Curb your sugar and caffeine addictions

9 February 2014

If you regularly grab an espresso and sugary muffin as you head to the office, topping up your caffeine and sugar intake throughout the day with sweet energy drinks and trips to the chocolate machine, then you may have a problem.

Sugary junk food and caffeine have been in the news in the past few days; sugar because we’re all eating huge amounts of it and new research published in the JAMA Internal Medicine journal revealed that consuming too much on a daily basis may triple your risk of dying from heart disease.

Caffeine has been in the headlines, because experts – including the World Health Organization and the American Psychiatric Association – are now  recognising a condition called caffeine overuse disorder.

Can our favourite treats really be as addictive as alcohol or drugs? Are they really bad for you?

Can sugar really be addictive?

Research carried out last year by US researchers at Connecticut College found eating cookies stimulated more neurons in the brain’s ‘pleasure centre’ than exposure to hard drugs such as cocaine.

Professor Joseph Schoeder, associate professor at Connecticut College who led the research on lab rats, said: ‘Our research supports the theory that high-fat/ high-sugar foods stimulate the brain in the same way that drugs do. It may explain why some people can’t resist these foods despite the fact they know they are bad for them.’

What’s the chemistry?

Beth Burgess, addictions therapist, says certain substances including foods can produce a surge of dopamine release in the brain – a feel-good chemical associated with pleasure – but also a ‘seeking-craving’ chemical which can induce cravings for more of the chemical that induced the high.

‘There are two sorts of addict: those with a genetic susceptibility to dopamine release – they will experience cravings for more of the substance that gave them the hit – and those who are just eating so much sugar their body becomes desensitized to the dopamine hit and they crave more and more of it.

One problem these days is that so much sugar is added to foods and drink – the rise of the supersize muffin and cookie, for instance – so lots of people may be consuming so much sugar they overstimulate their receptors for dopamine.’

Why too much sugar is bad for you.

According to findings in the British Medical Journal, too much sugar is linked to weight gain, obesity, type 2 diabetes, tooth decay and other associated health problems.

Every week the average Brit consumes 238 teaspoons of sugar and Leatherhead Food Researchers say that every year each of us will consume 9.5kg of chocolate – only the Irish and Swiss eat more chocolate than us.

Concerns about our national sweet tooth have now reached fever pitch, so much so that a new pressure group, Action on Sugar, has been formed. The group is campaigning for a 20-30 per cent reduction in the amount of sugar added to processed foods.

Cardiologist and Science Director of Action on Sugar, Dr Aseem Malhotra, says: ‘Added sugar has no nutritional value whatsoever, and causes no feeling of satiety.

Aside from being a major cause of obesity, there is increasing evidence that added sugar increases the risk of developing type 2 diabetes, metabolic syndrome and fatty liver disease.’

Caffeine overuse disorder

New research published in the US by Laura Juliano, associate professor of psychology at American University, Washington, found more people are dependent on caffeine to the point that they suffer withdrawal symptoms and are unable to reduce consumption even if they have another condition affected by caffeine such as a heart condition or during pregnancy.

She said: ‘While many people can consume caffeine without harm, for some it produces negative effects, physical dependence, interferes with daily functioning and can be difficult to give up – signs of problematic use.’

Although some benefits of caffeine include alertness, relief from physical exhaustion and sharpened mental awareness, it also exacerbates anxiety and sleep disorders.

Laura Juliano advises healthy adults should limit caffeine intake to 400mg a day (2-3 8oz cups) and pregnant women should have less than 200mg.

Do you have a problem?

‘If you think you’re eating too much sugar and caffeine, try giving up one or both and see how you get on,’ says Beth Burgess. ‘If you can’t manage without them you’re probably an addict. Does it matter? It depends what effect it is having on your health.’

Tips for kicking the habit:

  • Try cutting it out: ‘Switch to natural artificial sweeteners like stevia and decaffeinated drinks to help wean off sugar and caffeine,’ advises Beth. ‘If you are truly an addict it’s best not to touch either as just a small amount could kick off your cravings.’
  • Find other ways to get pleasure: ‘Taking some exercise or talking to a friend can induce dopamine release, distract you from cravings and help break the cycle of dependency. Find something else that makes you happy,’ says Beth.
  • Deal with negative feelings: ‘If stress is a trigger to overindulge on chocolate or sweet things, recognise and deal with it, and develop strategies for coping with it such as cognitive behavioural therapy or relaxation techniques.

Similarly, if you recognise you have been eating sweet things because of loneliness or unhappiness, do something about it. Seek professional help or make more effort to socialise with friends.’


JAMA Internal Medicine

Caffeine overuse disorder

Connecticut College in the US


Teaspoons of sugar

Action on Salt

Laura Juliano research

Anxiety and sleep