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Updated: Feb 24

Do you have a sweet tooth? Are you scouring the cupboards to cure your chocolate cravings? Maybe you feel compelled to drink Coca-Cola everyday.

Have you noticed the trend of sugar-free recipes from food bloggers, the “war on sugar”, and everyone saying they’re a sugar addict - and you’re thinking “am I a sugar addict?

Shannon Western, a Registered Associate Nutritionist, is here to set the record straight about sugar addiction and more importantly - how to stop being addicted to sugar.

Is sugar addictive?

Food addiction as a concept emerged in the diet industry on the basis of case studies, subjective reports and clinical accounts (Avena et al 2007). It has since been studied within the scientific community in an attempt to find out if and why we’re supposedly ‘addicted’ to food:

Addictive substances such as psychostimulants (e.g., cocaine) trigger reward responses in the brain that release dopamine – the feel-good neurotransmitter. It has been found that food can also light up these areas, hence the addiction connection. But why?

  1. Food consumption = species survival. Evolution may have rewarded food consumption, especially foods high in sugar as it would have promoted survival.

  2. Conditioning - experiencing the feel-good response to sugar may have been a learned response that we’ve unknowingly conditioned.

And the final reason, which is one that’s always left out on “sugar addiction” circles:

  1. A natural response to deprivation – dieting, and particularly bingeing can lead to a lack of dopamine. As the body’s needs are not being met when sugar is consumed the dopamine increase leads to euphoric feelings.

The scientific community has yet to decide if food addiction is a thing, the jury is still out - but it’s looking like sugar addiction is not a valid scientific claim.

Is sugar more addictive than drugs?

You might recall a viral picture that did the rounds on Facebook and Instagram a few years ago (and often resurfaces when websites need to up their clicks!) where a rat's brain is shown when eating sugar vs consuming cocaine. And the title is often “sugar is more addictive than cocaine!”

But here’s some facts you might be missing, that are oh so important:

  • Dopamine pathways (i.e. the lighted up parts in those rat’s brain scans) don’t just light up with addiction, they are activated by listening to music, laughing, looking at smiling faces, playing with puppies, and cuddling. We all love puppies, but we’re not called “puppy addicts” are we?

  • The way food addiction is measured in every study to date is using the Yale Food Addiction Scale (YFAS) which sounds pretty serious, right? But actually the questions do not measure food addiction - they measure how much of a chronic dieter someone is. The questions are very similar to having clinicians measure disordered eating and eating disorders.

  • Which leads me onto a major point: People who are addicted to food are very likely people with disordered eating or eating disorders. The rats in the famous food addiction study were starved for 12+ hours before being allowed to choose between sugar and cocaine. It doesn’t mean sugar is more addictive than cocaine - it just means the rates were food deprived. If I didn’t eat for 12+ hours, you betcha I would “binge” on sugar.

  • Now for the final point: It might be completely obvious, but humans are not rats. Even in food addiction studies involving humans, they are observational - usually a self-assessment questionnaire with the YFAS - which as we know, is likely measuring how much a person has dieted.

Why am I addicted to unhealthy foods?

I don’t know about you, but I’ve never seen self-help books based on salad addiction or the feel-good effects of brown rice. Why might this be? Ah yes, good old diet culture!

If you’ve never heard of the term “diet culture” before, here’s a definition:

Diet culture refers to the glorification of losing weight and achieving the ‘thin ideal’ while demonising certain ways of eating and food choices. It is not simply being on a diet, but the principles that underlie our understanding of ‘wellness’ or ‘health’.

Sugar being deemed unhealthy and even seen as a reason for the supposed “ob*sity epidemic” shows the demonising of this food group against the thin ideal.

I Quit Sugar

Diet culture has given a huge platform to the world of sugar free diets, sugar free products, sugar free influencers, and the “I Quit Sugar” movement.

This has led many to try ‘sugar-free diets’ where they attempt to cut sugar completely out of the diet. Not an easy feat when you consider fruit and vegetables contain naturally occurring sugars. Sugar deprivation will lead to reduced dopamine which coupled with the psychological effects of a food being ‘off limits’ increase the reward sensations when sugar is consumed – comparable to that of a drug.

Now, when it’s written clearly that sugar feels addictive, and it’s not actually “addictive” - and I feel I’ve done a pretty good job explaining why - I want to take a second here to tell you that you’re not wrong or strange for feeling like a sugar addict. If you’ve ever done a sugar detox, bought a sugar-free cookbook, made sugar-free cookies, or if you think sugar is bad - I felt the same way for so many years. You’re not alone, and you can stop feeling like a sugar addict.

How to stop being addicted to sugar

Below are my top 4 tips, and gives a tiny insight into how I have helped clients achieve freedom with sugar.

1. Tune into your hunger

This might sound so basic and boring. But eating regularly and enough is the foundation to a healthy relationship to sugar. As a guide, eating three meals and three snacks per day is a great starting point.

2. Notice sugar cravings

Noticing and being curious is a huge step - which, again, might feel really basic. But actually this can help bring awareness and reduce judgement.

  • Notice when cravings occur - is it always the same time of day? What happens 12-24 hours before cravings hit? I encourage you to keep a note on your phone to explore and reflect.

  • Are sugar cravings linked to physical hunger?

  • Are sugar cravings linked to emotions, like anxiety, stress, or anger? Can you add in practices that will help with your emotional wellbeing, like relaxation or soothing activities?

3. Start to make peace with sugar

Before you skip ahead, hear me out. You can eat regularly, focus on self-care, and try to push down your thoughts around sugar - but to really overcome sugar addiction, you will have to make peace with it.

This means unlearning and relearning everything you’ve been told about sugar. Starting with sugar addiction (which you’ve already done by reading this, yay!), and then relearning how to eat sugar without guilt.

If you think back to being a small child (or think of small children you know), they don’t feel addicted or guilty about eating sugar - until adults make them feel guilty. Children also only go wild around sugar when they don’t have complete access to it - the same way adults who diet or think of sugar as “bad” do.

Two steps to making peace with sugar

1. Note down every sugar-containing food you feel addicted to - or that you don’t totally feel comfortable with. Try to be as specific as possible. This list might include almond croissants, chocolate chip cookies, strawberry eclairs, Phish Food Ben & Jerry’s, Cookie Dough Ben & Jerry’s - the more specific, the better.

2. Now, choose a food on your list (just one) that doesn’t feel too scary, and choose a time in the next week to buy that food and eat it when you’re in a positive/neutral mood. After you’ve eaten how much you want to eat, it’s key to reflect on: How did it taste? Did it taste as good as you imagined? How “addicted” do you feel after eating it? Repeat each food until you feel those feelings of addiction dwindle down.

The most important step when healing your relationship with sugar: Be patient with yourself. It might take eating a food 10 times before you feel ok with it, but every time you eat it you are moving closer to completely healing your relationship to that food.

You don’t need to do this alone

If you would like support in your relationship to food, we offer private 1-1 support. Get in touch with a short application here.

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