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  • Dina Cohen

The Deal with Food Addiction

Updated: Nov 27, 2019

Since you’ve probably heard the term “food addiction” thrown around at some point or another, I figured it’s time to shine some light on this issue. Is it actually a thing? Sugar’s been getting a lot of press lately, so let’s use that as an example. Can you be addicted to sugar? According to the DSM V (the latest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders), the answer is no. Other addictions are recognized by the DSM V, but not an addiction to sugar, or any other food. So why all the buzz about food addiction? Why does the idea of being a “sugar addict” resonate with so many people? The truth is, disordered eating can feel a lot like an addiction. It can even look like an addiction. If you are successful and competent in many areas of life, but find yourself:

· constantly thinking about food

· feeling out of control around treats

· sneaking food or eating large amounts in secret

· promising yourself you'll never do it again and then repeating that same behavior  

· feeling ashamed and disgusted

then yes, you probably feel addicted to sugar.

But are you? Let’s take a closer look.

1. The Science is Shoddy

If it seems odd to you that we can be addicted to a substance that actually keeps us alive, you have good instincts. Despite what sensational headlines may say, there isn’t any good research to prove that sugar, or any food, can be an addictive substance. Can people seem addicted to food? As indicated above, the thoughts and behaviors some people have around food really do look like an addiction. But what these individuals are actually demonstrating is a predictable response to deprivation.

While I would like you to form your own conclusions about sugar addiction, I do have to warn you - plot spoiler ahead! It’s the conclusion of a fascinating research article published in the European Journal of Nutrition in 2016:

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.

This study, titled Sugar Addiction: The State of the Science, digs deep into the topic of sugar addiction and makes some firm conclusions. The research supporting sugar addiction is…well…just not there. While you may hear some shocking statements tossed around in the media, if you take a closer look, it becomes obvious that the reasoning is seriously flawed.

The human studies on food addiction are based on the Yale Food Addiction Scale, which reflects individual experiences with eating and does not account for any prior dieting or restriction. This is a huge problem, because we know that food restriction generates food interest. If you restrict a food, it becomes much more rewarding. Therefore, someone who was once on a diet and now feels addicted to food is reacting exactly how we would predict he would react. We cannot measure the “addictiveness” of food if we don’t first eliminate the subjects who have dieted, which is no easy task! Supporters of the food addiction theory point to studies in which rats consumed sugar in an “addictive” way. However, the only time rats did that was when they had intermittent (on-and-off) access to sugar…which sounds eerily similar to yo-yo dieting. When the rats had unlimited access to sugar, they did not show any addictive behavior. 

Intermittent access is critical to the development of bingeing…this paradigm promotes a form of eating under uncertainty because food availability is unpredictable.”

Having previously dieted, or feeling like you should be dieting or will be starting a diet tomorrow, means you have experienced or are experiencing feelings of deprivation, and this actually primes you for a binge. The sense that you are losing control, the guilt and shame you feel, the hopelessness you experience – these are not the fault of sugar. They are the fault of dieting.

“But I’ve heard that sugar is more addictive than drugs!”

It does make quite a headline, doesn’t it? But again, looking at the actual research really changes things. Rats who were deprived of food showed a preference for sugar over an addictive drug. Kinda makes sense. Smart rats. The study goes on to say that “changes that resemble addiction only occur with sugar consumption under the intermittent access regime, and without these conditions, the dopaminergic response to sugar resembles that to other natural rewards.

Some argue that sugar must be addictive because it makes the “pleasure center” light up in the brain just like drugs do. It is true that drugs and sugar share a common pathway in the brain. There are certain areas in the brain that show activity when we eat something delicious. Our brains are happy when we eat, and that’s a good thing. It helps to keep us alive. The fact that certain things make us feel good is not inherently a problem. It can become a problem, such as when addictive drugs hijack this pleasure pathway in the brain. But these same neural pathways also light up when we hear a beautiful song, hug a baby, or enjoy good company, so claiming that sugar is addictive simply because it is enjoyable is a very flimsy argument. Yes, sugar and drugs both spark a pleasure response in the brain, but a close examination of the neurological responses do show important differences (one of which is that sugar eventually becomes less pleasurable over time whereas drugs do not).  Unlike sugar, the authors say, “drugs cause neurobiological changes…that lead to and perpetuate addiction.”

2. The Solution is a Problem

My main concern with the theory of sugar addiction is its proposed solution, which is abstinence. If eating too much sugar is the problem, then eliminating sugar is surely the answer, right? Abstinence can work effectively for some addictions, such as alcoholism, but when it comes to food, “abstinence” is far more nuanced and more difficult to achieve. What is it, exactly, that an individual needs to abstain from? What “sugar” are we talking about? Sugar straight from the sugar bowl? What about honey, or agave, or coconut sugar? Artificial sweeteners? Sucrose? Anything that tastes sweet? This concept is fraught with complications right from the start, and it directly opposes current eating disorder treatment strategies. As noted above, food restriction creates food interest (and the ensuing binge eating behaviors), and so treatment involves the reintroduction of all kinds of foods until restriction is no longer experienced. Having a normal relationship with food requires learning to eat normally. Recovery from binge eating disorder is far from a quick fix. It involves addressing many aspects of physical and emotional health. It is hard work, but the results- a relaxed approach to healthy eating- are well worth it. It pains me to see people put in vast amounts of time and energy towards further restriction, which has an extremely high likelihood of leading right back to more binge eating, which comes with a heaping portion of guilt and shame on the side.

3. Is it Me?? (Externalization)

If you have found a better life by subscribing the food addiction model, I am genuinely happy for you. However, that means defining yourself as a “food addict” for the rest of your life. I am much happier to hear someone say, “I used to feel addicted to sugar, but now I feel normal around food and can eat everything in moderation.”  When someone identifies as a food addict, he sees his troubling thoughts and behaviors as part of his core. He is “one bite away” from relapsing back into his addictive behaviors. Conversely,  eating disorders treatment utilizes the strategy of externalization, which refers to an individual learning to view his disordered thoughts and behaviors as something on the outside instead of an integral part of his identity. Someone in recovery might even say, “My eating disorder is telling me to eat/not eat this food, but I can choose differently.” He learns to build a strong, healthy self which can counteract the disordered thoughts.

4. Who is Leading the Way?

Full recovery from disordered eating is possible, but it is a hard road to travel alone. Friends along the way can certainly make the struggle easier to bear, and peer support is one thing that is the addiction model has incorporated with great success. There is a strong focus on community and on addicts reaching out to and supporting each other. Unfortunately, many people struggle with other challenges alone, and we would do well to take a lesson from the addiction community when it comes to speaking about our challenges and giving each other encouragement and support. However, peer support does not replace professional help. Binge eating often co-occurs with other mental health issues or behaviors that require assessment and treatment by a professional, and these may be missed if the problematic eating is chalked up to an “addiction”. Working with a professional means walking the path to recovery with a trained guide rather than just a well-meaning friend. By all means, keep the friend! But your path will be a lot more direct and smooth if you go with a guide.   

Will we someday discover that sugar truly is addictive? It’s possible. But the information available to us today does not support this theory. If you feel addicted to sugar and are looking for a way out, take the approach that feels right for you – but know the facts. Wishing you success on whichever road you choose to travel!

1. Westwater, LM, Fletcher PC, Ziauddeen H. Sugar addiction: the state of the science. Eur J Nutr. 2016; 55(Suppl 2): 55–69. Published online 2016 Jul 2. doi:  10.1007/s00394-016-1229-6

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