One of my lowest moments was being about 25 pounds overweight, constantly ‘saying’ I wanted lose weight, but hiding out in the pantry, terrified of being caught, while I shoved cupcake after cupcake in my face because I literally could not control myself.
So if you ask me, personally… Hell yes, sugar addiction is real.
If you ask my husband, who’s always been able to just have a bite or two and walk away… well, he doesn’t really know. But he can tell you that he feels that way about potato chips.
As a nutrition specialist, I now know that there is mounting research supporting ‘food’ being addictive, including sugar.
For some, sugar alone is what will get them. For others it could be the salt, or even the combination of the flavors like fat + sugar, or fat + salt. Food companies have spent billions of dollars figuring this out. And make no mistake: their interests lie in making sure you keep coming back for more.
As a nutrition specialist and recovered sugar addict (and mom), I get asked this question over and over: Is sugar addiction real? Like really real?
And although the answer has taken many forms over the past several years, my answer to the question is a resounding YES, sugar addiction is really real. And I’ll explain why.
My relationship with sugar started as a kid from the south whose family knew no bounds of cooking with sugar and white flour. This meant dessert after many a meal, and the biggest, sugary-est birthday cakes you’ve ever seen. I loved the sugar and butter combination (or sugar and shortening), and by the time I was a teenager would always request the piece of cake with the absolute most icing flowers on it.
I never knew the damage all the sugar was doing to my gut bacteria, nor that it could have an effect on my moods, hormones, and definitely not my neurotransmitters or immune system.
I developed asthma around 12 and had terrible hayfever that I never really shook. By my teen years, I had terrible acne, was constantly irritable, and forever anxious.
It wasn’t until adulthood when I started studying nutrition that I really took a step back and thought through my constant depressive symptoms as a teen and young adult, and put a few pieces together for the ups and downs of my moods, skin, and hormones.
But it wasn’t until after having gestational diabetes for 2 out of 3 pregnancies (type 2 seems to run in my family) that I noticed that I felt a thousand percent better when I nixed the sugar.
But quitting sugar wasn’t as easy as just saying ‘no thank you’.
Every birthday was a struggle (and it sometimes still is). I’ve been in the throes of postpartum depression 3x where I would hide in the pantry to stuff as many cupcakes in secret as I could into my face before anyone could see. I’ve binged for hours, alternating sugary and salty snacks, in secret when my husband was out of town for work.
I know that I can’t eat more than a bite or two of anything like that without falling back down that slippery slope.
So I can attest first-hand what it feels like to be addicted to sugar. No matter what kind of logic your brain tells you about how crappy you’ll feel the next day (physically and emotionally), that crazy part of your brain takes over and mutes the logic.
The Science Behind Sugar Addiction
While in my master’s program we had to do many projects on various topics that all require peer-reviewed studies to back our answers. Part of the studies I sought out revolved around sugar addiction. At the time one professor pointed out that the only study thus far involved rats that preferred sugar over cocaine.
Also at the time, the book of diagnostic codes contained mental health diagnostics for food addiction, but not specifically sugar. The reasoning was that they, at the time, couldn’t definitively prove that sugar itself was physically addicting, further confusing the ‘Is sugar addiction real?’ question altogether.
I personally have a problem with this, because many people (including myself) have felt the withdrawal symptoms of coming off sugar. These side effects are definitely not imagined, and some have described them as feeling like having a mild case of the flu.
The clincher of sugar is that when consumed, it occupies the same receptors in the brain as drugs like cocaine and heroin. It gives a dopamine hit, which makes you feel good. So it activates those reward systems in the brain and essentially ‘programs’ the brain to want more and make you think you need it.
And once you keep eating it, cravings will start for it.
From that point, it can be very difficult to satisfy the craving and keep yourself from seeking anything to replace it until you completely get off it.
Another thing that happens is that you build tolerance. This is when the brain receptors get a lot of the dopamine hits but eventually adapt and need more to get that reward response.
This tends to be one of the hallmarks of a definition of ‘addiction’, but again– the issue is whether it specifically is sugar, or is another component of the food you’re eating, or even a combination of components. These possibilities need more research before the medical system will consider giving a specific diagnostic code for sugar, specifically.
Do sugar detoxes work?
The last few years have seen a rise in people doing sugar detoxes to get off sugar in hopes of kickstarting weight loss, beginning a diet to manage conditions like diabetes, or simply wanting to eat more healthy in general to feel better and manage their daily energy. Many have questioned if these actually work to help control the cravings.
In my experience, the answer is yes. But there are a few things to know:
- You have to be vigilant about staying off sugar. If you’re one of the people (like me) that truly feel an addiction to it, it can be really hard to take ‘just one bite’ of anything and quit. You need a plan, and probably an accountability partner for things like birthdays.
- You have to know what qualifies as sugar. You’d be shocked at what the food industry has done to get around the term ‘sugar’. They’ve done their best to trick us into not knowing what we’re eating. But they need sugar for taste and that addiction factor so you’ll keep buying. So educate yourself on all the hidden terms.
- Know that grains (especially refined ones) can react the same way in your body that sugar does, kicking off that dopamine hit and reward response. For this reason, many experts recommend quitting anything with grains in it. This includes breads, pastas, pastries, etc. This part can be tough, but when you see the benefits of how you feel, you’ll figure out how to make it happen consistently.
Bottom line is that, although studies are slowly catching up, it’s a very real thing.
There is also evidence of a genetic component to some people feeling addicted to sugar. The gene that controls the dopamine receptors in our brains can have mutations that impair the reward system in the brain, thereby triggering some people to show addictive behavior toward sugar.
Given the current research, it’s just a matter of time before the studies come out to give more definition to the specific addictive properties of sugar, as well as the food combinations that food companies already have the data to back up.
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