Are you a sugar addict?
Can you be addicted to sugar?
There is a robust review on the subject commissioned for the National Institute of Mental Health in the USA which should settle the matter. There is only weak association of attachment to sugar among people who diet or restrict carbs, while sugar given freely in a balanced diet may have no influence on behaviour such as escalation, tolerance and withdrawal.
Evidence for Sugar Addiction: Behavioural and neurochemical effects of intermittent excessive sugar intake. Neuroscience Bio behavioural Review 2008 32(1) 20-39 published online 2007 Avena, N., Rada, P. and Hoebel, B.
Psychologically speaking, work on the subject of sugar addiction by Terence Wilson published in Binge Eating, Nature and Treatment edited by Fairburn suggests that the so-called addiction to sugar is largely psychological. People only lose control of eating sugar when they BELIEVE they have eaten sugar, demonstrating NO evidence of intrinsic addiction to the substance at all.
The role of sugar in the hedonic systems of the brain are not equivalent in effect or severity, as drugs like cocaine and nicotine, even though there is an effect on endogenous dopamine.
Sugar is present in many foods such as vegetables, potatoes, tomatoes, lentils and other pulses so eliminating sugar from the diet seems impractical. Sugar is not equivalent in its physical effects as fructose including high fructose corn syrup further confounding the evidence.
Sugar-fat combinations are as potent in promoting the surges of endogenous dopamine as sugar alone if not more so. Thus there is danger in focusing solely on the so-called addictive properties of sugar. Based on a macronutrient analysis of binges by Susan Yanovski in 1998, it seems that it is fat which binge eaters really crave when fat is made palatable by sugar.
Thus while clients talk in the language of addiction to sugar, the evidence-based success of cognitive and cognitive-emotional / behavioural treatments for compulsive eating warn us of the dangers of focusing on sugar as an addictive substance. Addiction approaches to treatment which ask you to remove sugar and white flour from the diet might be unhelpful. It keeps people well only when they continue to restrict their diet. This approach merely fosters the all or nothing thinking that pervades eating disorder work.
I used to get sugar cravings long ago, but I know now that it was just too much dieting. I now eat a broad diet which contains all nutrients including a reasonable amount of refined sugar. And I'm fine.
But if you think you are a sugar addict and need help, call us on 0845 838 2040 OR visit www.eating-disorders.org.uk