A client of mine describes an obsession with food, mainly sweets. She is preoccupied with what she will eat next and makes plans to stock up on sugary treats on the way home from work. She tries to diet and be good and she tries to avoid the candy dish and the vending machine, but inevitably she succumbs. When she is successful at avoiding sugar, she displays withdrawal symptoms: agitation, headaches, and fatigue. When she eats sugar she feels like it’s compulsive and impossible to stop.
She is describing symptoms of addiction. She, like all of us, is experiencing a release of dopamine in the brain. Dopamine is the same chemical released when someone uses cocaine.
Studies examining sugar addiction have looked at behavioral and neural responses that animals have to sugar. These studies describe addictive behavior observed when rats are given sugar (bingeing after 12 hours without sugar) and when sugar-fed rats are then deprived of sugar (anxiety symptoms similar to when humans stop using opiates). The researchers suggest that sugar bingeing can produce behaviors similar to those observed in drug-dependent rats.
The European Journal of Nutrition published a 2016 paper which examined and summarized the research studies to date that address the concept of sugar addiction. The researchers conclude that there are not nearly enough human studies supporting the idea of sugar addiction. They go on to describe how the animals (usually rats) in the animal studies who displayed addiction-like symptoms (withdrawal, bingeing) were the animals intermittently dosed with sugar. In other words, the animals exhibiting worrisome symptoms were exposed to the cycle of sugar exposure, sugar removal, sugar exposure, sugar removal etc. The researchers believe it is this cycle of exposure that perpetuates the sugar addiction theory, not neurochemical effects of sugar.
The rats in these studies were in the same diet-binge cycle my client is in. Is sugar addictive, causing her to binge, or is it the all-or-nothing behavior that’s causing her to binge? The rats and my client are exposed to an enjoyable sweet tastes, then completely denied it. Most experts believe that it’s the deprivation – especially the psychological response to being told we can’t or shouldn’t do something – that leads to the feelings and behaviors that are similar to addiction.
But what about all the diseases we are told stem from sugar? If sugar isn’t addictive, it surely is deadly, right? Next time you see sugar as the culprit for disease, read closely – it’s too much sugar that can have negative health consequences. People who report feeling healthier after eliminating sugar were probably eating too much to begin with.
7 steps for breaking the sugar addiction cycle
So the science isn’t there to support sugar addiction, but if you feel that sugar has more power than it should in your life, this news may be of limiting comfort. What can you do to decrease the feeling of sugar addiction? Here are 7 steps to help you feel like you are in control of sugar and it is not in control of you:
1. Get enough sleep.
Without enough sleep we feel tired and low-energy. In an effort to boost alertness and energy, our bodies can crave sugar. When we are rested and getting adequate sleep, we can rule out the risk of sugar cravings caused by sleep deprivation.
2. Don’t skip meals and snacks.
Eat regularly throughout the day. When our blood sugar gets low, guess what we crave? Sugar. Avoid low blood sugar by eating every 2 to 4 hours.
3. Skip sugar substitutes
Faking out your taste buds won’t work. A sugar-free food will not satisfy a sugar craving. And some research suggests that using artificial sweeteners will increase our sugar cravings.