagnosis for a disorder found in the DSM-V. A recent update includes Binge Eating Disorder as a psychological disorder.



  1. Lustig, Robert H. “The Sugar-Addiction Taboo: When can you call a food addictive?” The Atlantic. The Atlantic Monthly Group. Jan 2, 2014. Web. Feb 13, 2014.
  2. Stice, Eric, et al. “Relative ability of fat and sugar tastes to activate reward, gustatory, and somatosensory regions.” PubMed. US National Library of Medicine / National Institutes of Health. Oct 16, 2013. Web. Feb 13, 2014.
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