The surprising reason for your sugar addiction

Your sugar addiction might feel very real. In reality though, there’s little to suggest that sugar is addictive in the same way as tobacco, alcohol or drugs

Cup cake on hand | Sugar addiction concept

Do you feel like you’re addicted to sugar? It’s like you’ve got persistent sugar cravings and each time you start a box of chocolate you Just. Can’t. Stop. Maybe the cravings got so bad that one day you decided to banish all sugary foods from your house, or tried one of those “30 days to kick the sugar habit” diets.

Sound familiar?  If it does, you’re not alone.

Your sugar addiction might feel very real. In reality though, there’s little to suggest that sugar is addictive in the same way as tobacco, alcohol or drugs.

I remember when I first read the headline: sugar is as addictive as cocaine. It sent shivers down my spine and I banished all forms of processed sugar from the kitchen. I even tried to stop my kids from eating sugar.

It’s a scary headline. Cocaine is an illegal class A drug. Does that mean that we are knowingly using [eating] a class A addictive drug and, worse, giving a highly dangerous, toxic substance to children as well? Shouldn’t that be illegal? If sugar is really that bad, shouldn’t it actually be banned from all foods forever?

You’ll be pleased to know that sugar isn’t addictive in the attention-grabbing-headline sense.

But how did we get the idea of sugar addiction in the first place?

It likely stemmed from a 2007 study conducted on rats. The rats were given the choice of a sugar solution or cocaine and the rats chose the sugar solution 94% of the time.

The researchers said that rats preferred the sweet taste of sugar over cocaine, and some people have taken this to mean that sugar is more addictive than cocaine. In fact, it only tells us that rats prefer the taste of sugar over cocaine [which is no surprise because cocaine tastes disgusting].

Also, let’s take a moment to examine the definition of an actual addiction, according to the UK’s national health service. An addiction is:

“not having control over doing, taking or using something to the point where it could be harmful to you… managing an addiction can seriously damage your work life and relationships… can have serious psychological and physical effects.”

Can you use this to describe your relationship with sugar? Probably not.

So why do we feel addicted to sugar?

Why do we have those uncontrollable urges to eat ice cream, or chocolate, or sweets?

What feels like a sugar addiction is probably more to do with restriction. It might not be immediate, but at some point on your “no sugar health drive” the cravings will set in.

Biologically speaking, when we restrict food, there are several things that happen in our bodies to create that urge, the desire, the feeling of addiction to sugar.

When deprived of food, the body thinks it’s being starved and produces more hunger hormones to encourage you to eat; on the other hand, fullness hormones are suppressed so that you carry on eating. This totally explains why you feel those insatiable cravings.

Added to this, when you begin to restrict food, your brain notices more food around you, especially those high in sugar and fat. Again, this is to encourage you to eat. Your brain doesn’t know the difference between a diet and a famine and it’s programmed to keep you alive in times of famine.

But it’s not just biological, there’s a psychological element as well.

You know the trick when you tell someone to not think about a pink elephant, and the first thought that pops into their head is a pink elephant?

It’s the same with sugar. When you ban sugar, you want it more. You crave it, see it everywhere and you wake up in the morning having dreamt of it.

We place sugar on a pedestal and label it as “bad”. Or sometimes it’s a “treat” or “naughty”. It becomes more alluring because it’s forbidden.

How can you stop feeling quite so addicted to sugar?

1. Stop restricting sugar

Yes, this might seem counterintuitive.  It might go against everything you’ve read in the wellness space telling you to cut sugar as much as possible. But that approach backfires.  In the long run you end up eating more because of the restriction. When you stop restricting sugar, it’s no longer something “naughty”, it’s just another item in the cupboard.  Initially you might feel like you want to eat sugary foods all the time, but the excitement around sugar eventually wears off.

It’s all about exposure. Think about your favourite sweets in the world. Imagine you could have unfettered access to them. In fact, you can eat them for breakfast, lunch and dinner forevermore going forward. How long until you grow tired of eating sweets for every meal? You might surprise yourself by craving some vegetables after a few days.

2. Get 7-8 hours of sleep a night

If you’re tired during the day and not clocking in 7–8 hours of sleep a night, this might be why you’re craving high calorie sugary foods. Research shows that people who report poorer sleep quality are more likely to eat more sugar, fat and drink more caffeine.

Sleeping more might be just what you need to cut those sugar cravings.

3. Use different coping strategies other than food

It’s very common to turn to food as a way to cope with your emotions, and sugary foods are high up on that list.

Feel sad? Wolf down a tub of Ben & Jerry’s.

Feeling annoyed? Munch through some biscuits.

Feeling stressed? Eat a family size bar of chocolate.

You get the picture. Whilst I firmly believe that eating to help cope with emotions is not a bad thing if done occasionally, it might be time to find a different way to cope if it’s your only strategy.

Emotional eating might be a sign that your current coping strategies aren’t working right now, and I encourage you to approach this with open curiosity. Is there a different way you can support yourself right now?

Perhaps you need to tell someone how you are feeling, hang with some friends, dance, move, meditate or just get some support around the home.

The bottom line on sugar addiction

The bottom line is that sugar isn’t as addictive as we’ve been led to believe, however that feeling of addiction is real and valid. It might be a sign that you’re restricting too much and you’ve got yourself into that negative cycle of restrict-and-then-binge. Allowing sugar in the house, sleeping more and finding different ways to cope with your emotions are all good ways to say goodbye to that addicted feeling.

Magnifying lens over an exclamation markSpot an error in this article? A typo maybe? Or an incorrect source? Let us know!

Lara Zibarras
Dr Lara Zibarras is a psychologist and food freedom coach. She has a PhD in psychology and is a certified nutrition and health coach. She helps her clients create a healthy and happy relationship with food, without guilt or emotional eating. She is the founder of Health Mindset Matters™ a psychology and mindset-based program that helps people heal their relationship with food.

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