It's time for another Nutrition Deep Dive, this time into sugar addition. Is it real? Do you have it? Should we be worried? In short, no, no, and no. The scariest thing about sugar is how much power diet culture gives it.
SUGAR ADDICTION ISN'T REAL
Yep, you heard me. An evidence review by neurologists at the University of Cambridge found that there's pretty much no proof it exists. They wrote,
"We find little evidence to support sugar addiction in humans, and findings from the animal literature suggest that addiction-like behaviours, such as bingeing, occur only in the context of intermittent access to sugar."
LET'S TALK DOPAMINE
The argument for sugar addiction is that consuming sugar causes our brain to release dopamine, the "reward" neurotransmitter. To solely blame sugar for any release of dopamine is irresponsible, because several things can cause an increase in its levels, like:
Eating protein (the amino acid tyrosine can be converted to dopamine once eaten)
Eating in general
And all of this makes sense, because to get to where we as humans are today (yep, we're talking evolution), we had to stay strong by eating, avoid predators by outsmarting them or winning fights, and sustain our species via sex. These things = rewards = not dying out as a species.
And for the record, dopamine does a ton of important things in addition to rewarding us - like helping with movement and regulating breast milk release. When there's damage to dopamine neurons in certain areas of the brain, symptoms of Parkinson's disease are produced.
THE SUGAR FEAR FACTOR
The thing about diet culture and its recommendations is, they thrive on fear. Eat this so you can lower your cholesterol. Don't eat this; it will give you cancer. And so on. We fear sickness and dying and being unattractive and not having a "beach body" and not keeping up with trends and a million other things that diet culture enforces via fear.
So, it's easy to say "don't eat sugar" or "sugar is addictive" because it sells the latest artificially sweetened diet snack bar or a new Paleo cookbook. It's also easy to promise things like perfect health and a thriving sex life if we just quit sugar, because don't we all want that?
But the biggest downfall of the sugar addiction argument is that it only addresses physical health. There's also mental, emotional, and about a million other kinds. Just because a cupcake doesn't provide the same vitamins and fiber as a green juice doesn't mean that its role in providing pleasure and satisfaction isn't important. By recognizing the different roles that all kinds of food can play in supporting both our bodies and souls, we can break free of the sugar fear factor and start to actually live our lives instead of fretting away the days by worrying about if we could make those lives more "perfect."
SO, WHAT DO WE DO ABOUT SUGAR?
Eat it. Yes, you heard me. Food habituation studies show that the less restraint we have in regards to a particular food can decrease the amount of energy (i.e. calories) we consume from that food over time. Picture these two scenarios:
You're planning to start a low-sugar and carb diet on Monday, so during the weekend you eat donuts for breakfast, have dessert after each meal, snack on candy throughout the day, and go out for ice cream or milkshakes - because this is the last time you'll ever eat sugar, so you want to say a fond farewell. The idea of eating so "unhealthy" torments you with each bite, but it's okay because that will all change come Monday. You power through Monday and Tuesday on your diet, but on Wednesday there's cupcakes in the office - and your brain is so carb-deprived that it creates some of the strongest cravings you've ever had. You can't focus on work with the promise of cupcakes, and think about them all day. You end up eating a cupcake, and since your day is already "ruined," you pick up more dessert on the way home. You can start fresh tomorrow, so you may as well eat more cookies tonight, right? Rinse and repeat.
You eat intuitively from all food groups. Over the weekend, you eat what sounds good to you. You meet up with a friend for ice cream without giving the food much thought. The most obsessing you do over food is a quick scan of your grocery store's ad to see what's on sale. You start Monday ready to focus on work. There's cupcakes on Wednesday, but you forget about it until lunchtime. A cupcake does sound good, but after one bite you realize they're not that great. You forget about the rest and go about your day.
Does one of those sound a little too familiar? Restricting can make us crazy, obsess over food, and binge on foods we don't even like - just because they're forbidden fruit. By giving ourselves unconditional permission to eat what we want, we can learn how to tease out what we really want to eat, and end up eating a more varied diet as a result.
You can't be addicted to sugar. But fear of sugar can make you feel like you are, so a good way to start is by allowing you to eat all foods - because without restriction, sugar has no power.