Are You Addicted to Sugar? 3 Questions to Ask Yourself
The Sweet Truth About Sugar Addiction
As a dietitian I come across many individuals who identify as “sugar addicts.” They have tried to cut down on sugar but find it impossible to stay away. They report intense sugar cravings, feel out of control around sweets, and experience immense guilt after eating sugary treats. They feel the only solution is removing sugar completely from their diet. Does this sound familiar? This post will give the inside scoop on sugar addiction and will answer the question: can you become addicted to sugar?
What Does Science Say?
The majority of studies examining the addiction to sugar are carried out on rats. Keep in mind that animal studies cannot be directly applied to us as rats are not humans! In one study, rats were restricted from food for 12 hours then provided free access to rat chow and a sugar solution for the following 12 hours. Researchers found the rats showed preference for the sugar solution and displayed binge eating behaviour throughout the 12 hours they had access to food. The researchers also noted the rats learned to drink copious amounts of sugar solution when it was first available. On the other hand, the control group of rats had free access to food and sugar solution and did not show binge eating behaviour. As sugar is a tasty and quick energy source it makes sense the rats would choose to consume sugar after a period of restriction.
This study demonstrates that food restriction may be the real culprit behind binge eating instead of sugar itself. Claims have also been made that sugar has similar effects on the brain as illicit drugs and alcohol. Is this true? The research so far is not convincing. Studies have demonstrated that rats will stop seeking out sugar when negative consequences such as nausea inducing agents are added to it. This is not the case for drug addicted rats. Addiction is very complex, but at this time there is no clear evidence to support the addiction to sugar. You may be thinking, if sugar addiction doesn’t appear to exist, why do I feel out of control around sugar?
The Psychology of Restriction
The answer may lie in food restriction. In the rat studies described above, the researchers found that food restriction appeared to increase binge eating in rats, but what effect does food restriction have on humans? The infamous Minnesota Starvation Study done by Angel Keys in 1944 clearly demonstrated the psychological impacts of food restriction. Keys placed 36 young men on a calorie restricted diet and discovered that participants had increased preoccupation with food. The men were found to be constantly dreaming, fantasizing, and talking about food. They also had increased fatigue, irritability, and depression.
When we look at more recent studies it is clear that food restriction leads to food cravings and increases the risk for binge eating. In one study, researchers found that individuals who told themselves to stop thinking about a particular food had increased cravings and binge eating behaviour. On the flip side, people not fixated on a particular food had less cravings and episodes of binge eating. In a different study, women were instructed to stay away from their favourite snack for 24 hours while being exposed to it. Researchers found that compared to a control group with no restriction in place, the restricted women ate more of the snack when they had access to it. From these studies it appears that restriction can backfire! If food restriction increases cravings, overeating, and the addiction to sugar doesn’t appear exist, what can you do if you feel out of control around sugar?
3 Questions to Ask Yourself if You Are “Sugar Addicted”:
1. Am I restricting my overall food intake?
Increased food cravings often arise when you are restricting your food intake. The body is very smart and will try to protect you if you are not consuming enough food to support your body’s basic energy needs. The majority of our calorie needs come from basic processes such as our heart pumping blood, thinking, breathing, and regulating our body temperature. When we are under eating, the body’s metabolism will adapt and shift down to conserve energy. Under fueling our body can present as fatigue, increased food cravings, and feelings of lethargy. As the body is trying to protect itself, the brain will also ramp up thoughts about food to encourage us to eat.
2. Am I restricting my carbohydrate intake?
Maybe you are getting enough calories but are restricting yourself from carbohydrate containing foods. Carbohydrates are the body’s preferred source of energy! When we restrict them, we often see increased cravings, lethargy, and brain fog. Our muscles and brain work most effectively with carbohydrates. If we are consuming only protein and fat at meals, we may feel full, but will be missing the “satisfaction factor.” By including carbohydrates in meals and snacks we help our body to run at its best and increase overall meal satisfaction.
3. Are sugary foods off limits?
If you have made rules around sugar containing foods and they are off limits, your mind will very likely become more preoccupied with these foods. For a lot of individuals food restriction turns into a cycle. The cycle begins with restricting sugary food and being successful for a period of time. Eventually you are very likely to come across this food. When you do it, it often presents as a “Last Supper” scenario. This is where you eat as much of the food as possible while telling yourself “This is the last time I will ever have this food!” After “the Last Supper” you restrict the food again and the cycle starts over. It is important to recognize that all foods can fit. By allowing all foods into your diet you will reduce thoughts about food, cravings, and improve your overall relationship with eating.
Our relationship to certain foods and eating is complex. If you are feeling lost, a registered dietitian trained in disordered eating can help!
If you are interested in reading further about food, sugar addiction, and how to work towards normalized eating, you may benefit from these blog posts below!
If you are struggling with how to manage cravings for sweet and savory foods, emotional eating or how to make healthy eating easier, don’t struggle alone.
each out to our team of Calgary Nutritionists and Global Online Dietitian for help and don’t forget to see if your employer health benefits cover the cost of a Registered Dietitian.
Check out these related blogs on our website:
References used in this article
1. Westwater, M.L., Fletcher, P.C., Ziauddeen, H.. (2016). Sugar addiction: The state of the science. European Journal of Nutrition, 55, 55-69. https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s00394-016-1229-6/
2. Avena, N.M., Rada, P., Hoebel, B.G. (2007). Evidence for sugar addiction: Behavioral and neurochemical effects of intermittent, excessive sugar intake. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews, 32(1), 20-39. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2235907/
3. Barnes, R.D., Tantleff-Dunn, S. (2010). Food for thought: Examining the relationship between food though suppression and weight-related outcomes. Eating Behaviours, 11, 175-179. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/20434065/#:~:text=Food%20thought%20suppression%20also%20predicted,in%20the%20treatment%20of%20obesity.
4. Baker, D., Keramidas, N. (2013). The psychology of hunger. Monitor on Psychology, 44(9), 66. https://www.apa.org/monitor/2013/10/hunger#:~:text=The%20Minnesota%20Starvation%20Experiment%20ended,calories%20were%20increased%20in%20increments.
5. Markus, R.C., Rogers, P.J., Brouns, F., Schepers, R. (2017). Eating dependence and weight gain: no evidence for a ‘sugar-addiction’ model of overweight. Appetite, 11, 64-72. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0195666317304099?via%3Dihub
6. Soetens B, Roets A, Van Hiel A, and Cornelis I. (2008). Resisting temptation: effects of exposure to a forbidden food on eating behavior. Appetite, 51, 202-205. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/18342989/#:~:text=The%20high%2Drestraint%2Fhigh%2D,groups%20of%20disinhibited%20restrained%20eaters.
Disordered Eating, Emotional Eating & Chronic Disease
Thoughtful and empathetic are words often used to describe Courtney. She strives to create genuine connections with clients and works to create an inclusive space for all. She is passionate about working with individuals struggling with health issues, yo-yo dieting recovery, disordered eating and helping clients feel at peace with food and their bodies.