IS SUGAR REALLY ADDICTIVE AND INFLAMMATORY?

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As one of the most feared and demonized foods, sugar is often at the center of media hype. Learn why the extremes are never accurate.


BY: ROBYN NOHLING, FNP-BC, RD

Along with gluten and dairy, sugar seems to be one of those heavily demonized food ingredients. We say “ingredient” because as a culture, we tend to throw around the phrase, “addicted to sugar” when in reality, we aren’t sitting on the couch with a 5 lb bag of sugar and a spoon.

We are eating foods with sugar in them.

Sugar is one of the main foods that many people have anxiety around. It’s also one of the foods that you will hear intelligent health professionals tell people to eliminate because it’s inflammatory, because it causes acne, brain fog and other symptoms that we blame sugar for.

As a culture and health profession as a whole, we’ve created an extreme view of sugar. The diet industry’s success centers around pseudoscience, fear-mongering, and low self-esteem, and these diet conversations have extended to conversations around sugar.

Whether it’s done consciously or subconsciously, the diet and healthcare industries take advantage of the general public’s vulnerability – people who don’t know how to tease through the scientific literature. People trust their health care practitioners to give them evidence-based information and lead them to sustainable health. And those of us who are healthcare professionals need to recognize the trust and authoritative voice our patients and clients give to us – it’s our responsibility to protect them from fear-mongering pseudoscience…not encourage them to live by it.

So what can we confidently conclude around sugar addiction?

First, the idea of a particular food being addictive lacks scientific evidence to back it up, as recently shared by nutrition expert and dietitian Marci Evans. Research that does argue for the idea of food addiction utilizes the Yale Food Addiction Scale, which is based on a person’s own experience and doesn’t take into account food restriction. We know based on the neuroscience that when any food or foods are restricted, the reward of that food or foods is increased. It’s a biological survival mechanism, and people feel they are “addicted” because they feel out of control and chaotic around certain foods.  However, that is very different from insisting that a food substance is physiologically addicting.

In addition, research which claim sugar lights up the same regions of the brain as cocaine or other drugs isn’t fully true. In studies done on rats, that only happens under forced deprivation; under those restrictive conditions, the reward response is heightened. The key point to remember is that most food has an enhanced reward response under conditions of restriction and deprivation, both mentally or physically. Food and drugs do share neural pathways, but the brain does not develop a physiological dependency on food substances.

Headlines and sweeping statements might seem compelling because as a society, we love to be able to control certain aspects of our lives – such as food and exercise. However, the story is far more complex. In fact, what we often see is how eliminating sugar doesn’t make you “less addicted” to sugar. It actually enhances your reward response, and you’ll want it more. In fact, elimination becomes the very thing that causes the addiction.

Then, there is the idea of sugar being an inflammatory ingredient.

While inflammation is seen as harmful, inflammation is actually the body’s natural healing process. We need inflammation to survive in this world.

The problem with these studies on sugar and inflammation is that they are isolating sugar in the form of fructose, glucose or sucrose. How many of us sit down and drink 1/4 cup of simple syrup without any other food? Taking a study that found increased inflammatory biomarkers when people drank a drink resembling sugar syrup, then extrapolating that finding to say the sugar in your cookie is inflammatory and causes chronic disease is just bad science.  There is often failure to acknowledge the limitations in these studies and to truly look at the totality of the evidence.

An important factor to remember is that there are many things in life that are inflammatory. Stress is inflammatory, the air we breathe may be inflammatory. Smoking and alcohol are inflammatory. Lack of sleep is inflammatory. The psychological stress induced by micromanaging sugar intake can also be inflammatory. Our bodies are designed to regulate and handle inflammation.

It’s important to emphasize that we are not in any way claiming sugar as a “health food”, nor are we saying to eat sugar all day without regard to how we physically feel. Excess never works, but neither does restriction. Rather, let’s take the focus off specific foods and ingredients, and place it back on caring for your body and respecting your overall well-being.

Rather than shifting between the extremes, find the balance that your body truly craves.

Adapted from the original article.
HEADER IMAGE: JOANNA KOSINSKA

Robyn Nohling, FNP-BC, RD is a Registered Dietitian and Family Nurse Practitioner who believes that eating cupcakes and kale are both equally healthy to the body and mind. With a passion for women’s hormonal health and nutrition, Robyn cuts through the irrational noise of diet fads and unrealistic beauty expectations to help others find joy in food as it’s meant to be celebrated. Learn more about Robyn at The Real Life RD.

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