I get asked about sugar addiction all the time….!!
The reality is that the jury is out about whether sugar addiction is even real and right now it's looking like not so much.
Diet culture tells us that if we binge or crave sugar we are addicted and we should “cut sugar out”.
Unfortunately, bingeing and craving sugar is often the RESULT of restricting sugar - so those messages make it worse. Research shows that when we restrict, we then have an increased desire for sugar. You want what you can't have.
I personally thought I had a sugar addiction and couldn't be trusted with chocolate, ice cream, cake, etc. Then I found Intuitive Eating and healed my relationship with food. Now, I always have multiple pints of ice cream, chocolate, and whatever else I want in my house. I rarely even think about it, unless the mood strikes. I typically want it a few times a week, and when I want it, I eat it! I enjoy it so much more now that it doesn't come with a side of shame.
Gone are the days of eating so much of it that I feel sick.
Think you have a sugar addiction?
There are so many reasons you might feel addicted to sugar. Know that it's common to feel that way but the answer is NOT restriction - it's building connection and trust with yourself.
Harmful diet culture messages could be the culprit. One common message I hear is that the response to sugar is a dopamine response like cocaine.
Sugar is not like cocaine. Food for thought on this…
1. Cocaine hijacks your neurobiology and sugar does not.
2. You build physiological dependence and tolerance to cocaine and other drugs, but not to sugar.
3. People lose jobs, go to jail and die from substance use disorder. Have you ever known someone who lost a job or went to jail over sugar?
4. If people were addicted to sugar, wouldn’t they want to eat straight sugar? Most people do not eat it out of the bag. We crave the way foods make us feel- taste, smell, texture, etc.
5. Lots of things light up pleasure and reward centers of our brains- babies, laughter, hugs, games like candy crush, etc.
6. In the mice studies - sugar had been restricted. Diets actually cause an increased desire for sugar.
Here are some other really valid reasons you might feel like you are addicted to sugar:
-You’ve been restricting sugar or telling yourself you “shouldn’t” have it – so your inner rebel comes out.
-You are hungry. If you aren’t getting enough to eat, you will crave food in a way that feels out of control - called primal hunger. You might be bingeing all night to make up for it. (many people think they are eating “too much” but not really eating enough during the day- leading to this pattern)
-Eating patterns can be habit forming (habits are not addictions). You are simply used to eating a pint of ice cream every night so it feels hard to make a different choice.
-You are preoccupied with food and binge often (again diet culture and food restriction often contribute wildly to this).
-You think you have an addiction to sugar because it feels like you can't stop (cravings do not mean you have an addiction and there are many reasons for cravings).
-You have been told that there is something wrong with liking sweets (they are yummy- food is meant to be enjoyed).
-You eat sweets to soothe and think that means it's bad (soothing doesnt mean its an addiction).
However, here's the thing...most of these are A) completely normal AND
B) created or made worse by dieting/restricting and diet culture messages. The real issue is a lack of being attuned with your body AND using self judgement/beating yourself up instead of using curiosity and discernment.
Diet culture tells us to judge ourselves and restrict when you struggle with sugar, but again, this only makes things worse. With Intuitive Eating the solution is to get curious about what is really going on for you. Curiosity helps with body attunement and makes changing patterns easier. Some questions to ask yourself if you are struggling with sugar…
- When do I usually crave sugar?
- Am I overly hungry before I start eating?
- Am I eating enough throughout the day? (if not, it could be primal hunger)
- Was my day stressful? (you may need to start focusing on regulating your nervous system)
- What was it about the sweet that I really wanted or enjoyed?
- How did I feel when I was eating it?
- How do I feel after? (ask this without judgement)
- Am I getting enough sleep?
- Is there a health issue that needs to be addressed? (such as chronic pain)
- Did anything change when I started craving sugar more? (such as a diet, stopping drinking, going back to school, etc)
- Are there emotions I am avoiding feeling?
- Do I need to set a boundary or address a life circumstance that is making me unhappy?
It is so important that we ask these questions WITHOUT judgement- judgements are just narratives, they don’t help us change, and they block body attunement. Another key is not to try to control or manage the behavior of eating sugar, but instead address the underlying issue. For example, if you are not getting enough quality sleep, focus on sleep. If that is leading to sugar cravings, when you start getting enough sleep, the sugar cravings will naturally diminish.
Unfortunately, much of the research that supports the idea of sugar addiction, is completely biased. It doesn't control for restriction. It is often based on people who are self reporting as well- so it is not objective. So before you go on that rabbit hole of beating yourself up because you read an article about sugar addiction, ask yourself the questions. Take some time, be honest, listen to your body. Again, the answer is building connection and trust with yourself.
Download your free hunger scale now!
The first step to healing our relationship with food is reconnecting with the signals our body gives us. One of the ways to do that is by checking in with your hunger before you eat. Here's my spin on the traditional hunger scale.