Food addiction is a controversial topic, and whether it actually exists or not is still being debated. It is thought, through rodent studies, that processed and highly refined sugars and carbohydrates can stimulate the pleasure centres in the brain, the same as patting kittens or taking illicit drugs, like cocaine ( you can see the headline now: Sugar is as Addictive as cocaine!). But these studies are done on animals, and what happens to the rat does’nt necessarily happen to people (4).
Some evidence shows that certain people may be susceptible to food addictions, usually to highly palatable foods, which have high levels of sugar, fat and salt and are nutrient poor. But other studies show that it’s NOT the high sugar foods that are addictive but the high fat savoury and high fat sweet foods which lead to addiction (4)! And then other studies show that the degree of processing and refinement can increase a foods potential to have an addictive effect (1). And then other studies show that it’s not the food that people are addicted to, but the eating behaviours (2).
Say What?! So is food addictive or what??
We don’t know! There is not enough evidence to prove if foods or even sugar are addictive! We can’t tell which specific foods are addictive or whether it’s the behaviours around foods, meals and eating that is the problem. What we do know is that some people display addictive types of behaviours around food and eating and it makes them miserable. Food addiction or addictive like behaviours has been associated with depression, binge eating, eating disorders and impulsivity (3).
To sum up:
There is not enough evidence to prove that a sugar or food addiction exists, or even which foods are likely to cause an addiction like response. It’s thought that highly processed foods, which are higher in sugar, fat and salt and low in nutrients are most likely to cause addictive responses, in susceptible people. But we need way more studies, looking at humans and how their brain responds to different foods, before we can know for sure if food or sugar is addictive.
So you think you are “addicted to sugar” but that doesn’t exist? Why do you crave sugar then?
Do you find yourself doing any of these…
- eating large amounts of food without control (wanting to stop, but unable to)
- craving food or eating food when you are not hungry
- feeling guilty after eating certain foods
- eating in secret
- having ‘bad’ food hidden from family or friends (and then eating in secret)
- trying and failing to control what you are eating, dieting, purging, setting rules around your eating and not sticking to those rules
- trying to be ‘good’ by not eating and going hungry
If you find yourself doing 3 or more of these you may have disordered eating patterns or even an eating disorder, if you are worried or concerned about your eating behaviours please see your health professional.
But your sugar addiction may not be that serious, you may simply have sugar cravings, which are very, very common! A sugar craving is when you have a sudden urge to cram chocolate/lollies/fizzy/chips (or whatever your go-to food is) into your mouth, generally as fast as possible. This can be caused by emotional triggers, such as stress, boredom, being sad, angry or depressed. These emotions lead to a need for “comfort eating”, to make ourselves feel better. Or it can be caused by simple hunger and there are quite a few things you can do to help yourself out and stop your sugar cravings.
1. Don’t get too hungry!
- Eat regular meals: don’t skip meals, or think you are “being good” by skipping meals. Skipping meals will lead to increased hunger and increased sugar cravings between meals.
- Make sure you are eating enough at each meal to keep you going until the next eating time.
- Don’t let yourself get super hungry! Hunger is a gradual thing, it slowly increases and if you are eating enough at each meal, then you should be fine eating 3 meals a day. If you are STARVING and find yourself shoveling in anything you can get your hands on, then you are going too long without food. Add a snack or have less time between meals.
- Make sure your meals have enough protein and healthy fats for sustained energy and a longer feeling of fullness.
- If you are active or have high energy needs or just need extra food, make sure you have healthy snacks on hand. I like to think of snacks as mini meals, so I try and incorporate some healthy fats and protein to whatever it is I’m snacking on. For example, crackers and cheese, yoghurt, hummus with veggie sticks, banana with peanut butter on, bugs on a log, handful of nuts and a piece of fruit.
2. Don’t restrict yourself from your favourite foods!
- If you fancy eating cake or something sugary, then have it! Denying yourself or not allowing yourself certain foods because they are “unhealthy” or “junk” or “bad” or “fattening” will only make you want it more! It’s ok to eat any food you like. So eat it and enjoy it.
3. Tune into your hunger: head hunger vs tummy hunger
- Head hunger is emotional hunger you’ll know its emotional hunger because it will come on suddenly and your desire for food will only be fulfilled by a specific food, like chocolate. Tummy hunger is real hunger, it comes on gradually and will be satisfied by most foods.
- If you are not actually hungry and find yourself craving a comfort food, then the first step is acknowledging that this food need is an emotional one, not a physical one.
- Eating food for comfort doesn’t really work, it’s not going to solve how you’re feeling or the reason for that. For example, scoffing a chocolate muffin is not going to help you deal with your boss who is being a total douche bag. So acknowledging that to yourself and then choose to eat or not eat, as you feel the need to.
- Work out what your triggers are! If you know what triggers your need for comfort food then you may be able to prevent the emotional hunger binge.
- Have strategies to cope that are not food related, such as going for a walk, listening to music, talking to a friend, meditating, scrap-booking, writing in a journal etc! These strategies will all help you to calm down, de-stress and acknowledge your emotions and help to stop emotional eating (but that’s really a whole other blog!)
Struggling with your food choices? Think you are eating too much or not enough?
Worried about your eating behaviours or your nutrition?
Call me for a 1 on 1 consult, I can help!
1. Davis, C. (2017). A commentary on the associations among ‘food addiction’, binge eating disorder, and obesity: Overlapping conditions with idiosyncratic clinical features. Appetite, 115, 3-8.
2. Pursey, K. M., Davis, C., & Burrows, T. L. (2017). Nutritional Aspects of Food Addiction. Current Addiction Reports, 4(2), 142-150.
3. Ivezaj, V., Wiedemann, A. A., & Grilo, C. M. (2017). Food addiction and bariatric surgery: a systematic review of the literature. Obesity Reviews, 18(12), 1386-1397.
4. Markus, C. R., Rogers, P. J., Brouns, F., & Schepers, R. (2017). Eating dependence and weight gain; no human evidence for a ‘sugar-addiction’model of overweight. Appetite, 114, 64-72.