Updated: Jun 26, 2021
Do you find yourself saying, “I can’t stop eating sugar!” whenever you eat sweets and feel like you don’t have the power to put them down? Sugar seems to have a pull on you, so it’s fair to believe sugar must be addicting, right?
Even scientists and health professionals have opinions about why your sweet tooth lands in the same category as drug addiction. Sugar is said to be the culprit in your chaotic eating behaviors, and slapping the “addictive” label on it has resulted in the widely known idea of sugar addiction. But this is a myth!
Many people demonize sugar as if it is really a drug, but this is a highly flawed viewpoint. To uncover the truth and set the facts on sweets straight, let’s debunk the theory of sugar addiction by breaking down the studies and research for you to see that it is, in fact, not true.
*It's important to note that while the point of this post is to prove why the theory of sugar addiction is false, what you’re feeling and experiencing around sugar is completely valid and real. You can feel addicted to sugar at times. That’s why knowing the whole truth will give you a better grip on how to break free!
Food Addiction Can Not Be Objectively Measured
Food is complex and intertwined with our everyday life as a necessity. It’s always changing and there’s no possible way to objectively measure if a single nutrient like sugar is addictive. There’s so many other factors at play. Outside influences, opinions, and perspectives clearly affect food’s place in our life.
People interact with food differently depending on the day, time, season, event, or situation. We’re not robots that eat the same food everyday in the same amount at the same time under the same circumstances, emotions, and mental state.
The studies that claim food is addictive use the Yale Food Addiction Scale, which solely gathers information reflecting an individual’s experience with food. Feelings alone don’t define whether something is addictive or not.
The majority of other studies on food addiction use rats, and human studies are very limited. Rats have one major mission in life, looking for food. Rats don’t have peer pressure, a history of trauma, or emotions that drive and affect their choices. When looking at humans, there’s always more to the story, and there is no evidence to support the theory of sugar addiction.
“Addictive” Behaviors Only Occur in Depravity
The conclusions about sugar addiction from the rat studies were based on the observation that when given access to sugar, rats showed addictive behaviors. Yes, the rats did over-consume the sugar, but only when the rats were deprived of sugar (think dieting and restriction). The rats did NOT react in an out-of-control way, reflecting addictive behaviors, when the sugar was fully available. They responded as any living creature would if food was unpredictable and scarce, by eating as much as they could for survival purposes.
Food Is Meant to Be Rewarding
Your brain is wired to release dopamine (which triggers pleasure and motivation) when you eat. You were made this way so that you’ll instinctively know to seek out food, one of your most basic needs. The flood of dopamine from sugar is a natural reward response just like you would get from exercising, napping, or connecting with people.
Many have heard of the similarities between the brain’s response to sugar and its response to drugs, and this is partly true. The studies show that sugar fires up the same area of the brain as drugs do, again, only when sugar has been withheld from the rats. Neuroscience reveals that after sugar is taken away periodically, there’s a heightened response in the brain upon its return, resembling the brain’s reaction to drugs. When there’s constant access to sugar, the brain gives the same response as any other natural reward. Drugs hijack or take over that natural reward pathway.
Feeling Like You’re Addicted Doesn’t Mean You Are Addicted
People feel like they’re addicted to sugar because of the body’s tendency to chase down sugar when it’s forbidden. You always want what you can’t have.
There’s no proof of sugar addiction on a physiological level. This makes sense because your body is specifically designed to depend on food. It’s all about the physical and mental restriction behind those out of control behaviors surrounding sugar.
People tend to binge on foods they consider "bad" or "unhealthy", because they keep these foods off-limits. Does this sound familiar? Once you have access to these foods, overeating or bingeing may occur. This can seem like the food is addicting because you seem unable to control yourself around these foods. But the real reason you are overeating or bingeing is that you haven't had access to the food, not that the food is addicting. The problem is the restriction.
I Still Can’t Stop Eating Sugar… So Now What?
People assume they should abstain from sugar just like people abstain from drugs in order to heal. Now that we’ve debunked sugar addiction, we know that eliminating sugar is counterproductive. The removal of sugar will only increase your desire for it.
In order to feel competent around sugar, the solution is to incorporate sugar in your day to day life. The more you can physically and mentally trust that sugar is available, the less you will feel the temptation to go crazy with it, because it will always be there. The goal is to come to a place where there is no intermittent access to sugar like there was with the rats.
You may fear that having sugar regularly in your diet will make you eat sugar all day everyday. It’s possible that might happen in the beginning, because your body and mind are still figuring out and trying to determine if sugar will be taken away again. This is all how it’s supposed to happen.
As long as any form of restriction stays in place, your uncontrollable sugar cravings will persist. With unlimited access to sugar, overtime sugar won’t become as exciting to you as it once was, because you know you can have it whenever you want. There will come a day when sugar won’t rule you!
If you feel overwhelmed at the thought of this, my job as a registered dietitian is to help you use your power, you have what it takes to feel at peace with sugar!