I’m sure you’ve heard people saying it: “I’m just, like, addicted to sugar.”
And isn’t that a terrible, awful thing to suffer from? When you’re living in this day and age, where weight loss and “cleansing” have taken center stage, it certainly seems that way. And while it’s true that many products contain far too much sugar to be healthy, eating sugar has become a huge dietary taboo, resulting in a plethora of sugar detoxes, sugar-free products, and media attention.
“Crack Your Sugar Addiction With These Tips,” headlines promise. “Sugar Addiction Is Just Like Drug Abuse.”
Nope. It’s not. And you’re not actually, biologically as addicted to sugar as you would be to cocaine, either.
All of the evidence “proving” the sugar addiction myth compares the brain’s response to sugar with a similar response that occurs after taking addictive drugs like cocaine or heroin. When a person eats sugar, it activates these areas of the brain — the mesolimbic dopamine system, which works as the body’s reward system.
The nervous system releases the neurotransmitter called dopamine — our “feel good” signal to the brain. The brain receives this signal and wants to do whatever released the hormone again, whether that’s snort cocaine, shoot up heroin, or — as the studies point out — eat sugar.
Eating anything that tastes good.
Listening to music.
Falling in love.
Should we stop doing all of those things, too?
Heroin, cocaine, meth, and other drugs release way more dopamine than sugar and those other triggers. They also aren’t addictive solely due to their instigation of dopamine release. Over time, these drugs actually stress and burn out brain cells.
“A user might need to take in more heroin to combat this burn,” explains accredited drug addiction treatment center Michael’s House, “and in time, the user might need heroin in order to avoid painful physical symptoms associated with withdrawal.”
Sugar does not destroy brain cells. Sugar does not cause an intensely painful and physical withdrawal. So the only similarity between sugar and drug addiction is the dopamine response.
The same one associated with all those other, perfectly healthy things.
So then why do you still feel so hopelessly addicted? Well, there are a few potential explanations for your addiction.
One, you are experiencing a dopamine response. That’s your body’s way of telling you that you did something good. The fact is, sugar provides your body with carbohydrates and quickly digested energy. Your body likes that — it’s just trying to fuel you through your day, after all. It doesn’t know it if you’re stuck in an unhealthy fixation on weight loss.
Two, it’s psychologically proven that humans crave the things they’re “forbidden” from having. If you think you’re addicted to sugar, chances are you think that sugar is bad. You tell yourself when you see a doughnut, “You can’t have that donut.” BAM. You want it. You crave it. You buy the doughnut.
It feels like you can’t help yourself! Like you’re addicted. And that, too, potentially explains why you can’t quit the craving for simple sugar.
So how does one overcome a sugar “addiction”? Christy Harrison — nutritionist, intuitive eating counselor, and host of the popular podcast Food Psych — suggests that you let go of the notion that sugar is “bad” and just let yourself have it. Once you get rid of the “forbidden fruit” factor of sugary foods, you’ll likely find that you crave them a whole lot less.