Heroin = Cigarettes = Sugar ?!?!

A week or two back, a friend tells me he’s figured out why I have so much trouble with cigarettes.   I can’t wait to hear the latest theory downloaded from conspiracies-r-us and/or quack’s guide to neurotic living.  Turns out that sugar is one of the hundreds of additives added to cigarettes, and he thinks that’s what makes it addictive.  Say what?  Are you fucking kidding me?  SUGAR?  You think my problem with cigarettes is SUGAR?

This is why I hate when the headlines make really inflammatory, vastly overstated headlines such as “sugar as addictive as heroin!”  I concede that certain foods may set off certain reward pathways associated with it in some rats and people, but that doesn’t mean addiction.   A search of some scientific-type articles found some interesting stuff.

Eating disorders, themselves, seem to follow an addiction pattern.  This certainly seemed to be the case with my own past ED.   Is it really addiction, though?   This article and I agree:

“Harry Kissileff, a psychologist and specialist in human food intake at Columbia University. Kissileff agreed that Hoebel’s rats offer an important model system, but said he would be cautious about using them to put sugar in the same category as drugs.

In their experiments, Hoebel and colleagues in his lab started rats on a pattern of bingeing by withholding food for 12 hours when the rats were sleeping and through breakfast time, then giving them nutritionally balanced food plus sugar water. The animals gradually increased their daily sugar intake until it doubled, consuming most of it in the first hour it was available.

“There is some overlap between the systems that control food intake and addiction,” Kissileff said. “I am not sure they necessarily make food addictive.”

Animals that binged on normal food with no sugar and received the opioid blocker did not show these withdrawal signs. Animals that were given a steady diet of food and sugar water without bingeing also did not show signs of withdrawal.

“The implication,” said Hoebel, “is that some animals, and some people, can become overly dependent on sweet food, particularly if they periodically stop eating and then binge. This may relate to eating disorders such as bulimia.”

Did you catch that?  There seem to be some tie-ins between restriction/bingeing cycles and addiction.  Outside of ED, or diets that try to emulate them,  it’s not really a good model.    I know everyone claims to be a chocoholic, but it’s just not true

A neurobiologist examines how sugar is “like” a drug, and summarizes it all up in a nice, easy to understand manner (including background research).  “I like sugar as much as the next guy, but I assert that an all-night coke jag is a bit different than staying in with a pint of Haagen Dazs.”

I think he’s right.  Besides my own experience with cigarettes, I’ve had the displeasure of having two junkie housemates and one tweaker.  The tweaker (crack/speed) when going through withdrawal, besides being a first-class asshole, imagined bugs all over and incessently scratched at himself.  The junkie, who spend ALL of his time when clean attending 3 NA meetings daily, to get clean he had to have friends apply klonapin patches and chain him to a bed for a few days, far away enough out in the country that nobody could hear him scream.  As all good junkies do, he kept going back to it, until he eventually o.d’d.  The other junkie is still alive, and has switched over to crack (cheaper for someone on GA, disability).  She looks like death warmed over, lives in a SRO hotel in an especially sketchy block of the Mission (SF).  I see her occasionally, she’s 50 going on 75, doesn’t even recognize me.   I think I’ll bring her up next time someone tells me how fat people are costing so much money.  I cringe when anyone says ciggies are as addictive as heroin, that doesn’t seem right either.  If they’re harder to quit, it’s because they’re everywhere, acceptable, legal, very easy to get, which isn’t quite the same as being equally addictive.   Food is even easier, more available, cheaper, but without the physical addicton.

I think processed food/sugar is more compulsion than addiction.  If you want a better thought out summary, Michelle is much clearer.

And lastly, if you want to try to make the big bucks this holiday season with your own asinine diet, here’s a website to help you.   Happy holidays!


18 Responses to “Heroin = Cigarettes = Sugar ?!?!”

  1. December 21, 2009 at 9:35 pm

    The main problem is that this study (which I read only via your article and not the links) defines “addiction” far too narrowly. Essentially, they are looking at neurological addiction and studying the responses of rats. Not all addiction is in the brain. Much addiction is simply psychological or biological as measured by the response of other bodily processes. In the case of food, blood sugar crashing is a form of withdrawal from foods that cause spikes.

    If you define addiction narrowly in order to prove something is not an addiction, then you can assert that food addiction is not an addiction but a “compulsion”. However, I would find such an effort intellectually disingenuous and not the least bit helpful in garnering useful data in order to help deal with the problem of eating disorders.

    • December 21, 2009 at 10:18 pm

      I would argue that most define addiction too broadly. Lots of things have physiological responses, but that doesn’t mean they’re addictive. I do think of addiction in very narrow terms, defined in some of the articles and DSM-IV. I didn’t feel like summarizing, I’m lazy, and it’s quite easy to find a scientific definition. And I do like science. Supposedly cocaine is a psychological addiction, only in the brain, but I wouldn’t say the same for opiates, alcohol, nicotine, nor even caffeine. And while eating disorders are a different animal, most people who claim to be addicted to simple carbs, or chocolate, or whatever, are likely unable to manage their cravings because of overall poor nutrition/health, lack of exercise (does wonders for blood sugar stabilization) or just mind-games such as thinking of these foods as bad, to be avoided, thus making them much more important and uncontrollable. Yes, psychological. As for dealing with ED, I’m not sure whether calling it addiction vs compulsion vs unfortunate brain chemistry vs ??? matters, it seems treatment/data garnering would be similar regardless of what you call it.

  2. December 22, 2009 at 8:05 am


    I loved your post. I am so utterly fed-up with the pure eaters, the “ex-food addicts” and those who wave garlic and make the sign of the cross when they see gluten (the horror!). Being so utterly on or off the clean-eating food wagon may work for the odd person here or there, but in my opinion, for most people it’s a recipe for severely disordered eating.

    I think almost every woman suffers from some level of disordered eating. How can this not be the case in a society so obsessed with controlling women’s lives, through limiting their food intake and telling them what they should or shouldn’t look like?

    Through my blog, I try to fight this, but I know that I’m as much sucked in as any woman.

  3. December 22, 2009 at 8:48 am

    I pretty much agree with everything you said. I don’t really think that you can be addicted to food. I think you can use the excuse that food makes me happy so therefore I am addicted to it, but that’s just an excuse overweight people use to keep eating. Good post.

  4. December 22, 2009 at 12:49 pm

    Wait, so smoking sugar is just as ‘addictive’ as eating it? Even if you buy sugar as an addictive substance, that doesn’t make any sense.

    I’m kind of in-between on the addiction thing. I get super tired of everything being an addiction, but I also think almost anything *can* become a compulsion to the point where the effects on one’s life are akin to being addicted to a substance. But I’m all for keeping that line between compulsion and addiction clear though.

    That said, if there were sugar addicts, I would definitely count myself among them. If I’m going to snack constantly it will be on sweet foods. If I’m going to eat past the point of fullness, it will usually be dessert pushing me past that line. During the holidays, when I’m surrounded by homemade nummies, I often eat sweets in place of real meals and my sugar intake is probably sky high. But you know, when I get back to my place where I don’t keep truckloads of baked goods and candy around and where I stock my fridge with fruits and veggies, I’ll go back to eating a fairly minimal amount of sugar daily. I won’t have the shakes or lay curled up on my couch sweating and dreaming of snickerdoodles either.

    And yes, exercise. It has made a huge difference – along with fat loss- in terms of sugar highs and lows.

  5. 6 MB
    December 22, 2009 at 12:53 pm

    I think an addiction is something that you don’t have control of and I think we are all addicted to something whether it is cigarettes, alcohol, food, exercise, sex, love, work, tv, gossip, drugs or rock and roll. Addictions can be good and bad. A couple of years ago I wrote a post about being addicted to sugar (http://finallyfiguringitout.blogspot.com/2007/08/sugar-is-my-crack.html). I’ve been able to get a handle on my need for a sugar fix but the need to use and abuse it pops up regularly and I need to give in or fight it off.

  6. December 22, 2009 at 5:10 pm

    So much to consider here. It seems to me that wanting something badly, even to the point of physical manifestations (real or imagined), is different than being chemically addicted to it. To be fair, I haven’t studied the issues with regard to sugar addiction or any sort of food addiction, for that matter. I just know I like it, and I can’t have it as much as I would like. 🙂

  7. December 23, 2009 at 4:09 pm

    NewMe – I agree with you on the widespread disordered eating, and I see it in [dieting] men, as well.

    Tony – I don’t think it’s quite that simple, both from my own ED life, and also reading about the rat and human studies on this. There’s something going on, I’m just not ready to call it addiction.

    Attrice – Re: smoking sugar-I think it comes down to a little bit of knowledge being a dangerous thing. He doesn’t really have the scientific background to have an effective bs detector, or even realize how silly some of this stuff is. Hmm, homemade baked goods in my family were low-fat low-sugar, nothing to get excited about, not even worth eating. At this point, I’m more or less indifferent to sweets, though I do like a bit of chocolate. I eat so much fruit, I’m already high sugar, but I’m okay with that, I love fruit.

    MB – I think we all have unhealthy relationships with food or work or gossip, I just don’t think it’s “addiction”. When I think addiction, I think of my housemate with the spoon and the syringe, not someone irritated because they missed their tv show. I’m hesitant to even call my weed thing addiction, though technically, it meets the criteria.

    Cammy – I know what you mean, restraint isn’t always so fun, there are lots of things in my life that I would like more of, not just food and sugar. But I do have some, and enjoy that and am happy about it.

  8. December 23, 2009 at 7:26 pm

    Great Blog!! All I can say is that when I start eating sugar in quantity, I’m a cranky, bitchy, constantly wanting to take a nap, craving more sugar person. The sugar high doesn’t last very long and then I’m looking for someplace to put my head down because I can hardly keep my eyes open. Sugar is a drug in the sense that you crave it, overdose on it, want it when you know it’s not “good” for you in the quanitities you eat it, and it changes your personality. Now, onto cigarettes. There was never any sugar in my ciggies, I would have tasted it. Truthfully, the need, desire, habit of smoking replaced and/or substituted for my desire to eat. I wanted to be thin and so I smoked instead. I really like smoking and I think that’s one of the reasons it was so hard to quit. I didn’t physically crave it – it was just more an enjoyable habit that became part of my life – socially, emotionally, etc. I just wanted to smoke. It was hard to quit, but the third try was it – Thank God. I wouldn’t want to have to go through that again nor the 40 lbs I put on. Perhaps that’s why I was able to finally give it up. I didn’t need cigarettes. I do need food. Splitting hairs on the type of food I eat is another matter.

  9. December 23, 2009 at 7:28 pm

    Julie – about owning a dog. My life is lived in 4 hour increments. I always have to make sure that I or one of my family members is home to let the dog out and play with him. I don’t think it’s right to own a dog and be gone 8-10 hours a day… unless you put it in a doggy day care. Just my opinion.

  10. December 24, 2009 at 6:51 am

    I personally think there has been a great disservice done to us as a culture by making things addictions that arent’.Some things are addictive – heroin & nicotine. Some are addictive to some, like alcohol. Some people are more addictive personalities. Some are not…I think a lot of it is will power and confidence.
    I think a lack of willpower and constant indulgence in things because our culture says it’s OK to treat ourselves all the time can be the base of the problem. People begin to see any restriction as a hardship. And if it’s always been that way, we can blame others for our shortcomings. Sometimes it’s true, but sometimes it’s us that has to kick our own asses to change things. We live in a culture where food is designed and marketed to appeal to us in every way, and not just to be good for us. We are a global marketplace…we must exercise our choices and do waht is best for us.
    I’ve been lucky in that I’ve not started smoking, and never been lured in by addictive drugs. For me, it was a sedentary lifestyle and really bad diet that were my problems. I had to face the fact that if I did nothing and eat crappy food all day you will be fat, and feel crappy. I have trouble with food, but if I exert myself I can resist. Slowly, I’ve changed my life. It’s an every day thing. I don’t think it makes me addicted to bad food or sugar. It just means I like it, and there’s nothign wrong with that. It just means moderation is the new rule of my life now.
    Some animal studies with salty and sweet foods have actually shown addictive properties for some of them, but not all. I’d rather be addicted to feeling good. I get a bit of an endorphine high from exercise. I like feeling good. It’s what keeps me going. I won’t lie that sometimes it helps me keep at it. 🙂

  11. December 24, 2009 at 7:42 am

    I got news for you – sugar IS addictive! In her book ANATOMY OF A FOOD ADDICTION, Anne Katherine cites many studies describing how the neurochemistry of your brain changes when using an addictive substance. Not everyone is addicted to sugar (and refined grains), just like not everyone is addicted to alcohol and cocaine. But the brains of long term sugar users begin to resemble those of cocaine users. Sugar changes your mood and has truly awful impacts on your health – just like any of those street drugs do.
    BODA weight loss

  12. December 24, 2009 at 12:01 pm

    I am still not sure how I feel about a food addiction. I’m not a scientist, but for me, I was addicted to the pleasure and feelings I got from eating certain foods. Carrots didn’t do a thing for me, but chocolate sure did.

  13. 14 RA
    December 25, 2009 at 2:11 pm

    Hey Julie! I just stopped by to say Happy December 25th, or x-mas if you celebrate. Great blog. I don’t believe I have any addictions (co-dependency yes, addiction- not so much!) so I can’t chime in. Interesting as always. RA

  14. December 25, 2009 at 9:56 pm

    julie, i agree that we need to be careful about what is labeled addiction. addiction is serious and requires treatment and lifelong commitment to recovery. you and your other commenters have delved much farther into the technicalities of the definition than i am qualified to do. interesting reading! and thank you for stopping by my blog.

  15. December 27, 2009 at 5:42 pm

    we need food, so i kind of put it in a different category. i don’t know if sugar is addictive (who can eat just one little bite of chocolate without hungering for more?) but giving up sugar is not like giving up heroin.

    heroin gets at our opiate sensors and changes them, so we will want the feeling of heroin forever more.

    in recovery for all, i’ve seriously used crack, alcohol, klonopin, sleeping pills and occasionally painkillers.

    and i’ve been anorexic, bulimic, a compulsive eater and now rattle around with my ED.

    coming off klonopin was very, miserably physical and just plain miserable in its way. for me, that was the only one that was clearly something i was addicted to as the drug left my system. i didn’t take enough vicodin to have a physical reaction when i stopped using. with crack, i just slept a lot and was really, really cranky for a day or too.

    i know cigarettes are terribly addictive, but i have a feeling it’s the nicotine and not the sugar. alcohol has a lot of sugar and alcoholics tend to crave it when they’re in recovery, but i just haven’t hear that about cigarettes.

    but who knows, julie. by the way, i just woke up from a nap. hope this doesn’t ramble!

  16. December 28, 2009 at 12:29 pm

    While I think you are probably right in many cases, and in many cases people use addiction as an excuse, I do think there are people addicted to sugar. For example, when my wife attempted to totally come off of sugar, she began physically shaking and had incredible headaches. Does that mean it is as addictive as heroin? I don’t think so, but I still think there was evidence her body was/is addicted.

  17. December 29, 2009 at 6:28 am

    This is a hard one as I think that because sugar is socially acceptable (compared to heroin!) people will say they’re addicted to it without trying to see if they get withdrawal symptoms.

    I don’t think people are always necessarily addicted to it, these people just don’t want to try and give up sugar. For those who want to give up sugar but are having physical symptoms of addiction I can only wish them the best of luck with their addiction.

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