Eating dependence and weight gain; no human evidence for a 'sugar-addiction' model of overweight

Appetite. 2017 Jul 1:114:64-72. doi: 10.1016/j.appet.2017.03.024. Epub 2017 Mar 19.


Background and aims: There is an increasing societal concern that consumption of specific foods such as sugar might become 'addictive' and, hence, promote weight gain. Claims about the addictiveness of sugar however are based largely on findings from few animal studies, whereas there is a lack of direct human evidence for symptoms of sugar-related substance dependence. The current study examined in a large sample of human participants whether foods mainly containing sugar in particular might cause 'addiction-like' problems that meet clinical DSM criteria for substance dependence, and, also whether in turn this relates to body weight and negative affectivity (depressed mood).

Methods: In a cross-sectional study, n = 1495 university students from a variety of faculties were assessed for DSM-related signs of food addiction for particular food categories (YFAS), and, also BMI and negative affectivity.

Results: Results revealed that from the total sample, 95% experienced at least one symptom of food dependence and 12.6% met the YFAS classification for 'food addiction' as related to DSM-IV criteria. The majority of respondents experienced these problems for combined high-fat savoury (30%) and high-fat sweet (25%) foods, whereas only a minority experienced such problems for low-fat/savoury (2%) and mainly sugar-containing foods (5%). Overweight correlated only with addictive-like problems for high-fat savoury and high-fat sweet foods (P < 0.0001), while this was not found for foods mainly containing sugar.

Conclusion: The current findings indicate that sugary foods contribute minimally to 'food dependence' and increased risk of weight gain. Instead, they are consistent with the current scientific notion that food energy density, and the unique individual experience of eating, plays an important role in determining the reward value of food and promoting excessive energy intake.

Keywords: BMI; Eating behaviour; Food addiction; Obesity; Sugar; YFAS.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Behavior, Addictive / psychology*
  • Cross-Sectional Studies
  • Dietary Sugars / administration & dosage*
  • Feeding Behavior / psychology*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Models, Psychological*
  • Overweight / psychology*
  • Students / psychology
  • Students / statistics & numerical data
  • Surveys and Questionnaires
  • Weight Gain*
  • Young Adult


  • Dietary Sugars