That Sugar Movement


Could your teen be addicted to sugary drinks?


Sugar. When free or added, the body of evidence for adverse health effects from consuming too much is ever-growing, such as tooth decay and excessive weight gain.1-3

Eating sweet foods can stimulate the reward centres of the brain, but can we be addicted to sugar?

As we saw in That Sugar Film, Damon experienced addictive-like behaviours and withdrawals to the sweet stuff, and while science is yet to definitively endorse the relationship, research into the area continues to grow.

Including a recent, small exploratory study from the University of California, which investigated the impact on teens going cold turkey from regular sugary drink consumption, with interesting results!

The study
A small cohort of 25 overweight or obese participants aged 13-18 years were told to continue their usual beverage intake of 3 or more sugar-sweetened beverages (SSB) a day leading up to a 3-day intervention. During the intervention, they were instructed to only drink water and plain milk.4

Having cut out the sugary drinks, participants reported intakes of 80g less total sugar and 16g less of added sugar.

Without the sugary drinks, adolescents reported increased SSB cravings and headaches, and decreased motivation, contentment, ability to concentrate, and overall wellbeing.

It is also important to note that most participants did not consume high amounts of caffeine prior to the study, so the likelihood of such symptoms being related to caffeine withdrawal is reduced.

This study provides preliminary evidence of withdrawal symptoms and increased SSB cravings in teens having given up the drinks, indicating the potential for sugar to be addictive, adding to a relatively new but growing area of research with parallels to substance abuse.

In line with this, a piece of significant research was recently released describing the strong potential of a relationship between high sugar intake and risky behaviours in teens, including substance abuse.5

Teens and sugar
While no age group benefits from too much added or free sugar, of particular concern is the excess consumption by our teenagers.

According to the study authors, teens are the greatest consumers sugary drinks. Intake has increased significantly over past decades and they have simultaneously experienced the greatest relative gains in obesity.6

Then, there is the concern for adolescence being a time for increased susceptibility to addiction. Such a study provides preliminary evidence that will ideally be repeated with a larger sample to further evidence to the connection, as this knowledge has important implications for adolescent and public health.

Any which way we cut the sugary-pie, sweetened drinks are not good for anyone, including teenagers.

If there is one thing we can do to help the developing body and brains of our youth, it will be to limit SSB intake. While we cannot control everything a teenager does, we can have some influence over their exposure and environment. Consider not having any sugary beverages in the home and advocate for schools, community and recreation centres to cease selling such drinks, to decrease opportunities to access, offering water and plain milk instead.

 By Angela Johnson (BHSc Nut. Med.)



  1. Moynihan PJ & Kelly SA, 2014, ‘Effect on caries of restricting sugars intake: systematic review to inform WHO guidelines’, Journal of Dental Research, 93, no. 1, pp. 8–18.
  2. Sheiham, A & James, WP 2014, ‘A reappraisal of the quantitative relationship between sugar intake and dental caries: the need for new criteria for developing goals for sugar intake’, BMC Public Health, vol. 14, no. 863.
  3. Te Morenga, L Mallard, S & Mann, J 2013, ‘Dietary sugars and body weight: systematic review and metaanalyses of randomised controlled trials and cohort studies’, The BMJ, 346, no. 7492
  4. Falbe, J et. al 2018, ‘Potentially addictive properties of sugar-sweetened beverages among adolescents’, Appetite, vol. 133, pp.130-137
  5. Bruckauf, Z & Walsh, SD 2018, ‘Adolescents’ multiple and individual risk behaviors: Examining the link with excessive sugar consumption across 26 industrialized countries’, Social Science & Medicine, vol. 216, pp. 133-141.
  6. UC Davis 2018, Sugar-Sweetened Beverages Are Harmful to Health and May Be Addictive, Researchers Suggest[Press release], 20 November, Available at: 4 December 2018).
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