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Sugar Addicts Anonymous: The Truth about Sugar Addiction

Today’s a BIG day for sugar addicts. Valentine’s Day and the start of Lent. Oh ginger snap! What’s a chocoholic to do?! The concept of sugar ‘addiction’ has been widely adopted by many wellness junkies and even by some in the medical community. So it’s quite a shock to learn that current science actually does NOT back up the construct of food addiction.

I get it. I’ve been there. I felt like I was controlled by sugar for over a decade. I’d eat sweets uncontrollably, feeling like I’d never be able to stop. When I wasn’t sure about how or when I’d get sugar again, I’d get agitated and angry.

It honestly FELT like I was an addict. Like I had no control. Like I needed more and more to get high. Afterward, a deep sense of shame would set in. And I’d think, tomorrow I’ll do better. Tomorrow I’ll finally quit.

And boy did I try. I tried to quit sugar so many times that I lost count. There are a lot of different routes to take these days … I tried reducing sugar, going cold turkey, getting spiritual, tapping with Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT), performing Reiki, taking supplements, fasting, using guided meditations and hypnosis. I tried it ALL.

Nothing stuck for long and it felt like I’d be ball and chained to a bag of M&Ms for the rest of my life.

And of course, with these headlines flying around - I thought I had no choice:

Research Shows Cocaine And Heroin Are Less Addictive Than Oreos

So wait. What’s the science say? It’s NOT an addiction?!

"We find little evidence to support sugar addiction in humans, and findings from the animal literature suggest that addiction-like behaviours, such as bingeing, occur only in the context of intermittent access to sugar. These behaviours likely arise from intermittent access to sweet tasting or highly palatable foods, not the neurochemical effects of sugar." (Westwater et. al. 2016)

Drugs like cocaine use the same neural pathways as food in the brain. But the key point here is that food is meant to take these pathways and light up reward centers in your brain. It’s how we evolved. It’s how we know we should eat another meal. Drugs take advantage of these naturally ocurring pathways.

Another argument that researchers use to support the idea of sugar addiction is that alterations in dopamine receptors and the anticipation of eating sugar activates the same brain regions seen with addictive substances. However, this finding has only been seen in rats that have been deprived of sugar or proper nutrition. And here’s where it gets interesting – these alterations in the brain go away when sugar is no longer restricted. Not so with addictive substances.

When rats were restricted from sugar, they wanted it more. Sound familiar? Obviously humans are not rats, and we’ve got to take it all with a grain of salt. But, the research does not appear to validate food addiction at present. It points to an intuitive eating idea that overeating is the result of restriction.

What you resist persists. My cravings for sugar were out of control because I was trying to resist those cravings by restricting my access to certain foods. I called it an addiction and handed sugar all my power.

When I started practicing intuitive eating, things began to change, slowly. Now – sometimes intuitive eating gets a little watered down to the message that you can eat anything you want, whenever you want. And while this is absolutely true. It’s also a self-care practice that’s much more nuanced.

Self-imposed restrictions like limiting carbohydrates or calories leave you vulnerable to physiologic responses that lead to overeating. Start by nourishing yourself with 3 meals and 2-3 snacks throughout the day. Make sure these meals are balanced and include protein, fat, and carbohydrates (non-negotiable).

If you have a craving, fill it. Know that sugar is available to you and eventually it loses its power. There will be times when you overeat. Trust the process and go easy on yourself. Peace with food is possible if you allow yourself the time, nourishment, and resources to recover.

It's Valentine's Day. Eat throughout the day and have dessert if you're craving it. Be mindful and enjoy. If you participate in Lent (or you use it as a timeline to follow self-imposed restrictions like me), and if you resonated with feeling out of control around sugar, then I invite you to consider an alternative item/activity to give up this year.

Westwater ML, Fletcher PC, Ziauddeen H. Sugar addiction: the state of the science. European Journal of Nutrition. 2016;55(Suppl 2):55-69. doi:10.1007/s00394-016-1229-6.

A big thanks to MarciRD who brought this^^ work to my attention :^)

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