Food and Behaviour Research

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Sugar Addiction: From Evolution to Revolution

Wiss, DA, Avena N, Rada P. (2018) Frontiers in Psychiatry 9 545. doi: 10.3389/fpsyt.2018.00545. eCollection 2018. 

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The obesity epidemic has been widely publicized in the media worldwide. Investigators at all levels have been looking for factors that have contributed to the development of this epidemic.

Two major theories have been proposed: (1) sedentary lifestyle and (2) variety and ease of inexpensive palatable foods.

In the present review, we analyze how nutrients like sugar that are often used to make foods more appealing could also lead to habituation and even in some cases addiction thereby uniquely contributing to the obesity epidemic.

We review the evolutionary aspects of feeding and how they have shaped the human brain to function in "survival mode" signaling to "eat as much as you can while you can." This leads to our present understanding of how the dopaminergic system is involved in reward and its functions in hedonistic rewards, like eating of highly palatable foods, and drug addiction.

We also review how other neurotransmitters, like acetylcholine, interact in the satiation processes to counteract the dopamine system. Lastly, we analyze the important question of whether there is sufficient empirical evidence of sugar addiction, discussed within the broader context of food addiction.


This review highlights the failure of standard models of the causes of obesity to provide effective ways of reducing its prevalence, and critically reviews the evidence that high-sugar foods and diets, and their effects on dopaminargic and other 'reward' signalling systems in the brain, supports the idea of 'food addiction'.

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