Let’s talk about sugar
I often hear people say that they’re ‘addicted to sugar’, but is this even a real thing?
Firstly we need to define addiction.
What is Addiction?
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV-TR) has re-named addiction as “substance dependence”, characterised by 7 symptoms occurring in 1 year (2000).
These 7 symptoms are:
- Withdrawal Symptoms
- Taking in larger amounts or for a longer duration
- Attempts to cut back
- Excessive time spent pursuing, using, or recovering from use
- Reduction/discontinuation of important activities because of use
- Continued use despite consequences
Now reading this list you could probably find ways where sugar intake could match all 7 points.
This has actually been done with carbohydrates in a paper by Corsica and Pelchat (2010, Mar), where they matched these 7 points to behaviour in binge eaters:
- Tolerance: Starting out with a single cookie, gradually increasing to several or a whole packet.
- Withdrawal symptoms: Habitually eating to relieve depression, anxiety, and other emotional states; unpleasant physical sensations when cutting back on carbohydrates.
- Taking in larger amounts or for a longer duration: Intending to eat a single serving but instead eating a whole package; binges extending several hours.
- Attempts to cut back: Frequent attempts to eat ‘correctly’ (e.g., avoid overeating or eating certain foods) that can only be maintained for a short period of time.
- Excessive time spent pursuing, using, or recovering from use: Frequent thinking about food, planning intake, preparing, and/or resting or sleeping after excessive intake.
- Reduction/discontinuation of important activities because of use: Eating instead of spending time with friends; feeling too sick after overeating to do anything.
- Continued use despite consequences: Overeating in spite of overweight, physical illness, and/or distress about overeating.
Although they make a good case for food as a potential agent for substance dependence (in this case sugar addiction), some of their connections are pretty far-fetched.
Also, this paper was in binge eaters in general, not a specific food group like carbohydrates (or in this case sugar specifically).
Let’s Look at The Research Supporting Sugar Addiction
Now, the research that supports this claim for one, was done in rodents, not humans
So already we must be questionable about it, as animal studies are not applicable to humans
Second, the research conditions this was done in are not applicable to humans anyway
Third, they didn’t show sugar addiction, they showed that cocaine had similar dopamine responses to sugar in rodents when they were given intermittent access to sugar
Addiction like behaviours only occur when the rodents were given intermittent access to sugar
Eg, we might restrict them for 8 hours, then give them unlimited access for 8 hours
This tactic, as well as choosing rats with a preference for sugar, can then produce addiction-like tendencies
However, if the rats are given unlimited access to sugar, they do not act with addicted behaviour
Which one do you think is more relevant to us as humans?
If sugar was addictive, you’d be doing everything in your power to hoard bags of silver spoon in your house, which we know is not the case.
Sugar and Fats Combined = High Reward
It’s unlikely when you say ‘sugary food’ that you’re talking about jelly beans, fruit pastilles, or similar
In fact, you’re probably talking about cakes, pastries, biscuits, chocolate, etc.
The thing is, these foods are high in sugar and fat, not just sugar
This combination creates not only a high calorie food, but a highly palatable food
It’s this palatability that creates a high response signal in the brain, that can lead to addictive like qualities, but not be addictive in and of itself
If I added a nauseating agent to your biscuits that made you sick every time you ate one, you would stop pretty quickly
If you were truly addicted to it, this would not be the case
Sugar Increases Palatability, Up To a Point
Sugar can increase the taste of something, but after adding too much it goes the other way
So I’m not saying let’s add sugar to everything, I’m not, I’m just saying let’s stop blaming it for the obesity epidemic
Our intake of sugar has actually been going down over the last 30 odd years yet obesity continues to rise
Because it’s not sugar, it’s the calories, that are causing weight gain and ill health
Conclusion on Sugar Addiction
Based on limited evidence, there are definitely conditions where people may seek carbohydrate laden foods. Especially those that are highly processed with added sugars.
This is due to people turning to these high calorie foods when they’re emotional or stressed.
Foods that are high in sugar can create a dopamine response that makes us feel good, thereby increasing the desire for them when we’re in a bad mood.
This doesn’t inherently mean that they are addictive though.
The research is inconclusive with humans to show whether or not self proclaimed “carbohydrate cravers” would have issues with health if their overall diet was calorie and macro controlled.
Does Carb:Fat Ratio matter?
There is astounding research that shows as long as calories and protein levels are equal, the carb:fat content does not matter in search of weight loss/gain.
This is proven in the following review paper published by Alan Aragon et al: https://jissn.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s12970-017-0174-y
Questions remain about how much better or worse off these “carbohydrate cravers” would be compared to non-cravers if told to avoid palatable carbohydrate foods. As opposed to teaching them how to moderate their intake within a sound caloric and macro-nutritional framework.
Ultimately, the blame for overeating and obesity can’t be laid upon ‘addictive’ foods, in this case sugar.
It’s possible that the obesity problem is actually because of blaming food instead of taking responsibility for making healthier choices and becoming great at moderating the higher calorie junk food.
Next time you think ‘sugar addiction’, remember it may just be you are addicted to the feel good response you get from eating sugary foods.
Also, if you’re currently trying to lose weight, these feelings of addiction may be stronger due to you limiting your higher calorie snacks. As well as having a lower carbohydrate intake overall, meaning your body is craving a fast hit of energy.
This is more than often the issue at hand – people’s overall energy balance.
If you reduce your intake of sugary foods and drastically reduce your calorie intake, your body is going to be low on energy and low in mood.
Your body will then crave what it knows to be the fastest source of energy: processed sugar.
Moderate your sugary snacks and junk food, while keeping your calorie can carbohydrate in take in line with your activity, and you should be able to handle your ‘sugar addiction’