Is Food addiction and or Sugar addiction Real? Debunking the Myth and Cultivating a Healthier Food Relationship

Last Updated on: 1st January 2024, 10:39 pm

hands being tied whilst holding chocolate

Food addiction, or what’s more accurately termed as the “Food addiction theory,” has gained traction in recent years. If you’ve found your way here, chances are you’re all too familiar with this struggle.

I can relate—I’ve been there. The battle against food addiction led me to join Overeaters Anonymous and attempt to quit cold turkey. However, every time I thought I had conquered that beast, the “addiction” returned.

The distress of feeling powerless around sugar-laden foods is overwhelming. Particularly when coupled with attempts to manage or lose weight, it can feel like an insurmountable hurdle. I understand this first-hand, having gone through the humiliation, shame, guilt, and fear deeply ingrained in us by diet-culture when we eat foods that this culture classifies as ‘bad’.

Nevertheless, the concept of sugar addiction is controversial, with many scientists and researchers questioning its validity.

The Reality of Sugar Addiction

The evidence supporting sugar addiction is mixed. While some studies show sugar activating the brain’s reward system akin to drugs, others fail to replicate these findings. Moreover, research predominantly relies on animal models, which may not precisely replicate human behaviours.

The concept of Food addiction encounters several significant limitations

Firstly, food addiction is often linked to changes in the brain’s reward pathways, fostering impulsive and compulsive eating behaviours. However, it’s essential to note that our brains release dopamine in various scenarios, such as when listening to music we love or embracing our children. Does this suggest addiction to these behaviours as well?

Moreover, identifying the specific addictive substance in food, like you can with drugs, cigarettes or alcohol remains elusive. Some theories propose sugar, others point to fat, and some suggest it’s a combination of both. However, the evidence supporting any of these claims is notably weak (Westwater et al, 2016; Fletcher & Kenny, 2018).

The most compelling evidence supporting food addiction originates from studies conducted on rats. These rats were exposed to diets high in sugar, high in fat, or a blend of both in controlled, intermittent ways, inducing compulsive eating behaviours that might hint at addiction. Yet, those rats in studies, granted continuous access to the same foods exhibited reduced interest, consuming less over time (Furlong et al, 2014; Crowin, 2011; Westwater et al, 2016).

Additionally, the theory oversimplifies the intricate relationship between food and behaviour. Multiple factors influence our eating habits, encompassing genetics, environment, social factors, psychological well-being, including trauma. Blaming unhealthy eating habits solely on sugar addiction disregards these vital contributors.

Furthermore, labelling individuals as “sugar addicts”/ food addicts can lead to stigmatization and shame, which negatively impacts a person’s self worth and their sense of autonomy around this food.

Lastly, viewing sugar as an addictive substance might push people towards highly restrictive dieting practices. This can be problematic since sugar is the brain’s preferred fuel source, hence restrictive diets will often lead to counterproductive bingeing behaviours.

Why Do People Feel Like They Have a Sugar Addiction?

There are a few reasons why people may feel like they have a sugar addiction.

  • Our bodies naturally crave carbohydrates. Carbohydrates are our body’s  and brains preferred source of energy. When blood sugar levels drop, we naturally crave sugary foods to replenish this energy. Blood glucose, derived from food, provides the energy our bodies need to function. Skipping meals or avoiding carbohydrates can significantly drop blood sugar levels, intensifying cravings for something sweet. Therefore, binging on sugary foods after skipping meals may be due to low blood sugar levels rather than an addiction problem.
  • Sugar is rewarding. Sugar consumption triggers the release of dopamine, a neurotransmitter associated with pleasure and reward. This makes sugar highly palatable and can lead to cravings.
  • Diet culture. Dieting is often associated with feelings of deprivation and restriction. When we restrict certain foods from our diet, we often experience intense cravings for those foods. This is because restriction can heighten our awareness of and desire for those foods. This can make it difficult to control our intake of sugary foods, even if we don’t have a sugar addiction.

Cultivating a Healthier Food Relationship

Shifting from perceiving sugar or certain foods as addictive is crucial.

You can develop a balanced approach by:

  • Listening to your body’s needs and responding to hunger cues.
  • Establishing a regular eating pattern as a foundation. 3 meals and 2 snacks is always a good starting point.
  • Gradually integrating fear foods with the guidance of a dietitian to reduce their hold on you.
  • Avoiding moral judgments on food and focusing on nourishing your body.

In Conclusion

The concept of sugar addiction is complex and controversial. While sugar influences food choices and cravings, the evidence supporting the theory is inconclusive.

A healthier food approach involves self-compassion, understanding your body (interoceptive awareness), and mindful food choices. If you’re struggling with sugar cravings, schedule a discovery call with me today. My team and I are dedicated to supporting you in developing a healthier, more compassionate relationship with food and your body.. Get in touch with us today to discuss further.

About Me

I’m Sarah, a registered dietitian and eating disorder specialist. I am passionate about helping individuals and families overcome the challenges of eating disorders, disordered eating, and mental health conditions. My expertise lies in supporting families and individuals with a history of trauma, including domestic abuse, and guiding children and teenagers through the complexities of eating disorders, particularly those stemming from adverse childhood experiences.

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