As soon as I heard that sugar is addictive, I was hooked. That’s my problem! I thought, my mind racing. Once I start I can’t stop, and I crave sugary things all the time! So, with vigour I attacked an 8 week no sugar challenge head on. I thought it was my last chance at getting my crazy diet patterns in check because I’d tried everything else. I managed to stick to it too; I was so committed to quitting the white stuff that one day at the markets I automatically picked up an unsuspecting strawberry quarter from a tasting platter and put the little pink thing in my mouth – the delightful spark of sweet reminded me quickly what I’d done, and I hastily spat the dirty, addictive thing into the nearest bin.
My final day of the 8 week challenge finished and I was a new woman. I’d lost a few kgs and even navigated a Japanese restaurant with friends without having any sugar – sticking to a varied diet of sashimi and grated white radish. We were going away for the weekend and I couldn’t wait (to eat). First stop: organic café to buy all the raw vegan cakes, aka. blended date and nut mix, aka. SUGAR. We were staying at a hotel in the middle of nowhere, so our only place to eat for the weekend was their restaurant and so there were basically no snacks. All I wanted was snacks, and sugar, preferably sugary snacks. How I had managed to keep away from my delightful white powder for the whole 8 weeks I didn’t know, by the end of the 8 weeks I’d even convinced myself the thought of a banana was weird. But, lo and behold, seat belt off, and PHWOAR! Sugar cravings came back with intensity. Fuck, I’d missed out on that epic, dense, flourless chocolate cake at my sister’s lunch for nothing.
Fast forward about 3 years from then and my so-called ‘sugar-addiction’ is no longer. I don’t get ‘sugar cravings’ and I do enjoy sweet things (mainly dark chocolate or ice cream) but I don’t need to eat them compulsively once I start, and I can say no if I’m not hungry or just not in the mood. I keep ice cream and chocolate in the house at all times and I never would have been able to do this in the past, because they wouldn’t have lasted a hot minute.
So what the hell is this about? Why didn’t the challenge cure my addiction and how is it that I am no longer addicted?
Well, here’s the truth.
THERE IS A LACK OF SCIENTIFIC DATA PROVING THAT SUGAR IS ADDICTIVE!
(Actually, it seems like scientists can’t even agree on what addiction is at all, but ain’t no body got time for a post on that argument). For the time being, we’ll agree with psychiatrists (because psychologists got rid of the word completely) and say that it means “dependence” and is characterised by cravings, withdrawal and tolerance. So, a paper published in the European Journal of Nutrition reviewed the scientific literature to find evidence to support the claim that sugar acts as an addictive substance in the human body…and they really couldn’t find any. Basically, what they tell us is that most of the studies on sugar addiction have been done on rats, rather than humans (which is problematic unto itself, for obvious reasons). What these rat studies have shown is that addiction-like behaviours (like bingeing) that do occur in rats as a response to sugar, are due to intermittent access to the sugar – meaning they can only have it sometimes. When they’re restricted to only having it sometimes, the rats do binge on it, but when given free range – they don’t!.
Another paper analysed the literature to establish whether sucrose is physically addictive and found it isn’t and also demonstrated that when comparing sugar to drugs of dependence, there are many differences – including, but not limited to, the fact that although humans may get sugar cravings, they don’t tend to get tolerance (meaning you need more and more each time to get your hit) or withdrawal (which is the physical effect of not having substance of abuse, and can be life threatening – eg. Alcoholics may have seizures and heroin addicts get immensely sick).
But what about dopamine and reward centres in the brain (the token argument of those who advocate for quitting sugar)? It seems that it’s not so simple as sugar-quitting advocates would have you believe. One study that compared the way a part of the brain (called the nucleus accumbens) fired up when rats pressed a lever for cocaine, water or food showed that the neurons fired differently for cocaine than for water or food. Another study examined monkey brains and how their neuronal pathways fired up in response to either cocaine or fruit juice and concluded that the way cocaine acts on the brain is not the same as when the monkeys were presented with the juice.
From these studies we can see that all in all, under normal conditions of consumption sugar acts on different brain circuits to drugs of abuse.
So what was the deal – if I wasn’t addicted to sugar why did I retaliate from my abstinence with such gusto? Well, it comes down to that ‘intermittent’ part. Rats (and humans) want things they can’t have, or really, we don’t want things as much if we know we can and will get them; we like the unpredictability of it all. So, when we’re deprived of something, when we can’t have it or when we haven’t had it for a while, especially food, our brain flicks a switch that basically makes us want it more. You know, like the whole ‘don’t think about a pink elephant’ thing? Also, our brains aren’t good at suppressing thoughts, to the point that the more we try to suppress them, the more we think that exact thing, so when we say “don’t eat sugar” all we think is “eat sugar”.
Secondly, dieting has been shown to precede binge eating (as have a number of other things), because again our bodies are trying to keep us alive by making us gain weight after losing it. There’s a whole lot of evidence to support this, but that’s a post for another day. So, I’d lost a few kgs on this quit sugar diet, which was intentional (although, as with all diets, I’d convinced myself it was all in the name of “health”) – I wanted abs, and I’d heard quitting sugar can help with that. So once the diet was over, it was only natural that it was now time to binge, according to my body I’d been starving, and needed to put the weight back on! Finally (well, not really there are a lot of reasons to explain this but I’m trying to keep this short (ish)), a study from Japan showed that craved foods are generally those that are liked (der) AND restricted!. So naturally, restrict something you like and you’ll crave it.
The last thing I’ll touch on is our emotional attachment to sugar. Breast milk contains more sugar than fat or protein and from birth, we’re given the breast (or bottle) when we’re upset. When we’re kids, adults often use food as a reward (like ice cream after the dentist, thanks mum!) or to shut us up (like in a supermarket). Sweet foods are associated with all major holidays and special occasions (lollies & cake at birthday parties; fruit mince pies, Christmas cake and pudding at Christmas and chocolate & hot cross buns at Easter) and generally these are fun times, so naturally these foods are associated with fun, happiness and social occasions. Although it’s an apparent addiction-cure, my journey to quit sugar didn’t actually deal whatsoever with my emotions, or my lenience on food when feeling highly emotional. Interestingly, the time when I most often ate due to emotions was when I was happy – because when I was happy I wasn’t focused on my body and what a shit person I was for not looking like a fitness model, so I relaxed the barriers a bit and let myself enjoy food. This weekend away, for instance, was a perfect case in point – plus there’s no better way to celebrate than with cake, right! So, really I’d say the closest sugar gets to drugs of addiction is that they’re both used as coping mechanisms.
Nowadays I eat sugar in moderation (yes, Sarah Wilson, there is such a thing as sugar in moderation) and I no longer over-eat when I’m happy or excited. This is all down to quitting dieting and quitting restriction, which gave me control back. As soon as I told myself I could have sugar whenever I want, and allowed myself to do so for a while, I got habituated to it and it lost its sparkle. I also learned to find other ways to feel good, like meditation, yoga, spending time in nature or talking to a friend or someone I love. Because I decided to let go of my dislike for my body and instead appreciate it for all that it can do, I also lost the need to over-eat when I was happy, because I feel good about myself and my body all the time.
Paradoxically, I think quitting sugar, or quitting any food group, causes us to crave it more. Over-eating anything is about so much more than the chemical properties of that food. Humans are complex; we are dynamic organism in a constantly evolving environment and our behaviours are dependent on so many different factors both internally and externally. Don’t let the health industry fool you into thinking sugar addiction is real, or that it can be cured by abstinence (which, FYI, is no longer even the token treatment for drugs of addiction). Give yourself permission to eat all foods (including sugar), connect with your internal hunger and satiety signals and learn to deal with your emotions without food. That is the real secret to how I cured my sugar addiction.
References (because I’m not about alternative facts)
 Westwater, M.L., Fletcher, P.C. & Ziauddeen, H. (2016). Sugar addiction: the state of the science. European Journal of Nutrition. 55(Suppl.2), 55-69.
 Benton, D. (2010). The plausibility of sugar addiction and its role in obesity and eating disorders. Clinical Nutrition, 29(3), 288-303.
 Carelli R.M., Ijames S.G., and Crumling A.J.: Evidence that separate neural circuits in the nucleus accumbens encode cocaine versus “natural” (water and food) reward. J Neurosci 2000; 20: pp. 4255-4266
 Bowman E.M., Aigner T.G., and Richmond B.J.: Neural signals in the monkey ventral striatum related to motivation for juice and cocaine rewards. J Neurophysiol 1996; 75: pp. 1061-1073
 Berns, G.S. McClure, S.M., Pagnoni, G., & Montague, P.R. (2001). Predictability modulates human brain response to reward. The Journal of Neuroscience, 2001, 2793-2798.
 Wegner, D.M., Schneider, D.J., Carter, S.R. & White, T.L. (1987). Paradoxical effects of thought suppression. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 53(1), 5-13.
 Polivy, J., Zeitlin, S.B., Herman, C.P. & Beal, A.L. (1994). Food restriction and binge eating: A study of former prisoners of war. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 103(2), 409-411.
 Komatsu, S. & Kenjiro, A. (2014). Food craving and its relationship with restriction and liking in Japanese females. Foods, 3(2), 208-216.
 Jenness, R. (1979). The composition of human milk. Seminal Perinatol, 3(3), 225-239.