Chocoholic. Sugar addict. Carb queen. While people may jokingly use these terms, the reality is that some people truly feel addicted to sugar. They feel like they can’t control themself around it, specifically foods with added sugars. The stress and fear of sugar can be so intense that consuming sugar is followed by guilt and shame.
With news headlines labeling added sugar as “toxic” and “addictive” and sweeping statements about sugar causing type 2 diabetes or heart disease, it’s no wonder the topic of sugar can incite fear and anxiety. In a wellness culture where the solution to “sugar addiction” is often willpower, it’s easy for people to blame themself when a diet or sugar detox is unsustainable long-term.
Unfortunately, the pseudoscience and fear-mongering messaging about sugar can make it more difficult for people to have candid conversations about sugar and its effects on health. Let’s change that!
Sugar, Inflammation, and Diabetes
I think we can all agree that sugar, specifically added sugars, is not essential for our physical health. Based on the way that sugar is processed in the body, we know physiologically that eating large amounts of sugar over time can put more stress on the liver and other organs. This understanding has led researchers to find an association between excessive sugar consumption and health concerns such as nonalcoholic fatty liver disease, diabetes, and heart disease. However, the keyword here is association. After reviewing the highest level of evidence from systematic reviews and meta-analysis, no causal relationship has been found between excessive sugar intake and these health problems. – https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5174149/ This means that the health problems referenced in these studies could be from many other factors that have nothing to do with someone’s sugar intake, like exercise, sleep, stress, smoking status, or socioeconomic status.
Another important distinction is the context of “excessive sugar intake” in research studies. One study concluded that sugar is linked to inflammation after finding that drinking 1/4 cup of fructose in the form of sugar syrup led people to have increased inflammatory biomarkers- https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5133084/. However, 1/4 cup of fructose syrup (about 1/4 cup of table sugar) in isolation is processed in the body very differently than a breakfast with maple syrup added to french toast with a side of berries. Protein, fat, and fiber slow glucose metabolism, causing a much smaller effect on insulin and inflammatory markers. For this reason, when sugar is incorporated as part of a balanced diet, there is no evidence that sugar consumption directly causes any of the chronic diseases discussed above.
Sugar and Addiction
The idea that sugar itself is addictive should also be met with skepticism. Yes, many people probably can vouch for the fact that getting their “sugar fix” makes them happier, whether it’s in the form of soda, chocolate, or ice-cream. However, to date, there is zero scientific evidence that sugar (or any particular nutrient in food, actually) is physiologically addictive. It is true that food and drugs share common neural pathways and that sugar lights up the same regions of the brain as cocaine and other drugs. But this has only been found to be true in studies done on rodents, and only when these rodents are under forced deprivation (i.e. dieting). When rodents had unlimited access to sugar, this dopamine response was no longer consistent with that of addictive substances. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5174153/
One of the few things that rodents and humans have in common is this: the body has biological survival mechanisms in place that trigger a neurological response in times of food deprivation. Restricting food either mentally (i.e. feeling guilty when eating chocolate) or physically (i.e. only allowing yourself a certain number of calories) increases the brain’s reward response to the food. As a result, this can fuel compulsive binge eating behaviors and feeling out of control around the specific food being restricted (i.e. chocolate) or food in general if calorie intake is below your body’s needs.
This is why willpower is overrated when someone is trying to follow a diet, 7-day sugar detox, or any form of restriction that leaves someone feeling deprived physically or emotionally. It’s also one of the many reasons why diets (including those masked as wellness trends) don’t work long-term. Eventually, the body’s biological drive to eat takes over. In these circumstances, it can certainly feel like sugar is addictive or that food controls your life.
The Sweet Solution
Based on the research to-date on sugar, health and “addiction,” the anxiety, stress, and guilt associated with sugar (or any food) is likely more harmful to someone’s mental and physical health than sugar itself.
Controlling food and exercise can feel like a simple solution when the alternative, a more sustainable solution may require much deeper work. Finding freedom and flexibility around food and exploring the gray area of food and nutrition often takes more time and patience than any diet. Challenging a culture that demonizes food is not easy! However, learning how to create balance and variety with food choices and exploring intuitive eating can ultimately allow someone to feel more connected to their body and better able to make food choices in line with their physical and emotional health. Working with a non-diet/HAES aligned dietitian, therapist and other health providers can help to guide you through the process.
For practical tips and strategies to address the feeling chaotic, stressed and out of control around sugar or food in general, stay tuned for a follow-up blog post!
– written by Katelyn Castro, MS, RD