What’s the Truth About Sugar Addiction?

I know, I know. Sugar is the present-day nutritional nemesis. We love/hate/fear it and KNOW it is bad for us with the same unquestioning disdain we had for eggs, shellfish, and red meat in the 80s and 90s. Our collective approach to “what is known” in nutrition reminds me of how I regarded life in general as I was growing up:

At age 15 I thought I had it all figured out.

Reflecting back on age 15 when I was 21, however, I thought, I didn’t know anything then…but NOW I have it all figured out.

It wasn’t until my early 30s that I finally realized I would always be looking back at my former self with a broader sense of wisdom and self-knowledge but that basically the more I knew, the less I knew.

We seem to apply this same faulty thinking to food: Ooops, we were wrong about cholesterol and saturated fat back then (and coincidentally contributed to the rise in heart disease and type 2 diabetes), but NOW we’ve got it right. Sugar is the problem!

Now, while I certainly don’t advocate a high-sugar diet and am well aware of (and somewhat irritated by) all the unlikely places added sugars turn up, I just can’t jump on this latest bandwagon. In fact, ANYTHING put forth with as much religious fervor as the sugar addiction issue raises my hackles and immediately sends me questioning WHAT IS THE TRUTH?

Proponents of the existence of sugar addiction point to the same “evidence” over and over again:

  • Your craving for sugar indicates addiction
  • If you can’t stop eating sugar once you’ve started, you are probably addicted
  • Your brain lights up when you eat sugar similar to how it would light up with crack, cocaine, heroin, etc.
  • People who are addicted to sugar are different somehow from those who are not addicted

Here’s what I’ve learned as a result of delving into the scientific studies, talking with experts, working with clients, and even through my own experience with addiction:

  • Since when is craving such a dirty word? When we have cravings, it often means that our bodies need something (it does not mean that our bodies need to be beaten into submission). When we crave sugar, it might be because our bodies are hungry (like really hungry)! Sugar, which is quickly absorbed into the bloodstream and transported to the cells for energy, seems like a really good idea to your body when it thinks it’s being starved.
  • To avoid cravings that feel distressing, however, we need to feed our bodies regularly with satisfying foods comprising complex carbohydrate, fiber, protein, and fat. That’s not to say that sugary foods can’t play a part, but to point out that they are often not very satisfying in the long run in and of themselves. If, however, we were to regard “sugar cravings” as evidence for addiction that can only be treated by sugar restriction, we may actually be feeding our psychological feelings of deprivation and biological drive to binge.
  • Other times when we crave something, we aren’t really physically hungry but wish to change the way we feel psychologically. Strong emotions like anger, sadness, and loneliness can lead us to crave comforting foods that are high in sugar and carbohydrates, but this does not equal addiction: it’s a behavior that is workable! And, as you learn to work with this behavior and develop more skillful coping mechanisms, you can decipher between when it’s time to enjoy a sugary treat and when you actually need some non-food nourishment.
  • You might have seen side-by-side MRI images of a brain “on sugar” and a brain “on drugs” and taken them as evidence of sugar addiction. Sure, pleasurable substances light up our brains. So does sex and music. Everything we take into our bodies – through our eyes, ears, noses, mouths, and sense of touch – affects how our brains light up. Yet we don’t rally around the cause of music addiction, sunny day addiction, or playing with pets addiction!
  • The studies that seem to point to sugar as addictive generally don’t separate “people who overeat” from “people who overeat and are chronic (or yo-yo) dieters.” If you don’t rule out the role of restriction (and its inherent biological and psychological repercussions), you’re missing the primary cause of overeating.

As much as we know about nutrition science, there is a whole lot more that we don’t know. Given this situation, we are faced with an important question:

Should we follow “experts” who have jumped on the latest nutrition bandwagon in spite of the likelihood that much of what they tout will be proven false in the future? Or should we instead turn our attention inward and hone our own expertise in the care and feeding of ourselves?

This is exactly the type of thing Susan Piver and I will be discussing during our online course The Dharma of Diet:

  • How meditation creates the foundation of gentle sanity in our relationship with food and our bodies (and every other way…just saying)
  • How to shift our allegiance from external cues to eat (diets, dietitians, fads, gurus, experts, emotions, meal times) to internal signals (hunger, fullness, what we’re hungry for)
  • How to identify heart hunger and feed it without food
  • How to treat our now-bodies with love, respect, and dignity


What are you waiting for? Sign up today!

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