Is sugar actually addictive?

I’ve been studying some new research about sugar addiction as well as a concept that is new to me known as intuitive eating.  Disclaimer, I am not a medical professional and what I’m going to share with you today is what I’ve found through my own personal research and experience.  Let’s start with some history.

In 2014, Katie Couric produced a documentary called Fed Up which is about the obesity epidemic and the food industry’s role in aggravating it.  I remember the first time I saw it, I felt like I had my eyes opened to the fact that it’s no wonder we’ve all been diet confused.  There’s been the no fat, low fat, no carb, low carb, count calories, don’t count calories, don’t eat until Noon or eat after 7, or just exercise your fat away.  Just so we’re clear, the weight loss industry is now worth a record $72 billion according to the newest market research.  They want you unhealthy.  Fed Up suggests that the main reason for the obesity epidemic is our addiction to sugar.  When they took the fat out of foods, which is where the flavor is, they had to find a way to make low-fat or fat-free foods taste good, so they poured in the sugar.

Doctors have told us that sugar is more addictive than cocaine.  However, a recent study has shown this to be a less than compelling statement.  This study, published in 2016 found little evidence to support sugar addiction in humans, and findings from the animal literature suggest that addiction-like behaviors, such as bingeing, occur only in the context of intermittent access to sugar. These behaviors likely arise from intermittent access to sweet tasting or highly palatable foods, not the neurochemical effects of sugar. Did you catch that?  Intermittent access to sugar, meaning sugar restriction is what presents as an addictive behavior.  While I think we do consume entirely too much sugar, I also think there is more at play.

I mentioned last week that I’ve had weight and body image issues for as long as I can remember.  I grew up in a household where if you wanted dessert, you had to clean your plate.  Because of this, I used to gorge myself at dinner because what I really wanted was dessert.  This started a vicious cycle of bingeing and restricting that is still with me today.  I’ve been on and off diets since I was 14 years old.  I also use food to comfort myself in times of stress and anxiety or even just out of boredom.  And then I feel guilt and shame and promise myself that tomorrow will be better.  Sound familiar?

Fad diets go something like this, there’s this food bestowed upon us by unicorns that holds all the secrets of the universe that if you eat it you will unlock said secrets.  Then there’s a set of arbitrary rules applied to it and voila, the pounds will just melt off.  Sound familiar?  That’s because it’s the basis for nearly every “diet” under the sun.  But what if I told you that diets just don’t work?  I mean, think about it.  If diets worked, the weight loss industry wouldn’t be making money hand over fist.  Diets give too much power to food.  We tell ourselves that there are good foods and bad foods and we give ourselves cheat days where no food is off-limits.  And because we restrict ourselves in this way, we’re programming our brains to feel guilt and shame for eating the “bad” foods.  Have you ever heard of The Last Supper eating?  No, I’m not talking about eating bread and drinking wine with your disciples.  I’m talking about the Sunday night before the new diet starts on Monday.  We never know when we’re going to eat our favorite foods again, so we try and cram them all into one day because it’ll be the “last time.”  This leads to the overconsumption of food and is it any wonder we feel like total crap after we do it?

The experts say that the first step to healing is admitting you have a problem.  I’ve known for years that I’ve had an eating problem, and unfortunately, it’s taken me nearly 40 years to finally be ready to get help.  You know how I’ve been telling you that you have to advocate for yourself and your health because no one will do it for you?  Well, this is me advocating for myself.  One thing you may not know about me is I enjoy doing research.  And in my research on today’s topic, I came across a book called Intuitive Eating.  It completely blew my mind about how I think about food and my relationship with it.  Mind you, intuitive eating is not a diet.  In fact, it works to unravel everything we thought we knew about dieting and the long-term effects dieting can have on our psyche.  Author Dr. Evelyn Tribole says, “You and only you can be the expert of your body.  No diet, no person in the world can possibly know your thoughts, your feelings, how hungry you are, what satisfies you.”  The intuitive eating process takes you through 10 principles:

  1. Reject the diet mentality
  2. Honor your hunger
  3. Make peace with food
  4. Challenge the food police
  5. Feel your fullness
  6. Discover the satisfaction factor
  7. Cope with your emotions without using food
  8. Respect your body
  9. Exercise – feel the difference
  10. Honor your health with gentle nutrition

The authors suggest to start looking at food as being amoral – meaning it’s not good, it’s not bad, it just is.  Although I’ve read the book and have been working through the workbook, I know that’s not going to be enough for me, so I hired a therapist who specializes in intuitive eating.  I am currently working on honoring my hunger.  And people, let me tell you, it’s a struggle!  Right now, I’m in the data collection phase.  I know I am an emotional eater so for me, the first step is to name the emotion that makes me head to the kitchen.  Honoring your hunger is about listening to your body and feeding it when it’s hungry – this is not dictated by the clock but literally when I feel hungry.  And, it’s about giving yourself the freedom to eat whatever foods you want with no judgment.  The only caveat is that you only eat when you’re hungry.  I’m not kidding when I say this is a struggle because some days, I feel hungry all day long and others I don’t feel hungry at all.  But my mind tells me that it’s 12:00 so it must be time for lunch.  This process is almost like being a baby again – the point is to replace old neuron paths with new ones by truly listening to what your body is trying to tell you.

I think the hardest part for me to wrap my mind around is that this process isn’t linear.  And for someone who prides herself on being highly organized, a non-linear process makes my brain freaking hurt.  I like things to be neat and tidy and simple, but neat, tidy, and simple is not what got me here in the first place.  It’s a complicated mess that is going to take a lot of work to sift through.  And it’s something that I will continue to work on the rest of my life, which scares the crap out of me.  But I know it’s going to be worth it.  I love my husband and my family, and I want to be around them for as long as possible.  I also don’t want to be a burden on them with my own crummy life choices. And, I don’t want to have to take a handful of prescription meds every day for the rest of my life either.  Take it from me, I’m already on HRT and it’s not cheap so taking the road less traveled is also going to help out the old checkbook too.

Mind you, intuitive eating is not about losing weight.  It’s about healing your body and your relationship with food.  It takes into account your whole body and helps you unleash the shackles of dieting.  It’s about getting back to your roots – trusting your body and its signals.  The authors dive into a broad philosophy that addresses the issues of cognitive distortions and emotional eating.  If losing weight is all you’re about, then you’re probably not ready for this leap.  But let me ask you this, when you think about how much money you’ve spent on dieting in the past, what could you have spent that money on instead?  Could you have gone on a fabulous trip to Hawaii?  Around the world?  To the moon and back?  And for what?  Did you keep the weight off?   Or did you rebound and gain all the weight back and then some?  My point is that if you’ve struggled with food your whole life as I have, then perhaps today is the day you decide to do something different.

I really appreciate you allowing me to be vulnerable and tell you my story and if you have a similar story to tell, I’d love to hear from you.  Remember, this is a safe space and you’ll get no judgment from me.  Next week I’m going to share with you a little about habit setting because I just can’t get enough of the mysteries of our brains.

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