Sugar Is Not Your Enemy – Here’s Why

People aren’t knocking over convenience stores or fencing grandma’s jewelry in order to fund their cupcake habit. Sugar, or any food, does not meet the criteria for being called an addictive substance.

“You are broken, but I can fix you. Buy my book.”

That’s the message so many use to flog products. A new spin on it is so-called food addiction. “You’re addicted to sugar/fat/carbs etc., but with my program you can beat these cravings and lose weight fast, because science.”

It’s fear-based marketing, and it sells like paleo pancakes. Check out this email a publicist sent me:

Sugar is the new controlled substance. More addictive than cocaine, the deadly white stuff has become the focus of health professionals worldwide who are highlighting the dangers of over-indulgence.

It’s for a book entitled The Sugar Detox. The lead author is an RD, and as much as I respect the designation, some go to the dark side. The other author is an MD — another one gone to the food fear-mongering dark side, joining the ranks of Dr. Wheat Belly and Dr. Grain Brain and Dr. Friggin’ Oz— but this MD is a dermatologist.


I guess that’s why part of the shtick for this book is about how bad sugar is for your skin, and how detoxing (another trendy word to pull in the gullible) from sugar will make it glow, and stuff.

People aren’t knocking over convenience stores or fencing grandma’s jewelry in order to fund their cupcake habit. Sugar, or any food, does not meet the criteria for being called an addictive substance.

But saying it is sure does sell books.

Another book I’ll make mention of is The Hunger Fix, by Pam Peeke, another MD. I’ll share the subtitle to see if you pick up on those hot button words that translate into instant sales: “The Three-Stage Detox and Recovery Plan from Overeating and Food Addiction.”

Oh, and the endorsement on the cover is from Dr. Oz, just FYI. He says the book “… outlines a practical plan to navigate the treacherous tightrope over the food addiction ravine.”

I’ve read Peeke’s book cover to cover, and in my opinion, Dr. Peeke fails to make her case for food as an addictive substance. Also of note is that while Peeke goes into detail on how junk food affects the brain, providing ample details about dopamine and how intake of highly palatable food influences its secretion, conspicuously absent from the book is the word “opioids.”

Opioids play just as important a role in creating a compulsion to eat junk food as does dopamine, so how did she miss that? And yes, the appropriate word here is “compulsion,” not addiction. Highly palatable food can be compelling, but it does not meet the criteria for being a truly addictive substance.

In a 2012 study in Nature Reviews, the authors concluded that although highly palatable food may have addictive-like properties, it does not meet all the criteria of an addictive substance. “The vast majority of overweight individuals have not shown a convincing behavioral or neurobiological profile that resembles addiction,” the authors wrote.

Just because something is pleasurable, like eating sugar or fat, doesn’t mean you can develop an addiction to it.

Despite efforts by some to have food addiction included, the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) did not classify “food” as an addiction. According to Nicole Avena, a research neuroscientist in the fields of diet and addiction at the University of Florida College of Medicine, even though highly palatable food affects the same brain mechanisms that addictive drugs do, there is not enough evidence to warrant a full psychiatric diagnosis for food addiction. “There are a lot of differences between food and drugs,” Avena told me.

“It’s a matter of degree and vulnerability,” said Caroline Davis, a professor at York University in Toronto specializing in the psychobiology of obesity. “When it comes to food, I think it’s a small population that is truly addicted … ‘Food addiction’ isn’t a good term.”

And now we have a brand new study out of the University of Edinburgh that puts another nail in the coffin of so-called sugar addiction, and supports the research for binge-eating disorder.

You can be addicted to eating, the study asserts, but not to food. Wait, what? What this means is, it is possible (although quite rare) to have abehavioral disorder — the act of insatiable eating, which is part of the larger family of eating disorders — but you can’t develop an addiction to a certain food type.

Professor Suzanne Dixon, the study coordinator, reported: “There is currently very little evidence to support the idea that any ingredient, food item, additive or combination of ingredients has addictive properties.” And quoting from the release: “The brain does not respond to nutrients in the same way as it does to addictive drugs such as heroin or cocaine.”

Overall, it’s far more important to focus on your relationship with eating than to any specific type of food.

I get that you can eat three Oreos and then have a hard time not going back and eating five more. That’s because they’re yummy and it makes the food compelling. There are light years of difference between something that is compelling and something that is addictive. Let’s look at what it means to be addicted to a substance:

Tolerance: Proponents of the food addiction model propose that needing more food to reach satiety is the same as needing more drugs or alcohol to get intoxicated. However, intoxication and satiety are not at all the same.

Time commitment: Drug and alcohol abusers spend a lot of time seeking their mind-altering substances, as well as times focused on using them. There is no way to make a realistic equivalency to food because of the pervasiveness of it in society. Junk food is easily available and does not create the kind of impairment that requires foregoing other activities.

It’s a difference of severity. Food doesn’t intoxicate, and the severity just isn’t there to make it addictive. So why tell you this? Why bust the myth of food as an addictive substance? Isn’t this one of those separating fly shit from pepper kind of things I rail against?

The answer is: I tell you this because I don’t want you to despair. I want you to have hope that you can change your eating habits and resist the call of the cookie, the cupcake or the cheeseburger. Telling people sugar is more addictive than cocaine makes the situation seem hopeless, but there is hope. Lots of hope.

Why do people have such a hard time battling their food compulsions? Because they’re going about it the wrong way. We use blind restriction and willpower, and it doesn’t work. It is a challenge to resist regularly shoveling sugary/fatty/salty treats into our pieholes, and to effectively meet that challenge, as with any other challenge, you need to develop a set of skills. Renowned obesity researcher Dr. David Katz told me eating healthy is all about skill power, rather than willpower. Willpower is a finite resource that gets worn down, and then you eat crap. Developing skills in regards to food takes time, but it reduces the need to rely on willpower alone.

You don’t transform your eating behaviors overnight. You need to figure out eating rules you can live with that have you choosing apples over apple fritters and carrots over carrot cake.

But it’s still okay to have those fritters and cakes as an indulgence now and then. It’s nothing like sticking a needle in your arm. You are notpowerless in this regard, and you don’t need to go through a detox.

Eat your treats when you really want them. Keep your sanity. Don’t live in fear of food.


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