Sugar-sweetened beverages may be quite addictive and can lead to withdrawal symptoms when a consumer quits suddenly. In a new study, teen participants who were deprived of sugary drinks for just three days reported headaches, cravings, lack of motivation and other withdrawal symptoms.

The new findings, published in the journal Appetite, are consistent with previous research suggesting the addictive potential for sugar, a relatively new but burgeoning area with parallels to substance abuse.

“An abundance of research points to sugary drinks as contributing to a number of chronic diseases. Our findings — that these drinks may have addictive properties — make their ubiquitous availability and advertising to youth even more concerning for public health,” said lead author Dr. Jennifer Falbe, assistant professor in the Department of Human Ecology in the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences at the University of California (UC) Davis.

Prior to the research, all 25 participants (ages 13 to 18) had reported that they normally consumed at least three sugar-sweetened beverages a day. All participants were overweight and three-quarters were female.

The teens were told to consume their normal beverages for five days. Then for three days afterward, they were instructed to consume only water or plain milk. Participants kept beverage journals and reported in to researchers several times during the study.

They also submitted saliva samples to test for caffeine intake, which could influence the results. Most of the teens were not high caffeine consumers before the study, reducing the likelihood that they were just suffering from caffeine withdrawal, an established disorder, rather than also reduced sugar intake.

During the three-day period of cessation from sugary drinks, the teens reported the following specific symptoms: increased headaches, decreased motivation to do work, lack of contentment and ability to concentrate, cravings for sugary drinks, and lower ratings of overall well-being.

The study has strong implications as sugar-sweetened beverage consumption by teens has increased five-fold since the 1950s, and adolescence is a time for increased susceptibility to addiction. Young people, the report said, consume the largest amounts of sugary beverages and have seen the greatest relative gains in obesity in the past several decades.

“These results, combined with present and future corroborating evidence, could inform clinical practice around helping adolescents reduce sugar-sweetened beverage intake, have important implications for messaging in public health campaigns, and inform the need for efforts to reduce sugar-sweetened-beverage advertising to youth and those drinks’ availability in and around schools,” the report concluded.

Source: University of California, Davis