Sugar Addiction (Part 1)
There are several parts to this series on Sugar Addiction. It’s a bit complex, so first things first. Let’s start with exaggerated claims and alarmist communication and why they suck, shall we?
The white devil. It’s evil, fattening, causing insidious weight gain, obesity and diabetes. It spikes blood sugar & insulin levels, makes your blood acidic, feeds cancer, makes you stupid and crazy. Sugar, apparently, is also addictive. In fact, some say more addictive than crack, cocaine and heroin.
“if you look at the amount of sugar in a child’s breakfast cereal, you might as well be rolling up the child’s sleeve and shooting in heroin, because it’s the same” Dr. Christiane Northrup
“The seeds for Sugar Addiction are planted in childhood. So ban sodas and junk food from your house—your kids will thank you (eventually!).” endsugaraddiction.com
This is alarmism. Exaggerating or making outrageous claims like this incites fear into an already food phobic and neurotic population. It spreads misinformation in the strongest way possible (emotionally charged and appealing to sound bites).
It’s not that people who talk like this are crazy, they may not be. But they sure do sound like lunatics. It’s the ideas that are crazy, the people are misinformed. Alarmists usually don’t think much before they speak and haven’t considered the consequences of their communication. When it comes to sugar, many are too emotional to be reasonable, or simply believe bad ideas at face value without having investigated them carefully.
In some cases, this type of language is done to get more ‘likes’ on Facebook, traffic or sales to a website selling a diet. Most every diet author/blogger/expert has this false notion of ‘evil sugar’ as the basis for their programs, diets and detoxes. In most cases, the majority of people are completely misinformed on sugar, metabolism, addiction and eating disorders.
Spreading these exaggerated addiction claims is harmful to everybody, especially people with real addictions and eating disorders. For those struggling to lose weight, it fosters orthorexia and furthers our collective dysfunctional relationship with food.
“Dumbing down addiction to apply to any bad behavior gives jerks a free pass. But when the label loses its meaning, real addicts also lose credibility as people with a disease.”
“What was most salient to me was that they acknowledge the public discourse regarding the pervasiveness of “sugar addiction.” In response, they mention that such a characterization can have the effect of trivializing the significant daily struggles and life consequences that those with eating disorders live with.”
The level of food hysteria in America is at Defcon 10. To be healthy, we need less of this alarmism and evangelism and more skepticism. I understand the need for cohesive belief systems and the anti-sugar meme is convenient, but the idea that sugar is toxic is not supported by the best science we have available. Sugar is a popular scapegoat and these exaggerated melodramatic claims are rooted in this misinformation. It sure will get diet marketers plenty of sales though.
So, is sugar addictive?
Are these sugar addiction assumptions products of the human cognitive process (subjective ideas) and not objective phenomena? Is it a combination of both, coupled with a disordered metabolism? The answer is ‘all of the above’ depending on context, and only for a few people. (Most people will hate that answer).
Sugar addiction for most people is an oversimplified claim that is not supported in the scientific literature. Despite our personal experiences and passionate anecdotes from others, these experiences & testimonials are often untrustworthy as we have many hidden biases (and possibly undiagnosed medical issues) that influence what we see and believe. (Most people will have a problem with that statement).
Sugar addiction may be a real phenomenon in a small subset of vulnerable people – those with eating disorders or real metabolic problems. And what is abundantly common in these people with metabolic disorders? The same habit we see in the general population and dieters: Strict sugar avoidance and chronic stress which naturally leads to extreme sugar binges.
Interestingly enough, sugar addiction *may be* indicative of undiagnosed ED or some real metabolic disorders, but it’s because of these disorders, not because sugar is evil, toxic or addictive. And that’s assuming you are truly addicted, which most people are not.
“I am in the camp arguing that it is the intermittent exposure to highly palatable, often sugary foods, often coupled with some compensatory food restriction and significant distress that results in food intake that can in any way be called “addictive”—not simple overconsumption of high-calorie foods. Both caloric restriction and intermittent sugar intake alter dopamine transmission in response to rewards (Corwin, Avena, & Boggiano, 2011), and intermittent—but not continuous—access to high-fat substances induces the typical “sawtooth” pattern of binge-restrict behavior in animals; reflective of human ED behaviors where individuals restrict food intake in between periodic episodes of binge eating.
Thus, perhaps it is the combination of these two behaviors, bingeing on fatty foods and subsequently attempting to restrict caloric intake, that produces an exaggerated response to food rewards and encourage compulsory food intake akin to compulsory drug intake.” http://www.scienceofeds.org/2013/04/04/binge-eating-when-should-we-call-it-an-addiction/
It gets even trickier here because many people *believe* they are metabolically broken (without any definitive proof). Many of these ‘metabolically damaged’ and ‘adrenal fatigue’ people are somewhat orthorexic and not eating enough calories, which triggers metabolic stress, which increases one’s need for sugar, which lead to cravings. Unfortunately, we also falsely believe that giving in to cravings is a sign of failure.
Adrenal Fatigue as a Cover for Starvation
Cravings is your body’s language telling you to eat. They are not signs that you have a character flaw, are not meant to be overpowered and are not a reason to beat yourself into submission, which is often the case. It is your body telling you to Eat The Food!
We shouldn’t dismiss the topic of sugar addiction. It’s important to examine the evidence and see if sugar is addictive, because:
1) Most people are misinformed about and unfairly vilify sugar.
2) The people who claim to be addicted *may have* real metabolic problems and/or eating disorders that need to be addressed.
3) Many of the ppl claiming to be sugar addicted, or promoting the idea casually, are not addicted. Most people, dieters in particular, are chronically sugar-deprived coupled with being hyper-emotional (stressed) over the very idea which leads to, you guessed it, bingeing.
4) Sugar avoidance is unecessary and will make life harder than it needs to for people who need to restore health. For those recovering from ED, metabolic damage, adrenal fatigue, overtraining, burnout or similar types of exhaustion, sugar is precisely what can reduce stress and restore metabolic balance when used therapeutically.
5) For regular dieters, embracing the idea that sugar is addictive leads to poor health outcomes, both physically (metabolic stress) and mentally (food phobias, anxiety, orthorexia, food avoidance).
We Need Better Conversations, Not Exaggerated Claims and Fear Mongering
Better conversations and more research into this area can lead to important solutions for disordered eating, obesity and mental health. Remember, eating disorders (ED) have the highest mortality risk of all mental health issues.
For most people with a history of dieting – your greatest improvement comes from simply giving up these bad food ideas. It seems to be the most difficult challenge, but the most rewarding. We can all start by eliminating the Puritanical regulations, restrictions & taboos. Stop being so dramatic about this – it’s just food.
Teaching people to avoid sugar because it is evil is misleading and encourages faulty, orthorexic habits. Making ridiculous statements like sugar ‘is as addictive as street drugs’ is ludicrous and not helpful.
For those who truly believe they are addicted, or sugar is a trigger food for disordered behaviors, I’ll share ‘how to’ solutions later. For now, for most people, yes you can enjoy sugar. It’s NORMAL to enjoy food. You are not addicted, you are more than likely misinformed, hypoglycemic, chronically stressed and have faulty eating (i.e. undereating) or lifestyle habits (i.e. insufficient sleep).
*Prediction #1 – Some people will completely misread this blog and go nuts mischaracterizing what I’ve said. Wait for it…
*Prediction #2 – People will blog that I just claimed that you should go out and eat a junk food diet with no restrictions.
More on Sugar Addiction:
Part 2- Why We Believe Sugar is Evil
Part 3- Science of Sugar Addiction
More on Sugar: