• Ana Bailoni

Could you be a sugar addict?

We've all felt it. That almost impossible feeling of having just one Oreo or putting away the ice cream container after a respectable serving. The powerful pull of a craving that seems to come out of nowhere. So, does that mean that sugar is like a drug and most of the population is doomed to always struggle with a substance addiction?

#RioInvestigates to bring some light to this controversial issue.

The other day, I was watching Mr. Robot, and around episode 5, they showed a fantastic and terrifying scene of Elliot, the protagonist, going through morphine withdrawal. It was 3 days of terror: debilitating pains throughout his whole body, vomiting, hallucinatory dreams. He was pale and sweating, writhing in his bed as scenes from his past and fears of the future morphed into his present surroundings, blending illusion with reality in a terrifying haze that made him desperate for either death or another hit of the drug that wreaked havoc in his system.

That made me think... "Hm... sugar as addictive as chemical drugs like cocaine, heroin, and morphine?" I've never seen anybody go through anything like that when they cut out sugar for Lent. I mean, we may feel the discomfort of not satisfying an urge, or a headache for the first couple of days of abstinence from foods containing sugar (then again, can we really know for sure it's because of the sugar?), but nothing close to what an alcoholic or a junkie experiences through withdrawal.

“I mean, we may feel the discomfort of not satisfying an urge, or a headache for the first couple of days of abstinence from sugar, but nothing close to what an alcoholic or a junkie experiences through withdrawal.

So I followed my curiosity, did some research online, and added my own experiences as a self-professed sweets-addict, nutrition coach, and personal trainer to come to a conclusion for myself and for my clients.

Before we get into the nitty gritty, you may want to read a previous post explaining where our nutrition controversies come from?

How we came to believe sugar and cocaine have the same effect on the brain.

A study conducted on rodents, published in 1988 by a guy name Hoebel, showed that drug use stimulated the same pathways in the brain as did the feeding-reward mechanisms. They saw that both sugar and cocaine increased dopamine release. They also saw that both substances had the rats going back for more. They even observed addiction-like behavior in the rats, like bingeing on sugar after a period of deprivation.

Through brain scans that showed that sugar and cocaine "light up" the same areas in the brain, the conclusion was drawn: sugar = cocaine.

Through this study and others, scientists have seen that both sugar and drugs like cocaine, not only stimulate the dopaminergic pathways, but also alter it. You know that old addict's adage, the same dose won't satisfy you today as it did yesterday? That's very true, in both drug use and sugar consumption, as far as the brain goes. It seems like the more you use, the more you need to experience the same dopamine release as the first time around.

But not so fast. Dopamine is the "feel-good" neurotransmitter responsible for feelings of happiness, joy, and comfort. Hug your child - whoosh, dopamine rush! Eat some ice cream - immediate dopamine rush! Snort some cocaine - yahoooooo, MEGA dopamine rush! The dopaminergic system, which lit up with both sugar and cocaine, is the brain's natural reward system. Any number of experiences will trigger the brain's natural reward system, not just sugar and cocaine.

Also, the study itself did not jump to the conclusion that sugar is as addictive as cocaine - that's just what happens when we (the media, nutrition terrorists, fear-mongers) take information out of context run away with it. Actually, Hoebel's study showed that sugar increased dopamine release by 37%, while cocaine did so by 500%! That's hardly a similarity.

And the last line of the abstract published by Hoebel and Hernandez said simply, "the release of dopamine by eating could be a factor in addiction to food."

Two very important phrases to note there: could be and addiction to food.

Hoebel and Hernandez made a very important discovery as to how our brains process food consumption, especially highly palatable foods like sugar. But they hardly gave irrefutable facts that say sugar is an addictive substance. So, let's see what addiction looks like.

Does sugar consumption fit the criteria for addiction?

The American Society of Addiction Medicine describes addiction like this:

On the surface, it kind of does. I mean, I've experienced all 5 of those criteria - on different levels, in different intensities - around food, and I know I'm not the only one. But if sugar is an addictive substance, how come we don't go around gorging on sugar cubes and shoveling spoonfuls of sugar into our mouths? Even for a sweets-lover-for-life like me gets turned off by that image. We simply don't crave and need sugar.

But if sugar really was an addictive substance, wouldn't we see people gorging on sugar cubes and shoveling spoonfuls of sugar into our mouths?

The issue is macro, not micro.

I don't buy the whole sugar is like a drug hype, but I can't deny that we as a society have a problem at hand. Lots of people have control issues with food and it's taking a toll on their body - functionally and aesthetically.

But I believe the problem isn't in the sugar. What I mean by the whole "macro, not micro" thing is that the issue of our disproportionate cravings for and uncontrolled (uncontrolled, not uncontrollable) behavior around sweets lies in way more than the simple substance of sugar. It has much more to do with:

1. Our general attitude towards food

2. Highly processed, highly palatable foods

3. It's literally everywhere

4. Misunderstanding of our behavior

1. Our Attitude Towards Food

Hisham Ziauddeen, a psychiatrist at the University of Cambridge, co-authored a review of studies similar to Hoebel's and pointed out a very important fact:

In other words, restriction caused addiction-like behaviors, not the substance itself. In our instant-gratification-obssessed society with a market over-cluttered with the "next miracle diet," we've learned and have come to believe that restriction is good and noble, and the only thing that will help you get lean and stay healthy. Any time you restrict or prohibit something, the brain sees that as a threat to your comfort and status-quo (the brain hates change, by then way. It's always going to fight you on it), and magnifies that very thing you're trying not to think of.

Our diet-obsessed culture is making us scared to eat and ashamed of our tastes and preferences.

The result of that is what we see today: a chronic diet-binge cycle and people who are afraid to trust their instincts and biological appetite. We've mistakenly equated restriction and deprivation to self-discipline, and it's making us insane around food. The prevelance of eating disorders is alarming, and it's link to chronic dieting and body obssession is clear. We have literally created mental disorders for ourselves. And even in people who don't suffer from an eating disorder, we see disordered eating behaviors become more and more common.

2. Highly-processed, Highly-palatable Foods

The second reason we struggle with food cravings, is the fact that it tastes so darn good and it makes us feel so good. It's that old reward-pathway in the brain thing. And the reason this is a modern issue is because food engineering and capitalism are modern phenomena.

The best book I've read on the subject is The End of Over Eating by David Kessler. It will change how you view food and your food choices. Seriously. It should be mandatory reading in schools.

Kessler talks about how the food business has shaped our appetites by carefully crafting and engineering foods to stimulate the reward-paths of our brain, making it really hard to say "no" to, seemingly impossible to stop eating when you're full, and creating triggers for craving everywhere.

You're not addicted to sugar, you're addicted to sugar packed in fat. Think about it. Nearly every single time you practically melted over was a combination of sugar and fat - cookies, brownies, ice cream, chocolate. Fat + sugar, fat + sugar, fat + sugar, more fat + sugar.

You're not addicted to sugar. You're addicted to feeling good, and you know that warm chocolate cookie is going to feel sooooo good.

You're not addicted to sugar. You're addicted to feeling good.

More on that note in point #4.

3. It's Freaking Everywhere!

Scroll through Facebook for 2 minutes and I dare you not to stop at one of those 30 second Tasty recipes that end with an oozing forkful of melted chocolate in gooey chocolate something.

Watch TV for 5 minutes. Drive down a main highway. Open Instagram. Flip through a magazine. You can't get away from this stuff. Food is everywhere, all around us, all the time.

The "uncontrollable" cravings that seem to come out of nowhere rarely do. Your conscious mind doesn't even register what you're seeing, but somewhere in your limivic brain, all sorts of sensory memories are being activated that make you just neeeeeed that Frappucino with extra whipped cream.

Watch TV for 5 minutes. Drive down a main highway. Open Instagram. Flip through a magazine. You can't get away from this stuff. Food is everywhere, all around us, all the time. The "uncontrollable" cravings that seem to come out of nowhere rarely do.

4. We Don't Understand Our Behavior Mechanisms (a.k.a. our mind + brain)

Ok, I can write a whole book on this one, but I'll be brief.

Firstly, language is important. Addiction. A word used to describe everything from a physiological dependence on a chemical substance to one's profound love of shoes. We we say we're workaholics and chocaholics. I believe this is crucial because of the beliefs we're creating and reinforcing by calling our predilection for comfort and feeling good an addiction.

I believe a big part of why we're "stuck" in this whole food issue is because we call our habits - our automatic choices - an addiction, which is seen as a disease outside of our control.

The word addiction evokes the idea of lack of control. "He can't help it, he's an addict." Sure, he had a choice the first time he stuck the needle in his arm, but after that, his addicted brain high-jacked his life. And I do believe that's how real substance addictions work. The windows for choices become smaller, and the pre-frontal cortex doesn't respond quite as well. Not to mention you can't trust a brain that's high on drugs or alcohol.

But that's not how food addiction works, even though it may feel like it at times.

When it comes to food addiction, and I use this term with caution, - our "addiction" is to a certain habit, not to a substance itself. Are you seeing it? Your brain doesn't need brownies, it needs to feel good, it needs to do what it always does - think of the brownie, crave the brownie, eat the brownie.

Your brain hates change, and it can't stand when your conscious mind gets all mature on you and says stuff like, "I don't want to be overweight. I know I'll feel better when I exercise and eat vegetables, and I know I can do it." That's where all the discomfort and that sensation that another reality - one where you don't eat ice cream every night - seems so unnatural.

But you can outsmart your brain. No one better to talk about that than @MelRobbins and her #5secondrule. Seriously, this concept will change your life. I'll let you watch the video to see what she says about why it is so hard to do the little things we know will do us good.

Here are two other awesome resources on this topic:

Brain Over Binge, by Kathryn Hansen

You Are Not Your Brain, by Jeffrey Schwartz


No, I do not believe sugar as a substance is addictive. I do know that highly palatable foods - whether sweet or savory, gooey or crunchy - stimulates some very sensitive neural pathways in the brain, and when we stimulate those pathways over and over, we create a habit. Years of a repeated habit can feel like an addiction, a necessity. But breaking that habit is not outside of our control. It requires courage, and it requires action. It requires that you stop letting your feelings guide you, and that you move toward the behavior that will get you closer to who you want to be or away from the behavior that's holding you back.

In love & fitness

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