The truth about sugar addiction and what to do about it

Most of us love sweet treats. We crave them, we’re unable to stop at a taste and can find ourselves going through feelings of withdrawal without the sweet stuff. If you’ve ever seen That Sugar Film or basically been online at all, you’ve no doubt heard at some point that sugar is ‘addictive’. They will even go so far as to compare it to hard drugs such as heroin or cocaine. The argument says that brain scans have confirmed that intermittent sugar consumption affects the brain in ways similar to certain drugs.

Scary huh? But what’s the real story behind these headlines? Is it as simple as that? Or is there something more going on? And if it’s not addictive, you may wonder, why then, do you feel so out of control when you eat sugary foods?

Firstly, let's define sugar. Sugar can be both natural or ‘processed’. It’s found in everything from chocolate bars to apples. To our bodies, sugar and how we process it is the same regardless of where it’s coming from. The difference is that natural sugars found in fruit contain so many important nutrients as well as fibre, and protein and this influences how our body handles this sugar.

Processed sugars are handled slightly differently by our bodies. They are often devoid of nutrients and are consumed solely for pleasure or energy. This doesn’t mean that we can’t have it though! In fact, as humans, we’re hard-wired to enjoy the taste of sweet things as it gives us energy and sometimes nutrients as well. As a human species, this appreciation of sugar was a survival mechanism.

Today, however, sugar is everything. It’s no longer a lucky booster that our early ancestors enjoyed. It’s in everything from yoghurt to soup to lollies these days. Because of this, we’re consuming more and thus the rise of the fear-based marketing around sugar.

Sugar is labelled ‘poison’ ‘toxic’, ‘addictive’ and a host of other things. But if sugar was really so bad, would we be hard wired to enjoy it? Do you know of any other poisonous foods that we readily crave?

I’d like to argue that the issue is not sugar, but the fear based marketing surrounding it.

I’m not saying that sugar in large quantities isn’t unhealthy and it really bothers me that it’s found in just about every product at the supermarket these days. But, like all foods, it’s the dose that is the issue, not the food itself. Even too much kale can be bad for our health! We just don’t often crave kale, or at least I don’t!

So, is sugar really addictive?

The argument is that the reward area of the brain is activated when we eat sugar, just as it is with hard drugs. It’s true that the reward area of the brain is activated, but it’s also activated when we give our loved ones hugs, when we pet our fur babies or when we engage in our favourite activities. And that is where the link between sugar and the brain ends. Unlike cocaine and heroin, sugar does not produce long-lasting changes to the brain. So, while there is an initial response (pleasure) the effects on the brain are not long-term like hard drugs.

The addictive behaviours only happen when sugar is restricted. This behaviour has been demonstrated in mice (poor things) who are given sugar then restricted periodically. The mice will hoard the sugar, eat heaps of it, when they get the chance because, well, they don’t know when they will get another chance (sound familiar?)

Addictive behaviours around sugar are because of perceived scarcity. It’s that feeling of having to load up (I’ll just go back on the diet tomorrow) because you don’t know when you’ll get another chance. They call this the “Last Supper Phenomenon”.

Also, have you noticed that you don’t crave things like orange juice, or raw sugar packets? It’s less the sugar that is addictive and more the sweet spot created when we combine it with other ingredients. Sugar — fat — salt — cocoa = chocolate. Yum.

So, while sugar is not ‘addictive’ in the same way as some drugs, the feeling we get from consuming it can lead to feelings so strong that it can feel like you’re addicted. This being said, labelling it as addictive is not going to be helpful.

So, how can we manage these feelings of addiction around sweet treats?

1. Press Pause: Stopping before eating sweet stuff (or anything really) to ask yourself “Am I Hungry” is a powerful first step. It enables you to have the opportunity to tune in and to have a choice rather than eating in the unconscious state we often find ourselves in. If you’re hungry, check in to see what your body wants, and needs (READ MORE) and if you’re not hungry, be aware of what your body is actually crying out for. Awareness gives you choice, it gives you control and it empowers you.

2. Feed the Need: Sweet foods are a common go to when we’re feeling low in energy, stressed or emotional. They give us energy and make us feel good, even momentarily and so when it comes to sweet foods, often it’s not the sugar that is the ‘problem’ but the fact that you’re low in energy, stressed or emotional. In order to curb these cravings it’s important to ‘feed the true need’ otherwise these cravings will keep coming and the cycle will continue.

3. Unconditional Permission: Eliminating sugar completely is fairly difficult, it’s EVERYWHERE. Our ability to resist sugar weakens over time and then when we finally get a taste, we go nuts! We often have that mindset of ‘I already blew it, so I might as well keep going’ or we choose to eat it so that it doesn’t tempt us later. The more extreme our eating patterns are, the more powerful it will be when we lose our grip. We restrict, we binge and then we do it over and over again. As mentioned, we’ve seen this addictive behaviour in animals. When animals are given unlimited exposure to certain foods they enjoy, they don’t tend to overeat it. But when we restrict it, watch out!

And so, if we want to change, we need to allow for unconditional permission. If you really want something sweet, have it, enjoy it and be grateful. We’ve already discussed how these feelings of scarcity can lead to over-consumption. I wrote more about it HERE. And don’t worry, I totally get that this is easier said than done and that it might be scary to have sweet foods in the house again. But I ask you — has restriction or rules ever worked long term? What have you got to lose? If you’re not ready to have these foods in the house a more ideal transition might be to take yourself out to a café, have an experience, truly enjoy it and know that you can do this whenever you want.

4. Be mindful of your dialogue. I wrote in the Empowered Eating Handbook about how our thoughts can lead to feelings which lead to our actions, or TFAR. Sometimes it’s our thoughts that are leading to the addictive behaviours more so than the food itself. Have you ever told yourself ‘if I eat one, I won’t be able to stop!’ or ‘I’ll just go back on the diet tomorrow so I might as well keep going’. We’re basically creating a self-fulfilling prophecy around our eating behaviours and so basically do exactly what we said we’d do. If we can change the thinking around the eating behaviours, we can change the behaviours as well. Challenge your thoughts! Ask yourself if there has ever been a time when you have stopped at one biscuit or two, even if it was years ago! Change the thoughts. Change the outcomes.

5. Eat mindfully: When we truly experience and enjoy the foods we eat, we’re going to be far more satisfied. Sometimes, because of this, we'll even find ourselves eating less. This is true even with those ‘danger’ foods that we’re afraid we won’t be able to stop eating. By eating our food mindfully, we feel better both physically and mentally.

Ensure that whenever you are eating that you’re doing so undistracted. If you can often find yourself eating a whole bunch of chippies in front of the TV, try setting yourself up to eat only at the table. Get off the couch, go to the table and enjoy your chips. Once you’ve had enough, put the chips away and go back to watch TV. This isn’t saying ‘I can’t’ it’s simply changing the environment in which you eat.

While eating, slow down, eat intentionally, slowly and engage all your senses. Be grateful for the flavours, textures and the ability to eat this food without guilt and with full enjoyment. Put your utensils down between bites and enjoy this fine tasting treat!

So, it’s true we can feel addicted around sugar but by being aware of the true cause we can be empowered to look at our eating behaviours and learn from them. It might make your life just a little bit sweeter.

Want more? Download my free Emotional Eating Roadmap and get the help you need to manage overeating and be in charge of your health again.

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