Am I A (Sugar) Addict?

While binge eating isn’t necessarily about overeating sugary foods, I would guess that the majority of overeating involves sugar.

Over the last few years, scientists who study the way food influences our brains and bodies have been moving toward that sugar is addictive. Not every dietician, nutritionist or doctor agrees or is willing to come out and say it yet. Not surprisingly, the food industry has mostly brushed off the notion.

Some scientists poo-poo the idea on basic principle. You don’t need alcohol, tobacco or street drugs to live, but you do need food. So how can something required for life be addictive?

What Do We Actually Need?

But do we need all kinds of food? Of course, there’s certain food required because of their supply of essential nutrients. These are the nutrients our bodies can’t make, so we must consume them. These include vitamins, minerals, essential amino acids and essential fatty acids.

What about energy? We need that too, but as humans, we’re efficient at turning fat into energy. (Think Atkins’ diet and ketosis.) What’s one of the easiest suppliers of energy? Sugar. It’s full of energy, made up of two molecules: glucose and fructose. Glucose is a nutrient. Though if you don’t eat it, your liver will make it.

That leaves fructose. Do we need it? It turns out there’s no process in our bodies that require fructose. There’s even a genetic disease called Hereditary Fructose Intolerance that afflicts 1 in 100,000 babies. The babies drop their blood sugar to almost zero and have a seizure when they first get exposed to juice around six months. Doctors will perform a liver biopsy to be sure, and from then on, they stay fructose free for the rest of their lives.

Dr. Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, states that sugar can be as addictive as drugs–if not more so. She says that the common dysfunctions in the areas of the brain involved in pleasure and self-control are seen in both food and drug addicts.

In a study from Connecticut College, a psychology professor and his students found in tests with lab rats that the rats preferred Oreo cookies over cocaine.

Another recent study by Dr. Eric Stice of Oregon Health Sciences University studied our obsession with junk foods by parsing out the fat from the sugar. He found that fat stimulated the somatosensory cortex, but only sugar stimulated the “reward” or “pleasure” center of our brains.  In the “reward” center of our brains, sugar stimulates the neurotransmitter dopamine, and dopamine drives reward. And adding fat to the sugar didn’t increase the reward any further. The study showed we want sugar way more than we want fat.

Is the Fast Food Industry In On The Game?

To add in some conspiracy theory, most all packaged and fast foods include sugar in them–whether they taste sweet or not. Is the fast food industry exploiting the fact that we humans have a propensity to become addicted to sugar? Has this created a “need” for sugar?

Sweet-Peas-and-Carrots-Product-LabelThe amount of sugar we crave has been conditioned by the food industry, our early family experiences, and our food choices.  In terms of the food industry, larger quantities of sugar have been added to products over the years. Even if your diet hasn’t changed in 20 years, you’re most likely eating more sugar if you’re eating anything that’s not raw. (I see that even canned peas often have sugar in them when you read the ingredients at the grocery store.)

You are undoubtedly eating more sugar, which means you probably prefer things sweeter without even realizing it. The food companies know this. The more sugar they add, the more your tastes adjust and the more you crave the sweet flavors. You’ll be a loyal customer if you crave their foods.

This makes the Lucky Charms leprechaun seem more like a drug lord than a happy friend offering cereal.

It’s Not You, It’s Your Brain.

If you feel like something else takes over your brain and you lose control when it comes to sugar, that’s because it does. It’s called addictive behavior, fueled by a lizard brain that’s gotten used to the “fix” from sugar.

Until I began relating to my eating behaviors like an addiction, I searched for answers in psychology, self-help books, traditional therapy, journaling, looking for “trauma” from my childhood or emotional stress I was trying to numb out with food. I couldn’t figure out why I couldn’t break my binge eating habit. Even when my life was going well and I wasn’t experiencing stress, I still obsessively overate.

When I learned what was happening in my brain, I began to understand how to unhook the chain of my binge eating habit. I began to recognize and distinguish the “addictive” thoughts, knowing they were being driven from a brain addicted to a pleasure high. With that awareness, I could negotiate and manage the addictive thoughts. It was hardest at first–but got easier over time, as I ingrained a new habit.

If you want to learn how to break through your habit of overeating or binge eating, my Binge Eating Breakthrough ebook is for you. You'll learn powerful tools and distinctions to be able to understand and overcome your urges to eat more than you want. You'll also learn step-by-step strategies for managing your cravings and feeling control with food.

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