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© 2019 Alpine Nutrition

  • Amanda Bullat MS RDN

The Sweet Truth About Sugar Addiction


Psst, did you hear? The free-for-all sugar holiday is just around the corner (aka Halloween).

Does Halloween seem to kick off your sweet tooth to the point that it snowballs all the way through to New Year's? If so, you might consider yourself a sugar addict - feeling out of control any time you're in reach of a little sweetness (and no I'm not talking about fruit!).

There's no denying that intense force to consume all things sweet is powerful - after all, that's what helped our species survive all these years. But nowadays, there's a trendy, diet-culture rumor going around that humans can be just as addicted to sugar as they can be to other drugs. HOWEVER, there's very little solid nutrition and neurological science to back this up.

Now, before you say, "but wait, Dr. Oz (or another celebrity health guru) says..." hear me out.

It's true that there's a popular theory running around weight-biased, fat phobic communities (medical and social) call the Food Addiction Theory (FA). It aims to showcase similarities between food and other addictive substances. The details go something like this:

1. Food shares common drug pathways in the brain.

2. Food can activate reward (aka pleasurable) neurons in the brain..."oh, yeah get me more of THAT NOW!"

3. When food is consumed, dopamine receptors in the brain are altered.

4. Anticipation of eating activates regions in the brain in a similar way as when someone is anticipating getting their drug "fix."

Ok, sounds logical right? Fine, but the scientific literature is still a bit weak in proving this FA theory. In 2016, a scientific literature review paper was published as a supplement to the European Journal of Nutrition (read complete study HERE). The authors set out to examine the previously published scientific studies in support of FA. They looked at both human studies (there were very few available to review) and animal studies. Here's what they found...

Current research on FA fails to nail down exactly which elements of foods are addictive. Is there's only one addictive element (i.e sugar) or are there many? The studies also can't identify what it is about food that sparks the, "gotta have it now," drive in some people more so than in others. BUT there is one conclusion that seems to be clear in all of the studies that were reviewed for this paper...

Restriction creates the feelings of craziness (i.e "get that sweet into my mouth NOW and no one gets hurt,") - and therefore, the bingeing on the sweet food. More specifically, in the researcher's science-y words:

"We find little evidence to support sugar addiction in humans, and findings from the animal literature suggest that addiction-like behaviors, such as bingeing, occur only in the context of intermittent access to sugar. These behaviors likely arise from intermittent access to sweet tasting or highly palatable foods, not the neurochemical effects of sugar."

BAM! Science has spoken...and given you permission to eat some Halloween candy, and some holiday treats, and some ice cream in the summer, and some chocolate whenever...etc.

The jusst is this...ANYTIME you restrict a food, especially a really tasty one, you WILL feel out of control with it when you finally give in and let it cross your lips.

So, do yourself a favor as the holiday season draws near - practice letting go of the fear around sweet, pleasurable food. Give yourself a TON of self compassion as you work through challenging the food police comments in your head (you shouldn't eat that because...insert whatever shame provoking reason!) as you bite into a favorite treat.

Tell yourself..."you can have this sweet taste ANY. Time. You. Want! Food does not need to be all or nothing, black or white. Besides, all the colors, smells, and taste of the Fall and up-coming holiday season are too damn good to pass up!

#foodrestriction #forbiddenfoods #sugar #holidays #selfcompassion #nutritionscience #Nutrition #AlpineNutrition