Sugar addiction does not exist.
In spite of the recent outbreak of sensationalist media stories discussing the way that sugar operates in the body and the general dangers associated with it, there’s not that much wrong with sugar.
Today, we’re going to discuss the hotly-contested topic of sugar addiction and drill down into what it is, what it isn’t, and how you can understand/combat bad relationships with sugar.
We’re starting at the end here because it's important to understand how this problem arose.
Sugar addiction is easy to pretend because there are a lot of cases where people are awful at reducing sugar intake. If you find someone who can’t stop eating sugar, and they’re experiencing negative psychological effects, you might think that there’s a genuine addictive mechanism for this nutrient in the body.
Parallels include cocaine and other psychoactive drugs. After all, the symptoms are relatively similar – from mood changes to certain physical health markers. So, what makes cocaine addiction and sugar ‘addiction’ different? One of the most overlooked and crucial aspects that separates the two is that you can’t be addicted to a non-optional substance in the same way that you can with a recreational one. Simply put, it’s easy to argue for addiction to food because you can’t physically live without it. We’re all physiologically dependent on food because if we stop eating, we’ll die.
Sugar addiction is a totally different phenomenon because you can’t go cold-turkey: you can’t stop eating. “I can stop whenever I want” isn’t a thing here – sugar is in everyone’s diet and it’s merely a matter of degree that separates the ‘sugar addict’ from those who aren’t addicted. On the contrary, you don’t need cocaine to survive so we can clearly define and measure what constitutes addiction. The criteria for an addiction between the two are so different that there’s no real way to compare them. The methods for measuring ‘sugar addiction’ are marred by the fact that everyone has to consume some sugar as part of their diet.
The point of this whole section is this: you can’t compare sugar addiction to drug addiction, because you don’t get the choice of giving up sugar.
The real difference between addiction to drugs and ‘addiction’ to sugar is the basic physiological difference[2,3]. While there are defined mechanisms for recreational drugs (such as the downregulation of neurotransmitters – like serotonin), the mechanism for sugar addiction doesn’t really exist[4,5].
The closest we can get to a real physiological dependence on sugar is actually the opposite, in the form of type-2 diabetes. This is the result of over-eating, especially carbohydrates, but it isn’t sugar specifically. Diabetes and insulin resistance are the result of too much food and a too-great portion of carbohydrates.
Sugar alone won’t cause this problem and it doesn’t have the mechanisms necessary to produce real physiological neuro-dependence in the same way that Ecstasy would. When dealing with these comparisons, overlooking this difference is an easy way to end up in the anti-science camp that thinks that sugar and heroin are remotely comparable!
While there’s not much of a physical addiction going on, there are some ways that we can discuss sugar addiction meaningfully. These acknowledge what it is, and isn’t, without acting like it’s not a significant problem. The point is to help people who are struggling with bad habits and poor food-relationships[6,7] – saying that it doesn’t exist doesn’t help anyone.
What we see referred to as sugar addiction is dependence on a high-carb diet and foods that are hyper-palatable. Sugary snacks are not the problem by themselves – or we’d see countless sugar-addiction cases – but they are an indirect method of dealing with psychological dependency.
This psychological dependency on sugar is the result of a general problem with emotional eating – a pattern of eating psychologies that are the root of all eating disorders. Excessive guilt or shame associated with food intake – and perhaps carb intake specifically – is a proxy for sugar addiction. People who suffer from ‘sugar addiction’ use sugar to crutch other psychological issues such as depression or anxiety.
This is the real, undiscussed aspect of sugar addiction that needs to be highlighted and dealt with. As mentioned before, there’s no easy way to deal with poor relationships with food – you have to eat and this makes escaping these patterns far more difficult. Like we said above – you can’t go cold turkey, so emotional patterns of eating spiral upwards and become more severe.
While addressing these problems is far deeper than dealing with sugar specifically, it is not impossible. It is simply a matter of ignoring sugar and dealing with the underlying problems associated with guilt-driven patterns of eating, or over-compensating for chronic stress by consuming junk, ‘comfort’ foods.
In an ideal world, nobody would ever comfort eat. This is an early sign of disordered eating that needs to be addressed in order to move past sugar addiction and bring about a much larger discourse surrounding eating disorders. Sugar addiction happens when you’re depressed, bored, stressed or otherwise dealing with other life problems, using food as a psychological tool.
Obviously, not all sugar consumption is disordered and there’s a big difference between eating a cheesecake to celebrate a promotion and a pattern of eating to deal with stress. The pattern is the important part and its why we discuss it as an addiction rather than substance abuse: it is repeated and sustained over a long period of time – hence all the damage.
This is all well and good but what can you do if you’re dealing with this type of problem and you want to reduce the sugar-related symptoms while you deal with eating as a whole?
To start with, we can’t recommend diet sodas enough for this particular problem. You have to practice moderation with these types of drinks – too much can carry its own problems. However, they don’t contain sugar and if you’re dealing with a problem like diabetes – or trying to kick a sugar problem – they’re a good bridge to better, healthier drinks.
Secondly, switch junk foods out for whole foods. The fructose in an apple is no healthier than a high-fructose corn syrup, but it comes with a wide variety of nutrients and fiber that you’re not going to get from a bag of sweets. This is going to mean more fullness and a quicker resolution to those negative sugar binges (and the guilt that comes with them).
It’s also a good idea to try and recognize your motivations and set them out in a way that helps you achieve your goals. There are two key points to this:
Sugar addiction is a relatively real problem.
The issue with this discussion has been the media and their portrayal of the problem as comparable with other physiological addictions like heroin and cocaine. These have defined physiological mechanisms and the opportunity to stop – two crucial differences between recreational drugs and sugar.
Discussing the two as comparable is morally and journalistically irresponsible. This devalues the real discussion about sugar dependence and binge-eating problems – one of the most common patterns of disordered eating. Clearly, we need a better discussion.
This piece has dealt with the misconceptions and provides a better way of understanding and dealing with the problems of sugar addiction. It’s a real problem, and it requires a real, nuanced approach!
BibliographyAhmed, Serge H., Karine Guillem, and Youna Vandaele. “Sugar addiction: pushing the drug-sugar analogy to the limit.” Current Opinion in Clinical Nutrition & Metabolic Care 16.4 (2013): 434-439.
John has been a fitness enthusiast for over 10 years, starting out while struggling with obesity as a teenager. Over the years he has advised numerous clients on how to transform their physiques and their lives. As a writer on Nutrition Inspector he aims to help others achieve real results by staying clear of the common hype and false claims in the supplement industry!