Am I Addicted to Sugar?

Am I addicted to sugar? Many of you may have this thought in your head. Sugar addiction is comparable to drug abuse according to the media. The documentary Fed Up even explicitly states that “sugar is 8 times more addictive than cocaine”. This is a radical statement! But, does it have any truth? Does sugar addiction really exist?

Eating sugary foods is ingrained in our culture, habits, and daily routines. Today, the average American eats around 150 pounds of sugar per year. This is equal to 6 cups of sugar per week! One third of American’s sugar intake comes from soft drinks. Besides the obvious candy, cookies, and other sugary baked goods, sugar hides in many of the food items we eat every day. Ketchup, salad dressing, soy sauce, crackers, yogurt, granola bars, and much more!

Is all this sugar to blame for our obesity epidemic? Partly, yes. But, obesity is a complicated web of various causes – inactivity, poor sleep, microbiome, excess calories, high sugar intake, stress, food economics/marketing…the list goes on!

Almost all of us have probably experienced that seemingly uncontrollable craving for something sweet. What’s going on in our brain when that happens?

This post will answer one main question: Am I truly “addicted” to sugar in the same way that we could be addicted to drugs?

But first, what is sugar?

Back to the basics for a hot second. There are three main macronutrients in the food we eat: protein, fat, and carbohydrates. Sugar molecules are the building blocks of carbohydrates. There are two types of carbohydrates: simple and complex.

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Simple carbohydrates are quickly absorbed into our system, causing a sharp rise in our blood sugar. On the other hand, complex carbohydrates are more slowly absorbed, and create a gradual increase in blood sugar. It’s worth noting that many foods are a compilation of different things – rarely does a food ONLY contain fructose, for example. Then, we have natural sugar versus added sugar. This could be a post on its own. But simply put, added sugar is any sugar that is not naturally found in the food itself.

For example:

Strawberries have natural sugar (in the form of glucose, fructose, and sucrose), as well as complex carbohydrates (in the form of fiber).

Strawberry jelly may have some real strawberries, but is supplemented with ADDED sugar. This is usually table sugar or high fructose corn syrup that is not naturally in the food.

What happens when we eat sugar?

In our blood

Sweet foods and drinks that are high in simple sugars are quickly absorbed into our blood stream. When we eat anything with carbohydrates/sugar, our blood sugar naturally rises.

Our body then releases a hormone called insulin. This hormone acts as the gatekeeper, pushing sugar out of the blood and into the cells of the body.

Oftentimes, insulin overshoots and pushes too much sugar into the cells, leaving us with a lower blood sugar than before we started eating. The low blood sugar tells our brain to eat a quick source of energy…like more sugar! This can all happen in less than an hour.

I often refer to this as the vicious cycle of sugar cravings.

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In our brain

Our brain also has a response to sugar.  This famous TedTalk video by neuroscientist Nicole Avena shows the effect of sugar on the brain.

There are a few main points of the video:

  1. Eating sugar triggers the “reward center” in our brains.
  2. This reward center is also triggered by things like social events, relationships, and of course, drugs.
  3. Sugar causes our brain to release the feel-good messenger called dopamine. (But, our brain releases way more dopamine with addictive drugs.)
  4. Our brain releases dopamine with other foods besides sugar too. Although, if we continue to eat these other foods every day, the dopamine surge will diminish over time.
  5. Unlike other foods, the dopamine surge does not lessen as we continue to eat more sugar each day.

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Is our response to sugar similar to addictive drugs?

We use the word “addiction” a lot these days. “Omg, I am so addicted to this new Netflix show ____.”

But true addiction is quite complex.  Obviously we can’t go into every single thing that happens to the body with addiction, so let’s just summarize it.

The American Psychiatric Association groups true addiction into 3 stages: bingeing, withdrawal, craving. When someone is physically addicted to something, their behavior is compulsive, sometimes uncontrollable, and intensifies with repeated exposure.

True addiction causes many changes in our brain chemistry. But most well known, is the increase release of dopamine. Dopamine is involved in the “pleasure center” of our brain. With drugs, alcohol or any addictive substance, dopamine release is significantly increased.

Sounds a bit like food cravings or being addicted to sugar, right? Well, turns out, animal studies on sugar addiction show that rats do go through the 3 stages of addiction. The rats also release dopamine when eating sugar (to a much smaller degree, though).

Here’s the catch.

Studies show that rats experience these addictive behaviors to sugar only when food is restricted for longer periods of time.

Restriction leads to sugar addiction behaviors.

Most of the studies on sugar addiction are done on animals. In one main study, the rats were deprived of food for around 12 hours before giving the sugar solution. Once given sugar, the rats would eat large amounts of it in the first hour (binge). Scientists also noticed signs of withdrawal once the sugar was removed – mostly in the form of anxiety and depressive behavior.

Researchers also gave a different set of rats unlimited access to sugar. Here’s where it get’s interesting…

Both sets of rats (those restricted and those with unlimited access) increased their intake of sugar. You would think that the rats with unlimited access to sugar would eat more than the other group, right? Nope! The rats who were food restricted ate as much sugar in 12 hours as the unlimited group did in 1 day. In addition, the rats’ brains who were intermittently restricted from sugar constantly released dopamine each time they ate sugar. The rats who did not have a severely restricted diet had a lower dopamine response – meaning their reward center was not as stimulated.

What does this mean?

Basically, restricting food (like in trendy detoxes or low-fat diets) may actually cause sugar addiction behaviors like binge eating, withdrawal symptoms, and increased cravings. How ironic is this? The trendy diets that may claim to help you “detox from sugar” may actually be leading you to worsening sugar cravings and addictive eating behavior.

Diets aren’t the only thing to blame though. Have you ever gone the whole day at work without eating lunch? Skipping meals can be another form of food restriction. What happens we get home or even later that night? We want sugary treats.

Skipping meals, paired with the standard American diet (high in simple carbohydrates and low-nutrient value) is a recipe for disaster when it comes to sugar addiction behaviors.

Can you be addicted to food in general?

The American Medical Association and the American Psychological Association have not yet recognized “food addiction” as a disease or psychiatric disorder. Does this mean it doesn’t exist? Not necessarily. In my work, I have seen a lot of people who truly express an uncontrollable “addiction” to food. Research indicates that food addiction shows parallels to substance abuse and gambling disorders when solely looking at the criteria needed to diagnosis it. In fact, 92% of women with binge-eating disorder met the criteria for “substance dependence” when “substance” was replaced with “binge-eating”.

Binge-eating disorder is now recognized as a true disease. Binge-eating disorder is characterized by frequent episodes of extreme over-eating, often followed by feelings of guilt.

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Final thoughts: am I addicted to sugar or not?

Sugar is a highly palatable food. Let’s just quickly review what we know so far:

  • Our blood sugar goes up when we eat sugar, and causes a release of insulin to bring our levels back down. The insulin can overshoot and lead us to want more fast absorbing, simple sugars.
  • Our brain releases dopamine, a feel-good neurotransmitter, when we eat sugar. Research shows that we have a stronger dopamine surge when we restrict food intake, and then eat sugar. Drugs and alcohol cause a way larger dopamine release than sugar does.

The research on sugar addiction is limited, and usually only done on rats. We know that sugar does have a strong, direct influence on our dopamine system, which explains why we feel a sense of comfort and pleasure when we eat it.

Although there is no official medical diagnosis for sugar (or food) addiction at this time, we know that eating lots of sugar can put us into a viscous cycle of wanting more and more. But, unlike drugs or alcohol, sugar may only be physically addictive under certain circumstances. A lot of this is due to unhealthy habits, strict dieting, boredom, sleep deprivation, or stress.

Sugar cravings are indeed real.

Many of you may know my story. I struggled a lot with sugar cravings growing up. Even as a new dietitian, I would have intense sugar cravings at night, and would eat sugary foods (ice cream is my vice), only to feel ashamed and guilty later on. Sugar cravings seem to be more related to habits, behavior, and the other foods we eat throughout the day. I felt this to be true with me as well.

You could say I “saw the light” when I started questioning conventional nutrition guidelines. As I started to understand that fat is our friend (good-bye terrible low-fat foods), incorporating protein into every snack, and gave up the so-called “healthy” (junk) foods, I began to feel my cravings diminish.

Related post: 5 Food Products Disguised as Healthy Foods

If you struggle from sugar cravings, here are a few pearls of evidenced-based wisdom:

Ditch the low-fat dogma.

  • Fat keeps us nice and full, and helps to manage our blood sugar so that we don’t get into the vicious sugar craving cycle. Add wholesome fat sources to each meal and snack such as: avocados, olive oil, full-fat dairy, nuts, seeds, fish etc. For ideas on balanced snacks, download my snack guide here.

Practice self-care.

  • Inadequate sleep and unmanaged stress are two huge suspects when it comes to sugar cravings. Make sure to get at least 7 hours of good quality sleep each night, and incorporate stress management activities into your day (yoga, meditation, reading, journaling, running/walking etc.).

Don’t overly restrict food.

  • Research shows that restricting food leads to sugar addiction behavior. People tend to eat MORE sugar when they have not eaten well earlier in the day, or if they have not eaten at all. Stay away from diets that severely restrict calories. Make sure your first meal has real food sources of protein, fat, and fiber. Click here for 8 balanced breakfast ideas. 

Try to JUST eat.

  • Avoid putting yourself into circumstances that make it easy to overeat. Try to avoid eating when you’re driving, watching TV, working at the computer, or using your phone – especially with any type of sugary treat. Focusing more on our food more makes us slow down, allows our brain to tell us that we’re full, and keeps us in check with how much we have eaten.

Remember that mindful indulgences are a completely normal part of  balanced life. Do I still have ice cream on occasion? Yes! But, here’s the difference. Only choose the treats that you really, really want – that ones that are “worth it”. That cheap, grocery store cupcake in the break-room? Yuck, pass on that. Your mom’s homemade chocolate cake from childhood? Go for it.

Let’s go back to the main question we had: am I addicted to sugar? Well, at this time, there’s not enough research to prove that true, physical addiction to sugar is real (when compared to addictive drugs). However, binge-eating disorder is a real diagnosis, from which many people in America suffer. Although sugar may not be “9 times as addictive as cocaine”, we know that it can definitely have addictive properties. You may feel out of control with your cravings, and know that you’re not alone. Also know that there is hope.

We must set ourselves up for success by regularly incorporating other healthy habits, so we are less likely to over-indulge, and more likely to feel in control of what we eat.

Free Snack Pairing Guide

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Properly planned snacks are HUGE in reducing sugar cravings. Download this guide with over 30+ snack pairing examples!

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