A big shoutout and thank you to the brilliant Elisabeth and Caroline from Fight the Fads for this one!

Fight the Fads is a source of no-nonsense evidence based nutrition information, run by two registered dietitians; Caroline and Elisabeth. Fight the Fads aims to remove the fear and confusion around food with science on Instagram, Twitter and on the blog www.fightthefads.com

Let’s clear some confusion around the S word: Sugar

Sugar is a general name used to describe sweet-tasting carbohydrates that are either found naturally in foods or added to foods.

Sugars that occur naturally in foods include “lactose” found in milk, “glucose” found in carbohydrate-containing foods such as bread or pasta and “fructose” found in fruits and vegetables.

Table sugar, the kind you add to tea or use in baking is “sucrose” this is a combination of both glucose and fructose.


What is free sugar?

So you may have heard it is healthy to reduce your “free sugar” intake, but what actually is “free sugar”?

The term “free sugars” describes all sugars added to foods, as well as the sugar naturally present in honey, syrups and fruit juices. These sugars are called “free” because they are not inside the cells of the food we eat.

Our bodies process sugars found naturally within milk, fruit and vegetables in a slightly different way to ‘free sugars’.

The sugar within these foods is not “free”, it is contained within the cells of the food and our body has to work to release it for energy, so the energy is released more slowly than the energy from free sugars.

The NHS recommendation to eat foods that contain less than 5g of sugar per 100g relate to the foods containing the ‘free sugars’, the other sugars contained in milk, yoghurt, fruits and vegetables are not included in this recommendation and are an important part of a healthy balanced diet.


A word on yoghurts    

Recently there were some headlines telling us that “Yoghurts contain more sugar than a can of coke?” This is misleading.

As discussed, yoghurts like milk contain a naturally occurring sugar known as lactose. Lactose is NOT considered a free sugar, so the sugars naturally found in yoghurts don’t count towards our limit of 30g of sugar/day.

BUT an important thing to note is that SOME yoghurts also contain “free sugar” that is added during the manufacturing process (as well as the naturally occurring lactose).

Generally flavoured yoghurts are more likely to have added sugar than plain or Greek-style yoghurts.

Yoghurts are also good sources of protein, calcium, iodine and also feed our gut bacteria.


Is Sugar Addictive?

A lot of, media headlines in the past have compared sugar to addictive substances such as heroin, cocaine or alcohol.

Our clinical experience has shown us that some people believe they are “addicted to food” by explaining that they often feel a loss of control around certain foods and this leads to episodes of overeating or using food to ‘self-medicate’ to improve negative mood.

Sweet foods are highly desirable due to the powerful impact sugar has on the reward system in the brain.  This is the same system that is hijacked when drugs such as cocaine, heroin or alcohol are used leading to intense feelings of reward that can result in cravings and addiction. The fact that sugar lights up the same brain pathway as drugs an alcohol, has lead scientists to question if sugar too could be “addictive”.


This brain pathway is activated by other natural rewards and behaviours that are essential to continuing the species, such as eating tasty, high energy foods, having sex and interacting socially. Activating this system makes you want to carry out the behaviour again, as it feels good.

These behaviours are essential to survive so it makes sense that the body has a mechanism to encourage them so we continue to carry out these behaviours. The knowledge that sugar activates a reward system in the brain does not alone provide evidence that sugar is addictive.

What does the research say?

First, it’s important to say that the same three features that are used to diagnose drug addiction: bingeing, craving and withdrawal have been used to investigate food addiction.

There is no concrete evidence that links sugar with addiction in humans currently.

In rats the method used to investigate sugar addiction involves allowing rats access to sugary water and standard rat food for 12 hours, followed by deprivation of sugar and rat food, repeated in a cycle over a month.

In rats where this sugar binging/deprivation cycle is induced, signs of craving and withdrawal are observed. These studies are often used to support the argument that sugar is “addictive.

However, it has been suggested that these studies are actually examining the effect of repeated bings/restriction cycles. Other evidence shows that rats that haven’t fasted, don’t binge on the sugary water.

So this suggests that it is that repeated restriction/binging cycles that may lead to the development of features of addiction such as craving and withdrawal symptoms.

Supporting this argument is evidence that suggests that dietary restriction in humans can lead to increased hunger and cravings and can be linked to the development of eating disorders including binge eating disorders.

This has important implications for the management of disordered eating patterns.

If you have felt like you may be “addicted to food” or are experiencing cravings, withdrawal or loss of control around certain foods, seek help from a specialist eating disorder dietitian or registered nutritionist who specialises in disordered eating.


Fight the Fads is a source of no-nonsense evidence based nutrition information, run by two registered dietitians; Caroline and Elisabeth. Fight the Fads aims to remove the fear and confusion around food with science on Instagram, Twitter and on the blog www.fightthefads.com


Instagram @goodnessguru