I recently read a fantastic article by James Krieger which has spurred me to write this post. It is titled ‘No, you’re not addicted to sugar’ and is a great read. You can read this article here where it goes deep into the reasons why sugar is not addictive.
Historically as a society, we are great at attributing the obesity epidemic to one variable.
There was fat in the 80’s, carbohydrates in the 90’s (and again now), and sugar more recently. We believe that by isolating and removing one group, we will ‘cure’ obesity. However, this is simply not the case. None of these interventions have curbed obesity at a population level. For example, a recent paper showed that when the Australian population made a significant reduction in its sugar consumption, there was no effect or reduction in obesity.
I am not saying that sugar is not harmful in large quantities, I am simply saying it is not addictive.
Do you find yourself in the cupboard late at night eating bags of sugar by the spoonful?
Or do you find yourself getting sugar, any way you can, whether that be smoking it, inhaling it or injecting it straight into your veins?
So no, if you don’t do those things, you aren’t addicted to sugar.
However, by saying sugar is not addictive, we aren’t saying that food addiction or an equivalent behaviour isn’t real or that sugar doesn’t contribute to the obesity epidemic. Rather that, if we continue to try and control the obesity epidemic by demonising one variable (first fat, then carbohydrates, and now sugar) we limit the effect we can have on helping people.
Those who display addictive-like eating behaviours are not addicted to sugar, but instead seek out highly palatable foods. Sugar (to an extent) is highly palatable which is where the confusion has come from. If sugar was the sole culprit, we would find ourselves ‘addicted’ to candy floss, or 100s & 1000s as opposed to overeating pizza and chocolate.
This is incredibly important because blaming sugar is not helpful from a treatment perspective, as eliminating sugar would then just result in the consumption of other highly palatable foods. For example, in one study they presented a list of foods that tended to lead to ‘addictive-like’ eating behaviour. The top 3? Pizza, chocolate and potato chips. Only one of those foods would be classified ‘high sugar’. However it is also high in fat, and the others (pizza and potato chips) are highly palatable due to a combination of sodium and fat. Soft drinks, which are primarily sugar (with little sodium or fat) didn't make the top 10. Not great statistics for the 'sugar is addictive' camp.
It is the wonderful food combinations such as sodium and fat (potato chips), fat and sugar (chocolate) or a combination of the three (pizza) that we enjoy. By demonising and removing one, it is only going to result in individuals turning to other palatable foods to fill that void. For example, questionable methodology that has been used to ‘prove' sugar is addictive recently ‘showed’ cheese was addictive too.
The issue is attitudes towards food and using it as a reward rather than the actual ingredients themselves. Take chocolate as an example. This is a food which many people might say is ‘addictive’. However many people see chocolate as something that should be eaten with restraint or avoided entirely. The more you try to abstain, the greater importance you place on this food until you become preoccupied with it. This is called craving, not addiction.
Many people say 'if it is in the house, I’ll eat it, but if it’s not I won’t.' That is because you crave the food, but are not ‘addicted’ to it.
If only treating heroin addicts was as simple as ensuring they didn’t have any in the pantry…
Until we make this distinction, we will have a tough time giving useful advice to people who struggle with overeating. We need to address the reasons as to why people overeat, instead of demonising one aspect of what people overeat.