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Sugar addiction, is it a thing?

TRIGGER WARNING: This article discusses issues of addiction, eating habits, and may contain triggering content for those with anxieties around food. Please take care of yourself and make a note of the help and support at the end of this article.

Sugar addiction, is it a thing?

Do you feel unable to stop eating sweets? If so, you might be wondering if you’re addicted to sugar. In this article, we take a look at what science has to say about “sugar addiction”. We also explain another reason why you might feel out of control around food and what to do about it.

The argument for sugar addiction

You may have seen articles and news segments saying sugar is addictive like alcohol and other drugs. But is this actually true?
Those who believe sugar addiction exists point to a few similarities between how food and drugs act in the brain. These are:

  • Eating food, particularly foods that are high in added sugar and/or fats, triggers a release of feel-good brain chemicals. These are dopamine, serotonin and opioids.
  • The thought of eating sweets also lights up the same brain pathways as those with drug addiction.

These are all very real effects of eating food. And they seem to be stronger with foods that are higher in sugar and fats in particular. So that seems to make a strong case for sugar addiction, right?

Not so fast…

Sugar addiction is likely not a thing. Here’s why…

  1. Many things trigger addiction pathways in the brain

Studies in rats show that the brain reacts in a similar way when drugs are taken. Yet, this research misses the fact that food is something we need to survive. Sugar is not a drug – it’s the most basic fuel source keeping us alive. It is thus supposed to bring joy, or else we wouldn’t be motivated to eat. Our brain and body need glucose (the scientific name for sugar) to make sure we can carry out all the required biological functions to keep us alive.

The same brain centres light up when we stroke a puppy, hug a loved one or even when we win or anticipate winning money. Does that mean we’re addicted to hugging, puppies or money? Nope!

    2. Most of the research on sugar addiction is on rats

Most of the research supporting sugar addiction has been conducted on rats. Researchers have to be very careful about saying that because X happens in rats or chimps, it also applies to humans. We are physically and psychologically very different to rats.

    3. Food restriction may explain the feeling of sugar addiction

Interestingly, rat studies could provide science against sugar addiction. Why? Well, addiction neural pathways lit up as strong as they do for drugs when rats ate sugar. Yet, this only happened when rats were deprived beforehand. When they were withheld from adequate food beforehand. When rats were given free access to sugar, they did not display addiction-like behaviour. 

So in this case, food restriction appears to fuel addictive-like behaviours. This is what I have seen in my and my client’s experience. It’s especially relevant when we think about how common dieting and other forms of restrictive eating are in our society. For example, it’s very common for people to go on low-calorie diets. It’s also common for people to describe chocolate, sweets and cakes as “bad” or “naughty” foods, and try to avoid these. This can trigger feelings of deprivation that make us want these foods MORE.

What to do if you feel out of control with sweet foods

If you feel “out of control” with sugar or worry that you overeat sugary foods, you are not alone. Hopefully, this article has explained how whilst you may feel addicted to sugar foods, this is more likely to be rooted in your undereating, or attempts to restrict sugary foods, rather than any chemical addiction.

Further support and Links

Having difficulty with access to food means that choice isn’t always possible. Find below links to Local (Dorset Based) Food Banks, Food Sharing, Social Supermarkets, and Community Fridges:

Dorset Mind offers group support that can also help with your wellbeing. Their groups offer peer support that helps to reduce stigma by normalising conversations about mental health. You can also check out further support for stress and mental health here. You’ll find links for 1-2-1 and groups of mental health support we offer here. 

If you’re in a crisis, treat it as an emergency. Call 999 immediately or The Samaritans, FREE on 116 123. NHS Dorset’s Helpline ‘Connection’ can be reached on 0800 652 0190. It’s also available 24/7.

If you are struggling to cope with food related concerns, talk to your GP as a first step. For eating disorder support contact:

Low cost and free counselling services Dorset:

If you’re in a crisis, treat it as an emergency. Call 999 immediately or The Samaritans, FREE on 116 123. NHS Dorset’s Helpline ‘Connection’ can be reached on 0800 652 0190. It’s also available 24/7.

Today’s Guest Blogger

A huge thanks to guest blogger, Kat Kimber, a registered dietitian and certified Intuitive Eating Counsellor with Nude Nutrition. Find services and resources via their website here.

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