Does sugar really have the power to be as addictive as drugs? Consider these points, and make your own conclusion.
Often times, media will report on a new study showing how sugar may be as addictive as drugs. Month-long no-sugar challenges pop up on social media, sharing stories of how people are able to finally “beat” their addiction with abstinence.
The common theme? Once you pop, you can’t stop.
While excessive sugar consumption is harmful to health, eating sugar in moderate amounts is completely safe. Still, many believe that just the smallest amount can trigger out-of-control eating, talking about sugar as if it was a hard drug. To them, it’s abstain or die. Let’s examine some of the reasons why sugar addiction does not exist.
1. SUGAR IS FINE IN MODERATION. DRUGS ARE NOT.
If you look at the overall health of our nation, added sugar in all forms can absolutely take a deadly toll. However, this is because of the sheer quantity that’s consumed. According to recent studies, the average American adult consumes 22 teaspoons a day while children consume a shocking 32 teaspoons daily. To put that in perspective, most organizations recommend less than 9 teaspoons daily. It’s this massive consumption of sugar (and the low nutrition foods in which it’s often found) that’s harmful, not sugar by itself.
No study has ever linked health problems with moderate amounts of sugar, which can make eating more pleasurable, an important and often overlooked facet of health. Eating sugar and sweets as part of an overall balanced diet will not lead to health concerns. We can’t say the same thing about crystal meth.
2. RATS AREN’T HUMANS.
One of the big arguments for sugar addiction are based on rat studies that have shown more addictive and drug-seeking behaviors for sugar than illicit drugs including cocaine, heroin and crystal meth. First off, we are humans, not rats. The primary concern for a rat is survival, which is dependent on their finding food in any form.
Also keep in mind that rats don’t deal with peer pressure to do drugs, or have childhood trauma that causes them to reach for mind-altering substances to numb their emotions. Rats want food, and sugar is food. Of course they choose sugar over drugs. It’s their primal drive for survival kicking in.
3. THERE ARE MANY THINGS THAT TRIGGER THE ADDICTION PATHWAY.
While sugar does trigger the same dopamine pathway as drugs, so do many other things including naps, exercise, sex, connecting with others, and other tasty foods that do not contain sugar. If sugar and other foods didn’t trigger the dopamine-reward cycle, we wouldn’t be alive today. Without it, prehistoric humans would have starved to death and earth would probably be ruled, well, maybe by rats.
4. IF SUGAR WAS ADDICTIVE, YOU WOULD GET AN EQUAL “HIGH” FROM BANANAS AND YOGURT.
Many foods are naturally rich in sugar, namely fruits and dairy. Have you ever heard of people bingeing on cantaloupe or milk? Probably not. Despite the fact that fruit and dairy contain naturally-occurring sugars, no one ever claims to be addicted to these foods.
So why does it feel like you’re addicted to sugar?
Behaviors that on the surface look and feel like sugar addiction are often a function of diet mentality, which can be just as powerful of a feeling as addiction. Through restriction or labels of ‘good’ or ‘bad’ foods, it creates a real or perceived deprivation that can trigger a primal drive to eat. In other words, bingeing occurs in the context of limited access rather than the actual neurochemical effects of sugar.
We commonly view eating behavior as controlled by willpower, so when you can’t stop eating sugar, it feels like a personal failure. But the truth is, it’s neither lack of willpower or addiction –
It’s allowing the diet mentality to be in the driver’s seat that’s making your eating decisions for you.
Adapted from the original article.
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Rachael Hartley, RD, LD, CDE is a private practice dietitian, food enthusiast, and nutrition expert based in Columbia, SC. By guiding others to rediscover the joy of nourishment rather than deprivation, Rachael helps men and women alike improve their health and well-being through delicious whole food recipes and practical advice through intuitive eating.