It’s a question people ask me all the time: “How do I overcome my sugar addiction?” (Or for some people, food addiction in general.)
I know how frustrating it can be. The pull of food seems irresistible to you. You vow to do better, eat better, and cut out the sugar. Yet you find yourself sneaking food, picking off of your significant other’s dessert plate, and eating more and more sugar. It may even get to the point of an all out sugar binge.
You feel out of control.
Then, you see the news headlines: “Food is as addictive as drugs,” “Sugar is the new recreational drug.” You see the pretty pictures of rat brain MRIs comparing drugs and sugar.
All of this leads you to your newest conclusion: I am an addict.
And as we all know, the treatment for addiction is detoxification, then abstinence, with a goal of never ever ever relapsing. So you cut out all sugar, maybe fruit and other carbs too for good measure, possibly visit a food addict “support group”, yet the sugar cravings continue to rage, and the compulsive eating doesn’t stop.
Why isn’t this approach working? Because food is not a drug and shouldn’t be treated like one.
Sugar is not a drug
While “sugar is as addictive as drugs” makes for a great headline that generates tons of web traffic and social media attention, it’s far from the truth
Here are some things you should realize about the research behind the headlines.
- This research focuses on rats. Meaning looking at the way rats respond to different food environments, and the way their brains are activated. While rat brains may be similar to human brains, we are obviously more rational intelligent beings than rats.
- The rats were restricted of food before they were exposed to sugar. One of the researchers on the topic has this to say: “Two of the reports, as well as our own work, suggest that even highly palatable food is not addictive in and of itself. Rather, it is the manner in which the food is presented (i.e., intermittently) and consumed (i.e., repeated, intermittent ‘‘gorging’’) that appears to entrain the addiction-like process.” (http://jn.nutrition.org/content/139/3/617.short)
- The “brain reward centers” are meant to be activated for certain things. This includes biological drives for food and sex, as well as many other things: listening to good music, playing games, cuddling with puppies… Drugs hijack these reward centers and cause dependence, but it doesn’t mean that everything that activates those reward centers are bad things.
So what does this mean for you?
You are not a rat
While the rat will choose the Oreo over the rice cake every time, it doesn’t mean you will. As a human, you have higher cognitive functioning than a rat, and you can make complex choices that a rat can never make. You can weigh the benefits of eating that Oreo now or having one later. You can remember how different foods make you feel physically, and make choices based on how you want to feel. You can recognize how that Oreo fits into your goals, and whether or not you really want it, or if you’re just eating it because it’s there.
Now, you may be saying “there’s no way I can do that. I have no control.” And while you may feel that way now, I want you to know that yes, you DO have the potential to make these powerful choices.
Addiction vs Trigger Foods
So if addiction isn’t the problem, then why is it so hard to say no to certain foods? And why do some foods cause an all out eating frenzy?
Many of us have “trigger foods” that can be hard to put down, hard to say no to, and may cause a cascade of choices we wouldn’t otherwise make, but those trigger foods aren’t the same as addictions.
In fact, they’re very much the opposite.
While addictive substances are things that you want to avoid at all costs to avoid relapse, trigger foods can be neutralized, diffused, and incorporated into a part of a balanced life.
Restriction is the big problem
Just as with the rats, the majority of human food triggers are rooted in some type of restriction. It might be a food that is considered forbidden, a food that was “off limits” during childhood, or even a food that you’re trying to “cut down” on right now.
Once the restriction, guilt and emotion of a certain food is eliminated, the trigger can be easily diffused, the food is no longer an issue, and can be enjoyed in moderation.
Treating trigger foods as addictions that require complete abstinence (or a “detox”) actually has the opposite effect, and actually makes the trigger stronger than ever.
Enjoying food is a good thing
I want to touch on one final point that the nutrition gurus and media use as a scare tactic: the fact that the brain’s pleasure center is activated by food. This isn’t a bad thing. In fact, enjoying food is one thing that makes a healthy relationship with food possible.
If you’re eating an amazing piece of chocolate cake, and all you can think about is how guilty you feel, or how you shouldn’t be enjoying it, you’re going to be miserable. No matter how good the cake is, your emotions will be keeping you from enjoying the experience, leaving you feeling unsatisfied, and wanting more, no matter how much you eat.
If, on the other hand, you allow yourself to enjoy that chocolate cake, savor every bite, and allow yourself the pleasure of the experience, you may find yourself satisfied even before that slice of cake is completely gone.
One mindset leaves you wanting more, while the other helps you to enjoy just enough, just as fear that you are addicted will lead to more out of control eating, while recognizing and diffusing triggers will give you the peace of mind to enjoy food and your life.