Yes, it’s true. Sugar lights up the same neurological pathways as addictive drugs giving us that happy dopamine feeling. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter which is basically just a messenger that tells our brain that we are feeling fine. The idea behind sugar addiction is this:
We eat sugar, dopamine makes us happy, it wears off, we aren’t as happy, we eat more sugar.
We are also hard-wired genetically to seek out sugar. If we go way back in time, our taste buds served a purpose. Before our foods came in pretty packages, our taste buds helped us know which foods were safe.
Bitter. Might be poison.
Sweet. Probably safe.
Fast forward to today and we still know that sugary foods are delicious. Food manufacturers also know this and have loaded foods with sugar. As a society, our preference for sweet foods is getting stronger and stronger because we are getting more accustomed to that sweet flavor.
Don’t believe me? Think you love yogurt? Well, sure, a flavored yogurt with a little cup in the top to sprinkle in more sweet goodies. Now go try a plain yogurt and get back to me.
Now, I want to point out some limitations to this article, jump to them here or take a look when you get to the end.
Back to it.
We know that sugary foods ramp up our dopamine and we know that sugary foods helped us survive and we know that the amount of sugar in our foods has gone up drastically.
Therefore, sugary foods are addictive.
Well, slow down partner.
When my clients tell me that they have a sugar addiction, I nicely tell them to knock it off.
Oh, but I can’t stop eating it, they tell me. I’m truly addicted.
Really? So then, tell me about the last time you knocked over a liquor store for your sugar fix. Didn’t happen.
Okay, then tell me about that time you stole money from your grandmother’s purse for your sugar fix. Oh. Haven’t done that either?
Okay, well, how about that time that you spent money on candy bars instead of paying your electric bill. No?
So can we now agree that sugar is NOT addictive in the same way that drugs are addictive?
Good. That’s a start.
Now I want to ask what telling yourself sugar is addictive is doing for you?
I usually hear something along the lines of sugar is wrecking my health or I’m gaining weight.
Nope. That is what eating too much sugar is doing to you. I’m asking what you are getting out of telling yourself the story that you are addicted to sugar?
Now, I get a pause. I love to sit in that silence while my clients think about things in a new way. I wait.
Usually, the answer is that it’s not doing anything for them.
Again, not true. It is absolutely doing something for you.
And here it is – the surprising way your sugar addition is harming you – it’s letting you off the hook.
Telling yourself that you have a sugar addiction is giving ALL your power to the food. It makes it okay to binge-eat a whole cake or eat a big candy bar every day at 3pm. It gives you permission to make the choice that you know is moving you away from your goals because “I’m addicted.”
I call bullshit.
You know why? Let me tell you a few other things that light up dopamine pathways.
- A good night’s sleep
- Likes and Retweets
I have yet to have a client tell me that they are addicted to running and just can’t stop. If you love that “runner’s high” then you run, you get happy, you stop running and rest up until you can do it again. You don’t run and run and run because you’re addicted. No one has ever told me “I just can’t stop running.”
Running stops. Eating sugar can also stop.
So here’s your takeaway.
You sugar addiction is harming you because you are telling yourself that you have a sugar addiction.
I don’t care what the science says about sugar addiction and neither should you. What matters for you, for your health, for your goals, is the story you tell yourself. Words have power. If you decide that sugar is addictive, then you just gave away your power.
And if you want to stay right where you are, then continue telling yourself that same old story.
When you are ready to make a change and take your power back from the food, try this instead.
- Every time your automatic thought pop up that says “I have a sugar addiction; I can’t help it” tell that thought to go to hell.
- Tell yourself something like this instead, “I really love sweet foods and I can choose what I eat and when I eat it. I am in control of the food. The food is not in control of me.”
- Then breathe. Seriously, like take 20 deep breaths.
- Get up if you can and take a short walk or do 10 jumping jacks.
- Ask yourself if that sugary food is moving you towards your goals or away from your goals.
- Make a conscious decision about eating it.
You can still eat – and enjoy – sugar without guilt, without shame, and without declaring yourself a sugar addict.
Just do so consciously and with the power of choice firmly in your hands.
LIMITATIONS OF THIS ARTICLE:
1. The actual neurochemistry is way more complex and nuanced and beyond the scope of this article. This is kept simple and big picture to illustrate a point.
2. If you have dopamine deficiency, other medical or psychological concerns, or struggle with addictions, then there is a lot more to it than simply taking your power back from food and struggling through the difficult times. That is WAY beyond the scope of this blog and remember, I am A dietitian but I am not YOUR dietitian so please seek help from your medical and mental health providers.
The rest of you. Put down the candy bar and back away slowly.
Lennerz B, Lennerz JK. Food Addiction, High-Glycemic-Index Carbohydrates, and Obesity. Clin Chem. 2018;64(1):64–71.
Dopamine. Psychology Today.