I often get asked if sugar is addictive. My response is sugar certainly creates a strong desire or craving but the jury's still out as to whether this is a true addiction; the answer is not that clear cut.
Even though sugar lights up the same nerve pathways in the brain that get lit up when people take cocaine, sugar is not considered to be addictive like cocaine. Yet we see sugar referred to as poison and an evil white powder. The emotions linked to sugar however are equally as strong - hate, guilt, shame and disgust. So let's explore this a bit further................
Addiction can be categorised into 2 types:
Substance addiction (i.e. drugs, alcohol, nicotine) is characterized by a recurring desire to continue taking the drug despite harmful consequences. You might think this is where sugar fits in, particularly as symptoms of ‘food addiction’ are thought to be analogous to substance addiction; loss of control, withdrawal symptoms and cravings for ‘problem foods’ and of course it's apparently the cause of the so-called obesity crisis.
But it doesn't. Food addiction sits under non-substance addiction (aka behavioral addiction). This covers pathological gambling, internet and mobile phone addiction.
So what's going on with sugar and it's ability to alter our behaviour so significantly?
Sugar is of course sweet. We were born with a sweet preference. Breast milk is sweet. Formula milk is designed to mimic breast milk, so is equally sweet.
From birth we quickly learnt the association of sweet warm milk with comfort, satisfaction, fulfilment and love. To reinforce those feelings of pleasure, our brain releases Dopamine; one of our feel-good hormones that reminds us what we did to gain a sense of pleasure.
As we grew up, more than likely our first foods were sweet - banana, carrot and apple. We would be rewarded with pudding if we ate our dinner. If we fell over or got upset, we were given a a lolly to help us feel better.
Somewhere along the line I know this got hard wired into my brain. I definitely have a sweet tooth so when I’m tired, stressed or emotional, my desire for biscuits can rocket. This is my brains attempt at helping me to feel better.
My husband on the other hand has what I call a savoury head. He has a powerful love of crisps and pork pies - so it isn’t always sugar but food in general we develop a type of dependency on.
Dopamine teaches us to associate certain behaviours with rewards and food is a powerful force in our life to trigger its release. It makes us feel happy and excited and who doesn't want to feel that?
But that's not all. If an experience constantly triggers the release of dopamine, our brain remembers the cause and effect. Eventually, our brain will release dopamine any time we are simply reminded of the experience.
This is where advertising come in. Simply seeing the advert for Galaxy or Maltesers sets off a feeling of anticipation in our head. Watching someone eat their lunch on the train or passing the coffee shop with smell of freshly baked goodies wafting out the door is enough to launch a flood of dopamine into our bloodstream.
And before you know it, you are fetching your own lunch out of your bag or you find yourself stood at the counter even though the thought of food hadn’t entered your mind a millisecond before.
The ability to anticipate satisfaction is essential for our survival. When we were living in caves and running around in loincloths, dopamine motivated us to seek out food. We had to hunt and gather to live.
And of course the food industry knows this. These days we are surrounded by temptation 24-7. There is something to nibble on every single high street, in every petrol station and park, on every billboard, phone and TV. We simple can’t escape it!
Our saviour is meant to be our stomach. Physically filling our tummy is meant to cause dopamine to subside (so we literally don’t bust a gut) but actually this doesn’t happen in everyone. It can actually be pretty easy to binge. Even though we know what we are doing is ‘wrong’ ‘will feel horrible’ or ‘gross’. Instead of stopping our brain decides the solution is to seek out more dopamine. We grab another biscuit, and another, and another.
When this happens we tend to blame our binges on a lack of willpower - we blame ourselves. STOP THIS!
You know what, food is supposed to taste good! If all food tasted the same and bland, we’d have no desire to eat at all! The food addiction rhetoric pathologises something normal and healthy, creating guilt and shame about enjoying tasty foods, which when you think about it, is WRONG!
Food is supposed to be rewarding. Research shows that abstinence (through restrictive diets or cutting out food groups) actually increases the reward value of foods and makes you want it more. This is an evolutionary survival mechanism, not “lack of willpower”.
What we also need to be aware of is that our environment is designed to deliberately manipulate our dopamine response which makes it extremely difficult to stop using their product. This could be Cadbury’s chocolate or Walkers Sensations just as much as apple i-phones. They ain’t stupid! Ever wondered why there is such a reluctance to lower their sugar content?
Research in Intuitive Eaters who are more in tune with their natural hunger & fullness cues show that they have lower eating restraint (meaning they don’t restrict or eliminate food groups), and simultaneously less dis-inhibited eating (overeating or binging).
But what if you feel totally out of control around food? Remember that cutting out food groups is probably not the solution and can exacerbate the problem.
If you’re experiencing binging episodes then it’s worthwhile asking yourself if you’ve been restricting foods or food groups or reducing the amount of food you are eating/dieting/clean eating as this may (at least partly) explain what’s going on.
Hopefully the idea that you’re not addicted to food is liberating and you can begin to give yourself unconditional permission to eat all foods.
If you’d like to talk to me about this, drop me a message at firstname.lastname@example.org