Sugar as an addiction?

If you feel out of control around food and fearful of having a certain foods in the house because you can’t stop at one, you are not alone. 

Many clients come to me as self proclaimed food or sugar addicts, saying they’re obsessed with crisps/ice cream, they fear having just one bite as they know it will end up being much more, and generally feeling powerless around food. 


Calling yourself an addict may feel helpful but this label could be causing more harm to our relationship with food and our bodies. 


I’m going to walk you through the research and do a bit of de-bunking along the way!


The claim:

When we eat sugar, the reward system in our brain lights up in the same way as with alcohol, drugs etc.

Additional research shows that we tend to release more of these “feel good” chemicals in response to high glycaemic foods; in other words, sugar and carbs.

Food addiction researchers believe that continued overconsumption of these highly processed foods rewire our brains to become dependent on them, in a way that’s similar to drugs. Indeed, MRIs have shown that food and drugs can have a similar effect on brain activity.

When we eat, our brain releases dopamine, serotonin and endorphins—the “feel good” neurotransmitters.


The reality

However, doesn’t this make total sense? if eating wasn’t a pleasurable experience, then we wouldn’t seek out food, and we would starve to death and not survive as a species.

Our brain also release these feel good neurotransmitters when we cuddle a kitten or laugh at something funny.

This research also doesn’t account for caloric restriction and restrained eating.

When we haven’t been eating enough (dieting or restricting foods) there is a hyper-response in the reward region of the brain. Not only does this occur when we eat food but also when shown pictures of food or just thinking about eating food. Most people who identify as food addicts have a history of dieting and food restriction. Therefore doesn’t it make sense that when they “give in” and eat the off-limit food, that their brain is even more responsive?


The claim:

A study showed that rats can become dependent on sugar, exhibiting typical symptoms of addiction, including craving and both behavioural and neurochemical signs of withdrawal.


The reality:

What these animal studies fail to show is that the only time the rats consume sugar in an ‘addictive’ way is when they have been deprived of it. When they have unlimited access, this addictive behaviour does not occur.

If you’ve been reading my blog or those of a similar nature, you know that deprivation drives compulsive binge behaviour, which is why when dieting we are more vulnerable to enhanced brain-based responses to foods that are labelled as “naughty.”


What does this mean for us?

The research for being addicted to sugar or food in general is in its infancy. As for comparing it to drugs and alcohol: food cravings lessen with fasting whereas drug cravings do not lessen over time, indicating that there are important differences between the two.

A person’s felt sense of being out of control or addicted to food is not the same thing as having scientific evidence that it is occurring at the physiological level.

However this does not diminish a persons very real experience of feeling like they are addicted and out of control. It makes sense in fact in the culture we live in that we feel this way, as we’re being fear-mongered around so many foods

The label of being a sugar addict, whilst you may feel like one and see the answer being to go cold-turkey on sugar, you may just be creating a self-fulfilling prophecy

You tell yourself you are an addict and therefore mustn’t eat the chocolate. Eventually the cravings kick in or you’re in a situation where you have a bite, and due to your rhetoric about being an addict and not stopping at one – that’s exactly what happens. You eat way past the point of comfortable fullness, thus reinforcing your belief that you indeed are a sugar addict and must do better next time.


If this is your experience you are not alone and it is possible to find peace around food.

Has this piece resonated with you? Are you ready for food freedom? Contact me