The next time someone tells something is addictive, ask one of the most important questions you can. Kids know this question well: WHY? One of the many manifestations of the current state of food-fear and alarmism, and certainly a claim of many alternative fat loss gurus is that sugar is addictive. Why?
Why is sugar addictive? What do people mean when they say this? Usually, we think of addiction as a chronic condition that causes a person to compulsively consume a substance despite the harmful consequences to the person’s life and body. However, not all addictions are chemical in nature. There are also addictions known as behavioral addictions. Gambling is one of these. The questions are whether sugar is an addictive substance, what are the harmful consequences of so-called sugar addiction, and indeed, what is sugar addiction? Why and how is sugar addictive?
Sugar as An Addictive Substance
The answer, of course, depends on your definition of addiction. Can we look at the neurological effects of a substance in the brain and say “these are characteristic of addiction?” Sometimes. But, does this really define addiction?
Not necessarily. Although many people think addiction is about looking at a substance or a food and deciding whether it is addictive, this does not really reflect the current clinical viewpoint on addiction. Therefore, the question may not be at all whether “sugar is addictive” but simply whether it is involved in addictive behaviors.
Drugs like heroin and alcohol are addictive substances. How do we know when someone is addicted to drugs or alcohol? Well, the American Psychiatric Association (APA), has a definition of addiction or dependence, based on certain clinical symptoms. When these are present in an individual, we can surmise that addiction or dependence may be present. Let’s consider them one by one. As you will see, in the case of sugar, this brings up more questions and answers.
Tolerance means that a person needs to keep increasing the amount of intake of a psychoacitve substance in order to keep achieving the same desired effect. This should be familiar to most people. For example, an alcoholic must consume greater and greater quantities of alcohol in order to feel the effects desired and to satisfy his craving for alcohol. This is due to his body having built up a tolerance to the drug. This means also that the same amount of alcohol that once worked will no longer have the desired effect.
Is this true of sugar? Will your body build up a tolerance to sugar, so that more and more sugar must be eaten to get the effects you want? We know, pretty much, the desired effects of alcohol and addictive drugs. What is the desired effect of sugar? How does the body build up a tolerance to this effect?
Withdrawal means that if an addicted person abruptly stops taking a substance, they will suffer certain symptoms which may be quite severe. In the case of alcohol, this withdrawal can even have fatal consequences.
Does the abrupt cessation of sugar intake cause withdrawal? How would a person completely stop consuming sugar? What are the signs and symptoms of sugar withdrawal, if it is possible?
Binging: Large Amounts Taken for Longer Periods
Addicted persons often binge on their drug of choice. This means that what once would have been one dose taken in the amount needed to produce the desired effect becomes multiple large doses over a long period of time. Although the addicted person might have once had a certain control over their use of the substance and kept an upper limit in mind, the binger loses control over setting any types of limits.
People certainly binge on food sometimes. Clearly, we can draw some parallels here. Often, this binging is done with sugary foods. However, this behavior is more prevalent in those with certain eating disorders such as bulimia nervosa and sometimes anorexia nervosa (see comparison of anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa.
This binging behavior is usually, but not always, followed by a purge, where the individual attempts to rid the body of the food. It is then followed by a period of guilt and deprivation. Clearly, this is not the same as the binging of drug addicts or alcoholics. They do not attempt to purge their system of the drug. In both instances, feelings of being out of control and a host of other negative feelings may be present. We can certainly compare the two. However, it is not an addiction to sugar that causes those with eating disorders to binge.
Always Want it, Can’t Stop Using It
With addiction, there is a constant desire to use the addictive substance. Those who are addicted cannot stop using their drug and when they try to cut down on its use, they fail.
Is this true of those who consume an excess of sugar? We hear that some people constantly crave sugar. Do they?
What is a Craving?
There is a big difference between the clinical use of the word ‘crave’ and our colloquial use. When we talk about food cravings we should understand that this is not the same as drug cravings.
When an addict craves a substance, nothing else will do. He or she will not stop until the craving is satisfied. An addict may go to extreme lengths to obtain their drug, including crime and harm to others or themselves. Have you ever known of anyone who robbed a store so they could get a sugar fix? Probably not.
In fact, this sense of constant desire that people so often casually refer to in terms of sugar and other foods, is hard to compare to addiction when viewed in light of the next related criteria.
Constant Preoccupation or Obsession with Obtaining the Drug and Using the Drug
A drug addict or alcoholic never stops thinking about their next hit or drink. They spend most or all of their time planning how they will obtain their drug and fantasize about using it. They may try, on occasion, to quit, but they usually go back to this obsessive behavior regarding the substance. They become distracted from everything to do with daily life that is not related to obtaining their drugs or alcohol and using it.
I don’t think I have to tell you that it is quite unlikely that a person will get fired from their job because they are so preoccupied with getting sugar and eating it that they fail to perform their duties.
Withdrawal from Life, Including Social, Occupational, and Recreational Activities
Drug addicts at the extreme end of their addiction can become completely isolated from others. They withdraw from anything that doesn’t have to do with substance abuse, including from their family and friends, their job, and any other activities, both necessary or recreational.
Imagine a sugar addict at the extreme end of sugar addiction, if you will.
Is this becoming silly?
More Drugs No Matter What the Consequences
As tolerance increases, a drug or alcohol addict will continue to increase their use and will reach for more no matter the physical or psychological consequences. You can easily imagine an alcoholic who wakes up from a several day alcohol binge with a terrible hangover. How likely is he or she to drink more? Very.
Now, imagine a person who binges on cookies, Twinkies, and assorted candy, to the point of becoming physically ill and throwing up (but not on purpose). How likely are they to immediately reach for more sugar even while these symptoms persist? Are they so tolerant to sugar that even when they are sick from it they need to consume more to stave off the negative consequences of abstaining?
There have been many television documentaries profiling morbidly obese persons. Often, these individuals, described as being one of the heaviest people in the world, weigh 600lbs, 700lbs, or even more. They are shown eating gargantuan amounts of food, almost continually, with no limit. This would surely be prime evidence for those who say that sugar, and food in general, is addictive, but such circumstances are extremely rare. The fact is that most people, even those who overeat and are overweight, restrain their eating to some degree. People who ‘constantly crave’ sweets, still do restrain their consumption of sweets to some extent.
There are many more questions we can ask. And, while it is clear that we can draw some parallels between disordered eating and drug abuse, the idea that sugar is an addictive substance seems quite ridiculous when compared to the known effects of drug and alcohol addiction.
Abusers Versus Addicts
There may be some clue, however, in considering the difference between an abuser and an addict. The term drug abuse is often thought to be a synonym with drug addiction. It is not. Many people occasionally abuse drugs or alcohol but are not addicts. As well, they may never become addicts.
Drug addicts display a cycle of repeating behavior, despite the negative consequences. On the other hand, an abuser may experience negative consequences occasionally, but then not repeat the abuse and therefore the consequences regularly. As well, abusers tend to adhere to a limit even if they are binging. I.E. an abuser will stop and keep to their promises of “how much is enough.” As well, when friends and family complain, they will hear the complaints, and respond to them. I myself have abused alcohol, on many occasions throughout my life, but have never become addicted to it.
Just because someone abuses sugar, so to speak, they are not an addict. It is important to note that I am not suggesting abuse does not often lead to addiction. Abuse is a first step to addiction, but addiction and abuse are not the same thing.
The questions are many. Addicts often have a family history of addiction. Is there such a thing as a family history of sugar addiction? Addicts often experience black-outs and memory loss. Does this happen to people who “love sugar?” Addicts forsake their family and friends and respond irrationally to any attempts to get them to stop. Do sugar addicts become estranged from their family and friends? Are we to see “interventions” happen in which a group of loved ones try to get a sugar addict to admit to their addiction and seek treatment?
What is a Craving?
The word craving deserves special attention. When we desire a certain food, we usually say that we have a craving for it. Drug addicts have cravings for a certain psychoactive substance. As I asked above, are these two cravings the same?
Obviously not. First, without a definition of craving, or a concept of craving at all, there would be no point in studying addiction. But what is the definition? It must be concrete and rigorous. How we define craving affects how we view addiction, and who we hold as addicted!
Is a craving a desire for something? Or is it just a preference for something? When you and a friend are hanging out together, and your friend says “what do you want to eat,” you might say, “I have a craving for pizza.” If your friend says, “how about Chinese instead,” and you answer, “I could do Chinese,” then it becomes obvious that what you expressed as a craving was actually just a preference. You were able to forego pizza, which you would have preferred, for Chinese food. Would a heroin addict forego heroin and settle for whiskey? Is any drug addict who craves a substance actually simply expressing a preference for that substance, but is actually willing to use anything that comes along? While other drugs might be substituted in a pinch, the ultimate craving, and need, remains.
Often recreational drug users have no drug of choice or even class of drug of choice. They may be abusers, instead of addicts. Are you beginning to see the difference between a craving for pizza and a craving for drugs? How about a craving for sugar?
To define craving we have to decide if we are to measure it subjectively, as above, biochemically, or according to signs and symptoms. It may surprise you to know that different researchers have different views on this, and how to define cravings, and identify them, is not agreed upon by all addiction experts. Some would do away with physiology altogether and have it that craving is cognitive, being a desire for a thing. If that craving is not always constant or fluctuates, this is cognitive as well. By this view, which seems nonscientific to me, craving can be almost anything. Physiology has a known and very important relevance to drug addiction! If cravings do not, then what is drug addiction? Furthermore, if science cannot yet determine whether a craving for a substance with known physiological effects is physiological in origin, how are we to say that a craving for sugar is the same as a craving for drugs or alcohol?
We often hear that an alcoholic is “powerless over alcohol.” Many eating programs apply a similar model to eating disorders as to alcohol addiction, saying that the sufferer is “powerless over food.” And usually, refined sugar is specifically what they are supposed to be powerless over. Many programs such as alcoholics anonymous, then, hold that the addict, being powerless over the addictive substance, will always be an addict. He or she must always and forever avoid drinking alcohol, using the drug, or consuming sugar!
Is it possible to avoid consuming sugar for the rest of your life, and is this view, that the addict is always an addict, actually true?
Once an Addict, Always an Addict
The reality is that we do not know that an addict is literally always an addict. Instead, practitioners often hold that for all intents and purposes an addict should behave as if they are always an addict because more often then not, if they try, after supposed recovery, to use a moderate amount of the drug their cravings will be triggered and they will suffer a relapse.
How are we to imagine a sugar addict who completely and utterly abstains from sugar in order to avoid a potential relapse? The sugar addict is powerless over sugar! Yet, sugar is infinitely harder to avoid than alcohol or drugs.
Behavioral Addiction Versus Substance Addiction
Is sugar an addictive substance? Not as such. Are scores of people exhibiting addictive behaviors because they include sweet foods in their diet? No. But, is it possible that sugar matters in terms of addictive behaviors centered on food?
Yes, it is possible.
Sugar does not have to be addictive for it to be a focus, just like gambling doesn’t have to be innately addictive for it to be a focus.
Most online discussions about addictive substances or addiction-related behaviors center on deciding what is ‘addictive’ and what is ‘not addictive,’ This is not the problem. Many things that are part of normal drives, food, sex, money, etc. can be considered part of addiction when the focus on them rises to a certain level. Many highly rewarding activities that are not part of normal drives can, as well.
Some, considering all this, have gone so far to say that sugar has no special role in food addictions. It could be that sugar itself really doesn’t matter at all for those with eating addictions, food addictions, binge eating disorders, etc. but we do not know this for sure and it is too early to say we know this for sure. We can for sure say that the current sugar addiction messages are unfounded.
We cannot be certain that a specific “ingredient” (or food) does not matter if the addiction is behavioral. We would have to show evidence that, among, those with a so-called eating addiction, there is no difference in behavior, say, between those who binge on fatty foods or those who binge on sugary foods. It would be difficult to do so. Those who binge tend to binge on energy-dense foods, and they may start with fatty foods and go to sweets, or start with starchy foods and go to sweets, etc. However, there is some clinical evidence that those who prefer to binge on sugary foods do so more frequently. To say that the choice of food doesn’t matter ignores actual behavior patterns that can be observed, and these do include more than just studies on rats.
The Jury is Still Out on Sugar Addiction
It is too early for (lay) people to be making definite conclusions about sugar’s relationship to binge-eating disorders and addictive eating behaviors (outside of chemical dependency). The jury is still out and it would probably be best for those not involved in the actual clinical scene or research scene to keep to what science can tell us definitely, not what we assume to be the case. To say that sugar doesn’t matter at ALL is like saying a gambling addict would just as soon participate in street racing or some other high-risk activity.
Some claim what we are talking about is psychological habituation, and that this is not the same as addiction at all. This seems to blatantly ignore the literature on behavioral addiction. In fact, it is a vague distinction. Someone who has a behavioral addiction isn’t addicted to every behavior, just like someone who has an impulse control disorder might chronically shop-lift, but not have a problem with impulse buying.
Another question has to do with reward pathways in the brain, and this is related to why only certain behaviors are involved in addictions. I participated in a recent Facebook thread entitled “Why Sometimes Eating But Not Puppies.” The implication was that cuddling with puppies activates the same award mechanisms as eating, but puppies aren’t addictive. Why indeed? Instead of casting doubt on behavioral addictions it simply casts doubt on the idea addiction is centered only on reward mechanisms in the brain.
Why Exercise and Not Puppies?
We could ask the same question of many activities. Let’s look at exercise addiction. Does it effect the same reward pathways? Yes. So why exercise and not puppies? Questions often lead to further questions. By failing to ask them we only create the same type of pitfalls and misinformation we seek to avoid.
In 2010, the term “behavioral addictions” was finally added to the DSM. Now, many people are creating a dichotomy, arguing that an addiction is either one or the other. Either you are physiologically addicted to a substance, or you are psychologically addicted. This does not reflect true addiction.
Substance addiction is not just physiological addiction and in fact, the DSM-5 noted that the emerging science supports a “unified neurobiological theory of addiction.” This is regardless of the particular addictive substances, substrates, or activities. Therefore, included were behavioral AND chemical addictions.
We cannot pretend that there is Addiction, with a capital A, and this is substance addiction like alcohol and heroin, and then there is addiction that we can just sweep under the rug and pretend that it doesn’t count like substance addiction. Such a view simply does not reflect the clinical picture. While each addiction and disorder would be diagnosed by its own set of criteria, they all are still ‘addiction.’ It is not accurate to say that a food addiction is not a “real addiction” and it is not accurate to say, definitely, that sugar doesn’t matter. It may indeed matter. Of course, not everyone agrees and different addiction organizations include behavioral addiction to the lesser or greater extent.
What is inaccurate in all these current sugar addiction messages is the painting of activities that are not even close to being addictive behaviors as signaling addiction. It may be that much of this fearful talk of sugar addiction is a lot being made about quite normal behaviors. Much of this over-zealous condemnation of sugar comes from the weight loss industry and the associated wellness industry.
Too often, we focus on yes or no. All this does is create sides. Yes, sugar is addictive. No, sugar is not addictive. Much more good could be done by getting people to focus on just what addiction is, and what it is not. Then, they wouldn’t need to be worried about whether they are addicted to sugar, or puppies, or diamonds. Given that, even the criteria for addiction can sometimes be vague and muddled. Right now, there are questions as to how habitually high levels of sugar consumption are related to addictive behaviors regarding food. However, just because you eat a lot of candy does not mean you are a sugar addict.
Food addiction itself has been controversial in the scientific community. Those with food addictions do display some of the behaviors mentioned above, such as being out of control. Sugar or starchy foods are often the focus. Ironically, though, while many members of the weight-loss industry villainize sugar and sugar addiction as a chief cause of obesity. Some go so far as to suggest that if you are obese it is because you are addicted to sugar. This is far from accurate. It is estimated that only 25% of obese people meet the diagnostic criteria for food addiction, according to the oft-cited Yale Food Addiction Scale.
Clearly, there is still a lot to learn.
Please note: This article should not be taken as a substitute for medical or psychological advice. The information and opinions presented here should be viewed against further research and, moreso, the advice of clinical professionals.