Is Sugar an Addictive Drug?
A Food Addiction Informed Perspective
Sugar is one of the most widely consumed substances in the world, but is it also an addictive drug?
Experts believe that sugar can trigger the same reward and pleasure pathways in the brain as addictive substances like cocaine and heroin. Eating sugar releases opioids and dopamine in our bodies. This is the link between added sugar and addictive behavior. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that is a key part of the “reward circuit” associated with addictive behavior. When a certain behavior causes an excess release of dopamine, you feel a pleasurable “high” that you are inclined to re-experience, and so repeat the behavior. As you repeat that behavior more and more, your brain adjusts to release less dopamine. The only way to feel the same “high” as before is to repeat the behavior in increasing amounts and frequency.
What is food addiction?
Food addiction is a term that describes a compulsive or uncontrollable urge to eat certain foods, especially those that are high in sugar, fat, or salt. Food addiction is similar to other behavioral addictions, such as gambling or shopping, that involve seeking a reward or pleasure from a specific activity.
Food addiction has been studied by many researchers who have developed criteria and questionnaires to identify and measure it. Some of the common signs of food addiction include:
Craving certain foods even when not hungry or full
Eating more than intended or to the point of feeling ill
Feeling guilty or ashamed after eating certain foods
Having difficulty quitting or reducing the intake of certain foods
Going out of one's way to obtain or avoid certain foods
Having problems in personal or professional life due to food consumption
How does sugar affect the brain?
Sugar is a type of carbohydrate that provides energy for the body and brain. However, not all sugars are created equal.
Some sugars, such as glucose, are naturally present in fruits, vegetables, grains, and dairy products. These sugars are absorbed slowly into the bloodstream and provide a steady source of energy.
Other sugars, such as sucrose (table sugar) or high-fructose corn syrup, are added to processed foods and beverages to enhance their flavor, texture, or shelf life. These sugars are absorbed quickly into the bloodstream and cause a rapid spike in blood sugar levels.
When blood sugar levels rise, the brain releases dopamine, a neurotransmitter that signals reward and pleasure. Dopamine activates the same brain regions that are involved in drug addiction, such as the nucleus accumbens and the prefrontal cortex. These regions are responsible for motivation, decision-making, impulse control, and learning.
The repeated stimulation of these brain regions by sugar can lead to changes in their structure and function, making them more sensitive to sugar and less sensitive to other rewards. This can create a cycle of craving and bingeing on sugar, which may impair one's ability to regulate their food intake and maintain a healthy weight.
Is sugar an addictive drug?
Experts who are food addiction informed argue that sugar meets the criteria for substance dependence, such as tolerance, withdrawal, loss of control, and negative consequences. They also point out that sugar can induce similar behavioral and neural changes as drugs of abuse.
Food addiction informed experts who have studied those in long term recovery from food addiction recognize that the food addict's experience of withdrawal from sugar, trigger and highly processed foods produce similar severe withdrawal symptoms from the physical dependence and intoxication they experienced when engaged in consuming those foods - comparable to substance abuse addicts withdrawing from other substances. Factors, such as stress, emotions, environment, genetics, and personality also influence one's eating behavior making one susceptible to addictive behavior with food and sugar, causing one to be vulnerable to progression into full blown food addiction.
Excessive sugar consumption, ingestion of highly processed foods with ingredients intended to provide addictive reactions, and abusive food consumption has negative effects on one's health and well-being. Sugar contributes to obesity, diabetes, heart disease, tooth decay, inflammation, and mood disorders. Complete abstinence from sugar in all forms as well as trigger foods is the most effective approach to long term recovery from sugar and food addiction.
How to overcome food addiction?
If you think you may have a food addiction, there are many steps you can take to overcome it:
Seek professional help. A food addiction informed therapist or a nutritionist who holds Certified Food Addiction Professional credentials can help you identify the underlying causes of your food addiction and provide you with strategies to cope with your cravings and emotions.
Join a support group. A support group can offer you peer support, encouragement, and accountability from people who understand what you are going through.
Avoid triggers. Try to avoid situations or places that may tempt you to eat certain foods or binge on sugar. For example, you may want to avoid grocery stores when hungry or stressed, or keep sugary foods out of your home.
Plan ahead. Prepare healthy meals ahead of time so that you always have something nutritious and satisfying to eat when you are hungry.
Structure your eating. Follow a structured eating program where you eat a prescribed amount at each meal, in a regularly scheduled time frame to provide boundaries around your eating and restructure your food/reward experience. Set the table, sit down to eat, make a ritual of feeding yourself healthy, whole foods.
Intentional eating. Plan the time, location, setting, amount of food you will eat at each meal daily. Make a ritual of feeding yourself with kindness so you can enjoy every bite. Have a specific place and time where you sit down to enjoy your food. Prioritize your abstinence from trigger foods as if your life depended on it, because it does.
Find alternative rewards. Find other ways to reward yourself or cope with stress that do not involve food or sugar. For example, you may want to engage in hobbies, exercise, meditation, socializing, or volunteering.
Be compassionate. Do not beat yourself up if you slip up or have a setback. Remember that recovery is a process and not a destination. Be kind and forgiving to yourself and celebrate your progress.
Get An Abstinence Sponsor. No one can do this alone! To achieve long term recovery from food addiction is a daily practice and requires rigorous self-care and attention to our feelings, mood changes, boundaries, and emotional growth. Find someone to give you feedback daily, hold you accountable to your commitments, and remind you when you forget who you are.
Create A Community. You are not alone in this struggle and there is hope! Find, create and contribute to sustaining communities of others who are committed to living quality lives free of food addiction.
Radical Self-Acceptance. Learn to love yourself and engage in daily activities that express your care, nurturing, unconditional acceptance and self-worth. Prioritize your own needs, and learn to parent your inner child.
Physical Activity. Exercise! Go Outside and feel the ground! Dance, walk, run, swim, play drums - engage in daily activities that get you off the couch and away from screens.
Tell The Truth. Look in the mirror and talk to yourself! Attend 12 step meetings where you hear other people sharing their stories of recovery from addiction and how their lives and relationships have improved.
Listen to Podcasts: The podcast, Food Addiction: The Problem And The Solution is produced to support recovery from food addiction by showcasing experts and those in long term recovery
Food addiction is a complex issue. Scientific evidence shows that sugar plays a role in food addiction by stimulating the brain's reward and pleasure centers. If you struggle with food addiction, you are not alone and you can overcome it with the right help and support.
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