The Bitter Sweet Reality of the American Sugar Addiction


The idea that America has a problem with sugar consumption will surprise no one – but the extent of the sugar addiction problem might.


The official figures make grim reading. Only 30% of Americans are classed as a healthy weight. One third of children are already either overweight or obese. The U.S. spends around $200 billion each year treating diseases stemming directly from obesity. Diagnoses for type two diabetes have increased tenfold over the past three decades. Now, after much debate, most experts agree that the main culprit is sugar.

To understand the American relationship with sugar, we have to consider the way that sugary foods have become engrained in our culture. A trip to the movies necessitates a sugary soda or snack; a visit to the fair obligates cotton candy and ice cream; and Halloween is all about getting as much candy as you possibly can. These traditions lay the foundations for our dependence to sugar, yet it is fizzy drinks which are doing the most damage.

The amount of sugar the average American gets through each year is staggering, and our fondness for sodas is a major contributor to the obesity crisis. We consume more sugary, fizzy drinks than any other nation in the world, but we don’t just consume more; we super-size it too. The average child in the U.S. drinks eight ounces of sugary soda each day, and this only increases through adolescence. By adulthood, most Americans are getting through 170 liters of fizzy drink each year, twice the amount Europeans do.


The problem with soda is how easy it is to consume enormous amounts of sugar without realizing. A standard-size fizzy drink contains around 18 teaspoons of sugar; a 64-ounce drink, like the 7-Eleven ‘big gulp’ size, contains at least 45 teaspoons of sugar. Bearing in mind that the recommended intake of added sugar is no more than seven teaspoons a day, this means that drinking a single soda can almost triple your recommended daily intake. Further, unlike sugary foods or candy, fizzy drinks don’t fill you up and therefore don’t reduce sugar consumption elsewhere in the diet as a result.

One may assume that now we have this information, cutting down on sugar would be the next natural step. Unfortunately, reducing your sugar intake isn’t always as easy as it sounds. New research suggests that sugar is just as addictive as heroin, and more addictive than cocaine. This may sound like an erroneous statement, but once you examine the effect that sugar has on the body, it doesn’t sound quite as incongruous.

Sugar is a stress suppressant. It restricts the stress hormone cortisol in the same ways that drugs do, thus encouraging the person to turn to sugar during stressful times. This is precisely what creates a pattern of addiction; as senior study author Kevin Laugero, a researcher at UC Davis, commented, “these findings suggest an explanation of how, mechanistically, sugar may positively reinforce its habitual consumption in people experiencing chronic stress.”


The strength of sugar addiction is not just down to its limitation of stress levels. When sugary foods are eaten, the pleasure-releasing hormone dopamine is also released into the body. This causes the same feel-good sensations as many drugs and, in the same way that the body builds a tolerance for alcohol or drugs, the body also builds a tolerance for sugar, meaning more must be consumed next time to achieve the same feeling.

So, if we are a nation addicted to sugar, how do we wean ourselves off it? Like any other addiction, the first step is identifying, understanding and accepting the problem. Yet, identifying sugar addiction may not be as easy as you might think. Most of us are familiar for sweet cravings, be it a bar of chocolate, a can of soda or a bowl of ice cream. But at what point do these cravings become the sign of an addiction?

A California rehab center has underlined a few of the warning signs that that you may be dealing with sugar addiction. They include making excuses for the amount of sugar eaten, using sugar as a reward or motivator, making specific trips to a store or eatery in order to placate cravings, keeping a secret stash of sugar treats or binge eating, and an inability to limit sugar consumption.

While there is no way of minimizing the damage sugar does to the body or the force addiction can hold, there are signs that this country is beginning to move in the right direction. Last year the success of the Mexican sugar tax, which resulted in a 6% drop in the consumption of sugary drinks, lead Berkeley, California to become the first American city to introduce a sugar tax on fizzy drinks.

Fortunately, despite the rising obesity levels, the consumption of sugary fizzy drinks has been steadily declining for the past 15 years. This, according The New York Times, is nothing less than the “single largest change in the American diet in the last decade”. As a society we are becoming increasingly health conscious – even while we are in the midst of such an ill-health crisis.

Only time will tell if new tax measures and the prevalence of health warnings will have a significant effect on the U.S. relationship with sugar. At the very least, we can hope it represents the very initial grounding of the great American sugar high.

By Andrea Jones

Candy Cane Image by Logan Brumm Photography and Design.

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