Is Sugar Addicting?

I was part of a discussion last week regarding sugar addiction. The question was posed about whether such a thing as sugar addiction exists, and quite a few strong opinions were shared around the room. References were made to a variety of theories, ranging from the dopamine response, modern food technology conspiracies, and even the idea that the gut microbiome exerts hormonal influence over our human brains, making us powerless over our ceaseless and intense sugar cravings. [Don’t get me wrong, I love learning about the role of the microbiome in health, but this concept can easily be taken out of context.]

Personally, I am not convinced that sugar addiction is a real thing. In fact, as with most radical claims, it’s highly probable that a controversial conclusion was drawn from a poorly conducted study, the media subsequently had a hay day, and now there are a myriad of other inconclusive research findings along with a large population of confused consumers.

Of course, I recognize that there are many well-educated scientists and health professionals out there who disagree with me on this, and that’s okay. Honestly, I could be wrong! But at the end of the day, I am far less concerned about whether a person believes sugar is addicting than I am about how they act on that belief.

For me, believing that sugar is not addicting means that I likewise believe that I have power over whether or not I eat it. It also means that I feel free to enjoy sugar-sweetened foods, because I’m not afraid that I’ll totally lose control, be unable to stop myself, binge eat desserts until I feel sick, an then suffer guilt, shame and ill-health. Interestingly, I used to believe that sugar was dangerous and addicting, and subsequently tried to avoid it. However, in avoiding it, I ended up giving it emotional power over me, which actually did end up triggering episodes of binge eating. Once I realized that it was me that was in control rather than sugar, the binge eating problem dissolved.

In a clinical setting, my belief that sugar is not addicting means that I am confident in my recommendations to clients to include sweet foods in their diets to prevent them from feeling deprived and subsequently engaging in maladaptive behaviors, like binge eating. It also gives me joy to know that with these recommendations, my clients feel that they have permission to enjoy tasty foods! Dessert makes me happy, and I like seeing other people experience those feelings of pleasure, too.

My concern in the discussion of whether or not sugar is addicting comes from the way that someone might respond to that idea. I’ve seen it true in my own life and in countless client stories that the idea of sugar addiction is scary. This type of fear leads to maladaptive behavior, and such maladaptive behavior leads to very real physical, emotional, and spiritual health problems. This scares me. Sugar does not.

However, even if sugar really is addicting from a physiologic standpoint (which I admit, I could be wrong about) this doesn’t mean we need to avoid it. While I certainly believe that addictive drugs like nicotine and heroin should be avoided, there are other “addicting” substances that are part of a normal, balanced, everyday life lived in honor of God. An example of this would be alcohol.

Alcohol is widely accepted as an addictive substance. Alcoholism is a real disease with real consequences, and people make a lot of poor choices when they are intoxicated. However, moderate consumption of alcohol does not lead to ill health. Not all people who consume alcohol (which is most people) go on to develop alcoholism, or suffer health consequences from their use of it. In fact, moderate consumption of certain alcoholic beverages has been thought to be health promoting. Alcohol becomes problematic when it is used to numb feelings, cope with stress, to meet social or spiritual needs, or to avoid responsibility. The same is true of sugar.

Even if sugar is “addictive,” this wouldn’t mean that it is a danger in and of itself. However, as with other foods, sugar can become a problem if it is used to fill a role in life that it was not intended to, and never can fill. In the same vain, it can become a problem if we assign it power over us it should not have by fearing it to the point that it triggers binge eating. Even still, it’s important to remember that if overeating happens, it’s the fear and emotional disconnect that caused the binge, not the actual sugar.

My hope for men and women today is that regardless of their beliefs about sugar science, they will respond to those beliefs in a way that is honoring to both God and their bodies. Fear is our enemy, and as I mentioned in my previous post, this is not a life-giving attitude. Rather, it leads to death.

[If you can relate to this experience of fear, I feel for you. The struggle with food is scary and isolating, and I’ve been there, too. But there’s hope — you don’t need to struggle alone. I encourage you to make an appointment with an intuitive-eating informed health practitioner you trust. If you don’t know one, I’d love to fill that role. You can schedule an appointment here.]

P.S. Sugar science for those who are interested:

I personally am convinced that sugar addiction doesn’t exist, and that the tendency to over-consume sugary foods is due to maladaptive eating behavior rather than chemical addiction. Here are a few studies that helped me develop this view:
Likewise, here’s an excellent discussion that isn’t primary research, but is certainly evidence-informed:
Hopefully these at least gave you something to think about! Food matters rarely are as black-and-white as we make them. Embrace the “in between!”
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