Do a Google search for ‘sugar addiction’ and you will see a flood of responses suggesting that sugar is as dangerous, addictive, and harmful to your health as hardcore drugs like heroin and cocaine.
A couple clicks in and you might be convinced that you are, in fact, a sugar addict and that is why you can’t stop once you start into the bowl of Halloween candy or the plate of Christmas cookies.
Because phrases like ‘food addiction’ and ‘sugar addiction’ are thrown around so casually (even presumably credible medical authorities are talking about them) we are led to believe that they must be real conditions. Moreover, we assume that the traditional treatment protocol (abstinence), used to treat other substance addictions (like drugs and alcohol), must apply.
So – what does the evidence say about sugar addiction? Is it real? And, is abstinence the best solution? And most importantly, how can you navigate this upcoming season of eating, without feeling as though you lost control…again?
Is sugar addiction a real diagnosis?
The short answer: no.
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Not currently, at least, as no set of diagnostic criteria exists to diagnose sugar addiction, or any food addiction for that matter. And, the evidence to support such a diagnosis, in the way that other substance addictions are diagnosed, does not yet exist.
But doesn’t our brain respond to sugar just like it does drugs?
While there are some similarities between the body’s response to sugar and the body’s response to other addictive substances, like cocaine and heroin, they actually seem to be more different than alike.
It is true, eating sweet foods activates the pleasure centers in the brain and makes us feel good. Just like drugs. And, just like exercise, sex, laughter, music, and other good-tasting foods.
Moreover, sugar does not appear to initiate long-term changes in the neural circuitry of the brain in the same way that other addictive substances do, which is, in part, what makes them so addictive (1).
That is certainly not to say that your feelings around and cravings for sweet foods aren’t sometimes so intense that it seems like an addiction. And, that your subsequent behaviors with those foods don’t resemble addictive-like behaviors. They probably do. But, faulting a sugar addiction for those feelings and actions may actually be more harmful than helpful.
What’s wrong with calling it a sugar addiction?
Labeling our experience with sugar as an addiction can leave us feeling hopeless and helpless – as if we are a victim to the foods that control us with no way out. Here’s the problem with that:
- The messages we tell ourselves about how we will respond to certain situations, in this case, eating sugary foods can become something of a self-fulling prophecy. In other words, we tell ourselves that if we begin to eat these sweet foods, we won’t be able to stop.
We determine the outcome of the situation before we even begin eating, so when we do eventually eat that food (because sooner or later, we almost always will eat the food), we do exactly what we said we would. We overeat it because we really haven’t allowed space for an alternative response.
- It also interferes with our ability to really understand what is driving our decision to eat these foods to begin with. When do you find yourself craving sugar the most?
- After a hard, stressful day? (When you are seeking emotional comfort)
- Mid-afternoon, when your energy levels begin to drag at work? (When you are looking for a quick pick-me-up)
- When you relax on the couch at night in front of the TV? (Because it’s habit)
- When you’ve told yourself you aren’t allowed to have them? (Because you want to rebel against the rules you’ve set for yourself)
Sometimes we will choose to eat a sweet food just because that is what we feel like eating (and that’s okay), but we may choose to eat it for many other reasons, too. Understanding the reasons we eat sweet food is critical to being able to change our behaviors.
It allows us to recognize what it is that we are truly looking for from that food and how we might be able to meet that need in a different way.
When we chalk our experience up to a sugar addiction, implying that it’s something we can’t control, we fail to recognize the very reasons we are turning to these foods to begin with and deny ourselves the opportunity to choose another path.
- We develop an all-or-nothing mindset, which leads to all-or-nothing actions. We believe that the only way to kick this addiction is to completely abstain from the problem food. After all, that is central to the treatment of other substance addictions. The problem here is, that is very rarely effective, and here’s why:
- The more we deprive ourselves, the more we want the restricted food.
- Unlike drugs, totally eliminating sugar from our environment is a near impossible feat. And, in the process of trying to do that, our worlds can become very small – for example, missing out on social occasions and special events because of the food, or our uncertainty about the food.
Eventually we’ll reach our breaking point and “give in.” And, when we do, we often over-consume the food we’ve been trying to avoid. We go from one extreme (complete restriction) to the other extreme (overeating).
We call this the restrict-binge cycle and it’s very common when we try to control our eating behaviors through rigid and restrictive means.
Moreover, this reinforces the belief that we cannot trust ourselves – furthering our restrictive efforts, but always winding up with the same outcome.
We see a similar response in animals used in sugar addiction research. Addiction-like, bingeing behavior only appears to occur following a period of restricted food access.
In other words, when animals are deprived of food for several hours and then granted access to a sugar-solution, they binge. Whereas animals free-fed a sugar-solution do not exhibit addictive-like behavior.
This may suggest that the binging behaviors are, in-part, related to perceived scarcity of the preferred food and uncertainty about when it will be available again (2).
So what do you do if you feel like you are addicted to sugar? Check out Part II, in which we’ll explore strategies for overcoming your feelings of sugar addiction and how to eat your favorite sweet foods in a way that feels good for your body.
And watch a recording of our sugar addiction webinar!
Before you vow to avoid all the Halloween candy and skip the cookies this year, join registered dietitian, and Green Mountain at Fox Run Nutrition Lead, Dana Notte for a recording of our webinar on sugar addiction.
- De Jong JW, Vanderschuren LJ, Adan RA. The mesolimbic system and eating addiction: what sugar does and does not do. Current Opinion in Behavioral Sciences. 2016 Jun 30;9:118-25.
- Westwater ML, Fletcher PC, Ziauddeen H. Sugar addiction: the state of the science. European Journal of Nutrition. 2016 Jul 2:1-5.