Is Sugar Addiction Real?
Ever heard this one before?? I know I have - and also felt that maybe I, too, was addicted to sugar/carbohydrates. When you google “Sugar Addiction” there are 89 million results - the top ones being fear mongering advice that tells us how we need to curb such “addiction” and avoid these cravings. I don’t know about you… but drinking a glass of water to “curb my cravings” has never made me want a sugary food less and is an unhelpful way that starts us towards a poor relationship with food. But that’s what these top articles tell you to do. Ignore that body sensation and thought of a craving! Run, take a walk, drink water instead! It is just not that easy and it’s undeniably frustrating. So I get you there - we need some answers!
Luckily I found some awesome information from other RDs who I admire — Marci Evans who does a lot of speaking on this topic and can be found here and here (on Laura Thomas, PHD’s podcast), and Robyn Nohling’s post linked here. What I found interesting (yet, not surprising) is that the science doesn’t necessarily match the extremist headlines that we usually see. You know, things like “Sugar is toxic!” or “Feel like you’re out of control with eating? Maybe you’re addicted to food.” I am making these up… but this is the kind of stuff we are dealing with when we google search pretty much any nutrition topic. Below I will discuss the current science and flaws on supposed sugar addiction and why we can feel out of control around food without being addicted! Truth be told, it is a common feeling.
Lets look at the science:
So far there is NO SCIENTIFIC EVIDENCE or physiological response that supports the idea that sugar is addictive. The research currently out there also uses a measure called the Yale Food Addiction Scale which is flawed and based off personal experience and does not take into account restriction or deprivation.
An important thing to note about this scale is that it didn’t measure deprivation or dieting as a factor that could contribute to the “addictive” qualities they were measuring. In a podcast Therapy Thoughts by Tiffany Roe featuring Evelyn Tribole, co-author of Intuitive Eating, she mentioned that the questionnaire was asking questions related to dieting, yet didn’t use this as a contributor to that addictive feeling.
In studies done on rats* (remember, we are not rats that are in a cage being monitored all day), the addictive qualities seen are only seen with intermittent access to sugar and not with unlimited access.
Again - when the sugar/food is “allowed” and rats are given ad libitum access, addictive-like behaviors are not seen. However, when rats are given intermittent access (shown as 12 hr fasts and then a 12 hr window of eating), they show binge-like or addictive-like behaviors as we would expect when one is under restriction/deprivation.
Those pictures of sugar and cocaine both having dopamine receptor stimulation in the brain are only comparable when, again, rodents were under deprivation. Otherwise, the brain does not develop the same dependency on food as it does for drugs.
Also - comparing these two neurological responses is similar to saying other things that exhibit a dopamine (“feel-good”) response are addicting (listening to music, holding a baby, playing with puppies, cuddling…).
Lastly, a quote from the researchers themselves illustrates quite nicely how demonizing sugar and creating a falsehood of “sugar addiction” is not helpful for the “obesity epidemic” OR the development of eating disorders.
“Given the multitude of interacting factors that increase one’s risk for eating disorders and obesity, we argue that support of sugar addiction as a primary causal mechanism of weight gain represents an extremely narrow view that fails to capture the complexity of these conditions, and one that may hamper more coordinated and appropriate responses.” (Westwater, 2016).
So why it is that we can feel “out of control” around food?
Let me make one thing clear - I want to validate and emphasize that it is a NORMAL sensation to feel out of control around sugar or any food, if you are one who has had their fair share of diets or has tried to avoid specific foods. Restriction of any specific food will actually increases the hedonic value of this food (AKA increases your sense of reward around this food)! So the more you restrict yourself of sugar/carbohydrate-rich foods - the more your body will crave and desire them.
One way to start navigating your acceptance of these foods is to provide yourself with permission to have these foods. This can be daunting at first - as most of us would think “then won’t I just eat sugar/carbs all day long?!” And really it is an individual experience. You might find yourself wanting these foods more early on. The end goal is that these foods won't hold that power and you won’t have any guilt/shame because they are just another food! Reminding yourself that you can always have them and practicing mindfulness is key in these moments too. If you are someone that craves sugary foods at night - try incorporating them a bit more during the day. Spreading them out and allowing yourself to have sweets throughout the day can lessen the desire to have them later on. Again, this doesn’t happen overnight and can be worked out with a dietitian/therapist if you need extra support!
Another important thing to note is the diet/restriction/binge cycle that we often see. It often starts out with dieting and “being healthy” or clean or conscious of our food which all likely fall under the umbrella of restriction. Once we restrict a food or in this case, sugar or carbohydrates, we start to feel that out of control feeling. Our body sends neurological responses to the brain saying - “get me that food!” because we need it and food is our primary goal. If we feel out of control, we often end up bingeing or overeating and “giving up.” This often is a last supper mentality, thinking we won’t get this food again because we are supposed to restrict it and to be healthy, we shouldn’t be having it. After this we may feel guilt/shame around food and likely go back to dieting and start the cycle again.
Sugar and carbohydrates are often foods that we restrict because we have been told to think they are bad for us (thx, diet culture). It is important to emphasize that we NEED carbohydrates - and our brain runs exclusively on glucose from these foods. Carbohydrates and sugar-laden food also cause serotonin to be released when eaten, one of our happy hormones. So it is natural response to find pleasure in these foods. The more we allow ourselves to incorporate these foods, the less out of control we will feel around them.
When you work towards cultivating a better relationship with food and use skills that can help you navigate these thoughts or judgements, you can reach a place of neutrality and calmness around them. When I say better relationship - I mean being able to approach all foods with a neutral perspective. The all or nothing thinking can backlash and leave you feeling out of control. Lastly, if you often find yourself bingeing or overeating - it is likely due to either restriction or an underlying emotional response. I highly suggest working with a non-diet dietitian and therapist if you have these thoughts/feelings around food or have seen yourself continuously in this cycle.
Westwater ML, Fletcher PC, Ziauddeen H. Sugar addiction: the state of the science. Eur J Nutr. 2016;55(Suppl 2):55–69. doi:10.1007/s00394-016-1229-6
Podcasts: (this is a just a short-list of ones that I used when drafting this post)