Are you really addicted to sugar?


 (photo credit: Lamantin, flickr)

Today I’m teaming up with The Nutrition Press to discuss sugar addictions! It’s something I hear bandied around a lot- people feel the need to ‘quit’ the sweet stuff because they just can’t control themselves around it. I’ve always been a little skeptical about this dramatic concept so I decided to investigate it a bit further.

Read on to find out if you really could be addicted to sugar!

This article originally appeared on The Nutrition Press. Reposted with permission.

I’m sure you’ve heard that it’s oh-so-hot right now to ‘quit’ sugar. The language we use to describe the supposed effects of sugar is alarming. You would think it was a very dangerous substance, the way it is described in the media! Apparently, sugar is ‘addictive’ and ‘toxic’ and not something we should be eating. I’m a little dubious that we are really addicted to the sweet stuff so I’m going to see what the evidence says.

Common arguments 

It is more addictive than cocaine

This TED ED video sums up this argument pretty well. Eating sugar triggers the reward system in the brain, which is designed to tell us if we should do something (engage in a behaviour) again.

The video argues that while sugar sets off our reward system, so do a number of other things that we find pleasurable like socializing. Our reward system is designed to motivate us to do things that are crucial for our long-term survival so it’s not something to be scared of.

As for the argument that it is more addictive than cocaine? Well, it would be unethical to do such a study in humans so the only evidence we really have to draw on are from animal studies like this one. When rats were made addicted to I.V cocaine and then offered sugar, almost all of the rats switched to sugar and this is commonly used evidence to support the notion that sugar is more addictive than cocaine. Or this one. When rats were given access to sugar for twelve hours a day and then deprived of sugar for two weeks, they essentially gorged themselves on sugar when they were allowed to eat it again. In both these cases, the rats could have simply been acting on a biological drive to stock up on energy dense food, in case food is scarce later on. James DiNicolantonio, cardiovascular research scientist admits that humans also have this natural biological drive to consume sweet things in anticipation of lean time ahead. I’ll expand on this in the next section.

So it’s important to remember that we can’t always make firm conclusions about how something will affect humans from animal studies and we need to keep in mind that addiction is complicated, and can’t be blamed on just one source.

You always inhale the whole cookie jar and this proves you have an addiction

It is very common for people to feel like they can’t control themselves around sweet food. When it comes to sweet and/or fatty foods many people feel unable to stop eating once they start, and often the only reason they stop is because the packet or jar is empty.

Proponents of the quitting sugar movement insist that this inability to stop eating is an addiction and should be dealt with in a similar manner to smoking- quitting cold turkey.

The evidence for a true addiction to food is slim. Ellyn Satter, world expert on eating, argues that is more likely the eating experience which we finding ‘addicting.’ As children, many of us were given food to either reward or soothe us and we can continue to do this into adulthood. Many finding eating to be an easy way of comforting themselves, rather than dealing with difficult emotions such as anger or sadness.

Instead of having an addiction, there could two issues at play- you are forbidding yourself to ever have ‘bad’ foods, and you are eating ‘bad’ foods without paying attention to what you are eating or your hunger and fullness signals.

Categorizing foods as ‘good’ and ‘bad’ depending on their nutritional content is a very common dieting trick designed to get you eating only healthy foods and never the ‘bad’ ones. Restricting ourselves from a food entirely can only last so long however as we are prone to overeating or binging on a food following a period of restriction.

Food scarcity or the threat of (in this case a self imposed feeling of scarcity) encourages you to over-eat. For example, you have labeled cookies as ‘bad’ and something that you should never eat, so when you happen across a packet of cookies, you feel like you can’t stop eating because you don’t know when you will be able to eat them again. You stuff them down quickly because you feel guilty about eating a ‘bad’ food and then vow to never to eat them again, thus perpetuating the feeling that the food is scarce.

Eating foods quickly because we feel guilty about eating them, doesn’t allow us to investigate and appreciate what that food tastes like. We are designed to enjoy foods so by eating quickly we sure are missing out on a big part of the human experience!

If we slow down and enjoy what we are eating we find that at first our food tastes really good but as we eat more of it, it begins to not taste the same as the first bite. Our senses are becoming saturated and what we are eating just isn’t as appealing to us anymore.

Eating without out first acknowledging whether we are hungry can also make it difficult to decide when to stop eating.

If you stop eating sugar suddenly, you experience withdrawal symptoms

There are whole websites dedicated to helping you swiftly identify sugar withdrawal symptoms, so you can diagnose that headache pronto!

If you are ‘quitting’ sugar by going on a fad diet, those headaches and weak feelings are probably your body’s way of telling you are aren’t getting enough food to sustain you. Even if you aren’t going on a fad diet, your morning doughnut or two, the chocolates you munch on in the afternoon, and a large milkshake or soft drink represents a significant number of calories and if you aren’t replacing them with an alternative food, your body is probably not going to be getting enough.

So, are you addicted to sugar?

Probably not. Despite what the media might want you to believe, sugar is no poison and is not something you need to ‘quit.’ The evidence just isn’t there. Your addiction is more likely a result of being taught to use food to self soothe or a result of telling yourself certain foods are ‘bad’ and shouldn’t be eaten

Telling yourself that you are ‘addicted’ to sugar is a disempowering and self-fulfilling thought. Remind yourself that there really is no such thing as ‘good’ and ‘bad’ foods and that it is truly okay to eat a cookie if you feel like it. You are in control of your food choices.


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