Can't stop eating sugar? Here's five reasons you're not addicted to sugar, and the REAL culprit that's fueling your sweet tooth.
Years ago, before the sight of Dr. Oz made me want to slowly peel my fingernails off while listening to Nickleback at full blast, I sat down to an episode after work that covered the topic of sugar addiction. His guest was one of those holistic celebrity doctors who was there to discuss a new study that showed sugar is as addictive as cocaine (it's not, but we'll get to that later). In a feeble attempt to be fair and balanced, there was a registered dietitian, sitting in the front row rather than on stage with the doc, who shared her scientific opinion on why sugar addiction is not real.
After she spoke, they cut to the audience, who was clearly team overly self tanned doctors. They shared their stories of feeling completely out of control around sweets, which all had the common theme of once you pop, you can't stop. It was sad. Clearly, they were all people who valued their health, otherwise they wouldn't be going to a Dr. Oz live taping, yet despite knowing how eating excess amounts of sugar was harming them, just the smallest amount would trigger out of control eating. To them, it was abstain or die.
Back when I was watching this show, I was still trying to figure out my position. At the time, I didn't fully grasp the powerful pull diet mentality has on food choices and eating behaviors. But now, I'm of the firm belief that outside of the possibility of a few rare clinical situations, sugar addiction does not exist. Here are five reasons why:
1. SUGAR IS FINE IN MODERATION, DRUGS ARE NOT
Yes, if you look at the health of our nation, added sugar in all forms, absolutely, positively, takes a toll. But this is because of the sheer quantity we consume. According to recent studies, the average American adult consumes 22 teaspoons a day while children consume a shocking 32 teaspoons daily. To put that in perspective, most organizations recommend less than 9 teaspoons daily. It's this massive consumption of sugar (and the heavily processed, nutrient poor foods in which it's frequently found) that can have an effect on health, not sugar by itself.
No study has ever linked health concerns with moderate amounts of sugar, which can make eating healthfully more pleasurable, an important and often overlooked facet of health. I think even the most ardent sugar-phobes would admit the occasional consumption of something sweet isn't going to lead to have any health concerns. I don't think we can say the same thing about crystal meth.
2. RAT STUDIES ARE KIND OF DUMB
One of the big arguments for sugar addiction are rat studies that have shown more addictive and drug seeking behaviors for sugar than illicit drugs including cocaine, heroin and crystal meth. I have a couple problems with these studies. First off, we are humans, not rats. Both physically and psychologically, we are different species. Rats primary concern in life and survival as a species is highly dependent on finding food in any form. Remember Templeton the rat from Charlotte's Web? Ratatouille?
Rats don't deal with peer pressure to do drugs. Rats don't have childhood trauma that causes them to reach for mind altering substances to numb their emotions. Rats want food, and sugar is food. Of course they choose sugar over drugs. It's their primal drive kicking in.
Also, these studies show rats displaying addictive and drug seeking behavior when they are given intermittent access to sugar, AKA restriction. This actually confirms what we know about humans and sugar - when you take something away (aka diet) you obsess over it (aka crave) then over-consume (aka binge).
The whole sugar being more addictive than drugs metaphor goes way too far. If people really think that sugar is more addictive than drugs, then we probably need to start arresting grocery store managers for drug trafficking.
3. THERE'S A LOT OF THINGS THAT TRIGGER THE ADDICTION PATHWAY
To dumb down the addiction pathway: essentially doing drugs releases a flood of feel good hormones, especially dopamine, which triggers the part of the brain that's responsible for reward. Yes, sugar triggers this pathway, but so do a lot of other things including naps, exercise, sex, connecting with others, and ALL food, not just food that breaks down into sugar. I once read a study that showed people, even couples who had been happily married for years, get a flood of dopamine when they're shown pictures of their ex. If science tells me I get a flood of dopamine when I see a picture of an ex-boyfriend, so be it, but I can tell you for damn sure I'm not addicted to them.
If sugar and other food didn't trigger the dopamine-reward cycle, we wouldn't be alive today. Without it, prehistoric humans would have starved to death and earth would probably be ruled, well, maybe by rats.
4. IF SUGAR WAS ADDICTIVE, YOU WOULD GET AN EQUAL HIGH FROM BANANAS AND YOGURT
Many foods are naturally rich in sugar, namely fruits and dairy. If sugar was truly addictive, then it would also include these foods, which can be equal in sugar content to common sweets. But do you ever hear of people binging on cantaloupe or milk? Probably not, because these foods generally aren't placed off limits, triggering the drive to eat.
Someone who is addicted to drugs will go to extraordinary lengths to get even the smallest amount of the substance they are addicted to. When I worked at a hospital, I once discovered an alcoholic patient completely wasted from drinking an entire bag of hand sanitizer. We don't see people going to these extremes with sugar.
5. BINGE EATING DECREASES WHEN GIVEN ACCESS TO "FORBIDDEN FOODS"
It's a common part of treatment for binge eating disorder to include "forbidden foods" or trigger foods in a meal plan, as multiple studies have shown this reduces binge eating behavior. If sugar was truly addictive, this would be counterproductive. Can you imagine a rehab facility providing regular doses of alcohol or drugs? I think not!
SO WHY CAN'T I STOP EATING?
Behaviors that on the surface look and feel like sugar addiction are a function of diet mentality, which can have just as powerful of a pull as addiction. By restricting foods, either literally or emotionally (by labeling it as bad/guilty/unhealthy), it creates real or perceived deprivation, triggering a primal drive to eat. Removing the labels and allowing yourself to indulge in your cravings, you'll find addiction-like behavior goes away.
As someone who struggled with binge eating in the past, I 100% understand how it can feel so much like a real addiction. I can also understand the sense of relief that comes with being labeled an addict. We commonly view eating behavior as controlled by willpower, so when you can't stop eating sugar, it feels like a personal failure. The addict label takes the blame and responsibility and puts it on the food and it's "addictive" properties. But the truth is, neither of these explanations are accurate. It's neither lack of willpower or addiction - it's the diet mentality in the drivers seat making your eating decisions for you.
P.S. If you want research debunking the sugar addiction theory, here's a great journal article.
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