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‘Sugar is Addictive’ – A myth or a fact?

We have all heard the phrase ‘sugar is addictive’ but is this actually the case?

The definition of addiction is ‘an inability to stop using a substance or engaging in a behaviour even though it is causing psychological and physical harm. “ – Medical News Today

Yes, sugar can be a big problem if over consumed and is indeed a contributing factor to obesity, but does it go as far as an addiction where you are physically unable to stop yourself from eating it?

Ever eaten sugar straight out the bag?

We can all agree sugary foods taste great but if it was addictive, why aren’t people eating it straight out the bag like other addictive substances? We tend to eat sugar alongside other ingredients such as fat, salt and protein as we enjoy the combined food that is created. For example, things we class as high sugar foods such as a donut, actually has less sugar in than fat so are we arguing fat is addictive too? In a recent study people where asked what foods they were most likely to over-eat, and the results showed mainly foods higher in fat rather than sugar:

  • Chocolate
  • Ice-cream
  • French fries
  • Pizza
  • Cookies
  • Chips
  • Cake
  • Cheeseburgers

A recent publication from Cleveland Clinic stated that:

“There’s not one ingredient that can be singled out as being addictive. For some people, it’s greasy fast food. For others, it’s sweets. But even then, you wouldn’t binge on a bowl of granulated sugar. It seems to be processed foods with some combination of ingredients that become problematic for people.’

This may be true when relating to those suffering with obesity and binge eating disorders. Fruit is made up almost entirely of sugar and water, yet we don’t see those suffering from binge eating disorders eating too much fruit. It is usually heavily processed foods such as the ones listed above.

Binge eating disorder: the real problem

Those who have a BED usually also suffer from anxiety in fact, ‘37% of those who are diagnosed with BED are also diagnosed with a full-fledged anxiety disorder’.

This may explain the term ‘comfort eating’. Those with BED often get to this stage from eating to soothe their anxiety however this can begin to contribute to a negative cycle. 2 in 3 people with BED also suffer with obesity because of their eating habits as the comfort eating contributes to weight gain, which then makes that person feel bad about themselves, which in turn makes them eat more to feel better and it goes on.

Heap of sweets containing a lot of sugar. Reduction eating unhealthy and caloric food

However, we must relay back to the question ‘Is sugar addictive’ and in this case, addictive like habits or binge eating disorders aren’t just from eating sugar. Maybe the real problem is the easy access and lower prices to less nutritious foods which fuel binge eating disorders and therefore the higher risk of being obese. If we worked to tackle this and learn how to develop healthier coping mechanisms, the ‘sugar addiction’ theory may never exist alongside the obesity crisis today.

Would you eat sugar if it wasn’t sweet?

Westwater explains that ‘while some people report powerful cravings for sweet foods, the evidence suggests that this is because of taste and other sensory preferences that are encoded in our brains.’ This suggests that sugar is indeed more of a craving that an addiction. Unlike truly addictive substances, sugar can be much more easily rejected for example if sugar didn’t have its sweet taste or was paired with something unpleasant, it wouldn’t be so desirable.

Studies have also shown that we may be more hardwired to crave sugar rather than to be addicted to it from our ancestors in the caveman era. We would want to eat high sugar foods that could absorb quickly to give us a storage of energy if we weren’t sure when we could next eat. Referencing to the definition of addiction, if sugar was so bad for you to cause ‘psychological and physical harm’, why would we have it as a ‘survival’ instinct? It wouldn’t make sense.

No Sugar, No Problem

As you can see the ‘sugar addiction’ theory is slowly starting to fall apart and seems to be mostly false. Even though it can be a big problem if overconsumed, we could argue that all the other ingredients in ‘high sugar’ foods can also be a big problem if over consumed as well. Let’s be clear, this is not a prompt to eat loads of sugar because even though it may not be addictive or necessarily harmful to you, it isn’t very nutritious either. It is very calorie dense, therefore leaving you with little room for truly nutritious foods that leave you feeling fulfilled and fuller for longer.

If you feel you are reaching for food as a comfort on a very consistent basis, maybe it’s time to start to learn new coping mechanisms to deal with your anxiety and develop healthier relationships to your food for longer term results.

Sources and References:

Cleeveland Clinic – Why Are Certain Foods So Addictive? – https://health.clevelandclinic.org/why-are-certain-foods-so-addictive/

Outside – You Can’t Actually Be Addicted to Sugar  –https://www.outsideonline.com/health/nutrition/sugar-addiction-fake/

T-Nation – Tip: Sugar Is Not Addictive – https://www.t-nation.com/diet-fat-loss/tip-sugar-is-not-addictive/

Healthline – Binge Eating Disorder Statistics: Know the Facts – https://www.healthline.com/health/eating-disorders/binge-eating-disorder-statistics

Eating Disorder Hope – Binge Eating Disorder and Anxiety – https://www.eatingdisorderhope.com/information/binge-eating-disorder/binge-eating-disorder-and-anxiety

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