1. Sugar is Sensationalized
Sugar, in the form of desserts, candy, and other sweet foods, has become a sort of “forbidden fruit,” in our society. When we turn on our TVs or scroll through social media, we see seductive images of forks slowly sinking into layers of decadent cake, pastries oozing with chocolate filling, and larger than life milkshakes topped with every dessert imaginable.
At the same time, we’re also exposed to “sugar-free” recipes, diet plans, and detoxes. We’re told that in the name of health, sugar is the enemy and needs to be avoided at all costs. We see testimonials of people who have “quit sugar” and have in turn found _________ (weight loss, control, confidence, happiness, etc).
Sugar has become something tantalizing and sexy, yet also off limits. You can look, but you can’t touch. It’s no wonder phrases like “guilty pleasure” and “sinful” are used to describe a cookie.
Does sugar really deserve all this attention? I wonder how our relationship with sugar would change if we didn’t give it so much power...
2. Research shows it’s not likely sugar that makes us feel “addicted,” but the fear of sugar itself
Many of us have heard the claim that consumption of sugar can lead to an addiction similar to (or worse than) a drug or alcohol dependency. A recent review of studies that looked at the relationship between sugar consumption and addiction came to a different conclusion. To the surprise of many, the researchers found that there was not enough evidence to support the idea that sugar is addictive. This review looked at several factors, including animal behavior and the parts of the brain that are associated with addiction.
Here are some points from the review that I want to highlight...
Sugar Addiction in Rats
This review examined addiction studies conducted on rats. These studies have gained a lot of attention because they reveal that when given the choice between sugar and cocaine, rats choose duh duh duhhhhhh….SUGAR! *gasp*
But are these studies worth the hype? Here’s what the review authors had to say about them:
“Addiction-like behaviours, such as bingeing, occur only in the context of intermittent access to sugar. These behaviours likely arise from intermittent access to sweet tasting or highly palatable foods, not the neurochemical effects of sugar.”
To put it simply, rats only displayed addiction-like behaviors when their access to sugar was limited. The review also points out that when rats were given sugar “ad libitum” (AKA they had free access to the sugar and could self-regulate their intake), they did not display addictive behaviors. Hmmm...
Even if results from the rat studies had stronger evidence to support the idea that sugar is more addicting than cocaine, I wouldn’t take them too seriously. Studies done on rats have plenty of limitations, but the biggest issue with these studies is that they don’t translate to real life situations.
For example, the rats in these studies were given sugar water. Can you remember the last time you had a nice glass of sugar water? This is pretty uncommon for most of us. That’s because we usually consume sugar when it’s combined with other ingredients that help it taste better, like flour and butter. Even sugary beverages like soda offer fruity flavors and carbonation.
In addition to an unrealistic beverage choice, the rats in these studies are in a completely different physical environment that does not resemble our everyday life situations (unless you frequent sterile cages in research laboratories).
Finally, the rats in these studies are in a completely different psychological environment. While we really can’t know what’s on in the mind of a rat, we can make a very strong guess that it’s something like “FIND FOOD. EAT. SURVIVE. SQUEAK.” Rats probably aren’t dealing with any emotional or social baggage that influences their decision to eat or use drugs.
If anything, these studies done on rats only confirm the idea that restriction (in this case, limiting access to sugar), only heightens our desire, which causes us to obsess and eventually “over-do it” or binge. I’ll touch on this more in a little bit. But before I do, let’s get back to the other highlight I want to point out from the review.
Sugar Addiction and The Brain
The rat studies show that both sugar and cocaine activate the “reward system” in our brain. While this might sound scary, it’s important to understand that this system is associated with pleasurable experiences not just limited to getting high or eating something sweet, but also other simple joys like petting puppies or listening to your favorite song.
The review points out that unlike sugar, drugs like cocaine are far more dangerous because they essentially hijack the communication between the brain cells in the reward system, causing the brain to believe that it needs even more of the drug. Yikes. Say nope to dope and ugh to drugs, friends.
Why the fear of sugar is problematic
Steer clear of drugs. Check. But steer clear of sugar? Turns out this may get us in some trouble.
Have you ever wanted something even more just because you were told it was “off limits?” Maybe as a child you weren’t allowed to touch a certain antique. Or maybe as a teenager you were told you couldn’t date until you were 16. I know I’m not the only one who wanted to break boundaries simply because they simply existed...
The same idea applies to food. Research shows that food restriction in the form of dieting is associated with increased food preoccupation, binge eating, and eating in the absence of hunger. In other words, the more we tell ourselves we can’t have x, y, and z, the more we crave and obsess over them, and the more likely we are to binge on them.
This probably sounds familiar to those of us who have tried to cut out foods like ice cream only to find ourselves shamefully scraping the bottom of a Ben & Jerry’s just a week or two later.
With all this talk of obsession and binging, it’s no surprise that dieting and restricting food actually increases our chances of gaining weight. At the same time, it can also increase our chances of developing a serious eating disorder. I’m guessing those who embark on a quest to cut out sugar are seeking neither of these.
3. Sugar (in moderation) can be a part of a balanced diet
I don’t write this blog post to convince my audience to dive head first into a bag of Skittles. As a dietitian, I’m very aware of the dangers of consuming too much sugar and I definitely advise people to watch their consumption. The real purpose of this blog is to encourage people to monitor their intake it in a way that isn’t obsessive or decreases their quality of life.
We’ve already discussed the lack of evidence to support sugar addiction, as well as the dangers of following a diet that is too restrictive. Now, I want to talk about why embracing a less restrictive, more balanced diet that includes the occasional treat can be beneficial.
Research shows that including “off limits” food in our diet helps us give them less power. In other words, when we give ourselves permission to eat dessert more frequently, it no longer becomes an “all or nothing” experience. Many of us have been there when sneaking just one cookie meant saying something like “Well, now that I’ve messed up, I might as well eat the entire box.” Hello, shame and a horrible bellyache. When we give ourselves permission to enjoy a cookie every now and then, the desire to “go big or go home” weakens.
With this in mind, it’s easier to understand why eating dessert regularly has been associated with weight loss success. In one study, people who ate dessert actually had better dieting success than those who didn’t. Almost 200 clinically obese adults were randomly assigned to one of two diet groups. Both groups were assigned lower carb lunches and dinners, but their breakfasts were drastically different. The first group was fed a 300 calorie, low carbohydrate breakfast, while the other group was fed a 600 calorie, high carbohydrate, high protein breakfast that included a dessert (they could choose from doughnuts, chocolate, cookies, cake, ice cream, or chocolate mousse). Halfway through the study, the groups had lost a similar amount of weight (about 33 lbs). Things got interesting in the second half of the study, however, when the dessert group continued to lose weight, while the other regained an average of 22 pounds. Who would have thought that eating dessert for breakfast would lead to these results?
Finally, research shows that those who abandon restrictive diets and embrace more intuitive patterns of eating not only show improved physical health but also improved psychological health. I'm talking decreased levels of cholesterol and blood pressure, lower BMIs, as well as improvements in depression, anxiety, and self-esteem.
So what do you want me to do with all this information, Paige?
- Recognize that sugar is sensationalized in both a positive and negative light, and you have every reason to feel overwhelmed
- Recognize that it’s not likely addiction that’s making you feel out of control around sugar, but rather fear and restrictive behavior
- Give yourself permission to work towards a healthier relationship with food. It may take time, but it’s worth it. You deserve to feel confident and positive about the food on your plate.
Hungry for more information about living a healthier life?