I’ve spent most of my life thinking I can not be trusted around sugar, cakes, chocolate, etc. Once I ate one treat, I’d feel such a big pull to have a second, a third, etc... Day after day … Later on, in the midst of my chronic dieting this seemed to broaden to any kind of ‘food’ that was delicious to me. The list of trigger foods became longer and longer. When I consistently failed to control my weight over an 8 year period, it was pretty easy to conclude that I was “very addicted” to sugar and to food in general. I would be horrified when someone would bring cookies into the house...
And I was bummed! Addiction to food seemed like the worst of all, because food is everywhere, you can not practice “food abstinence”. In fact, on many occasions, like Xmas you are ‘expected’ to eat addictive foods. It’s like people would put a nice plate of cocaine in front of a drug abuser and expect them to enjoy it with moderation and then be able to not touch it again…
No matter the sugar detoxes or the clean eating I was in to, I always feared that eating just one cookie could send me right back into my 'addictive' behaviour. And it did... It took me a lot of research, books and personal experiment to unravel what was really happening here. And spoiler alert:
sugar and food addiction had nothing to do with it, in fact they had been unhelpful concepts in my journey ...
I went from a sugar/food junkie to someone who can now stop in the middle of a cake because she's had enough. Here's what I needed to understand -amongst other things- for this to happen:
1. The sugar/food-addiction mindset is disempowering
If you entertain the belief that you are addicted to sugar and food, you believe you are dependant on it. You believe you need to detox and rehab from it. If you go on a sugar detox, this means you believe sugar or food in general has power over you and not the other way around. You believe you are "weaker than.." You are basically telling yourself that you are in danger everywhere you go where there is sugar or trigger foods. How stressful is that? Also, since beliefs have a way of confirming themselves and coming true ( self-fulfilling prophecy or the law of attraction if you prefer), can you see how dangerous this mindset is?
2. The sugar/food addiction mindset is not even really based on truth
Science on food is popular and pretty much everyone read and remembered the tagline saying "sugar does the same in your brain like cocaine does". Me too, I've seen all the "sugar is evil" documentaries and I've led a sugar-free lifestyle- uhhm I mean, I've tried to lead a sugar free life.
Many people took this research as the end-all explanation for their issues with food and went on sugar detoxes. "I must be addicted, if I cut out sugar for -x- days, I will stop eating compulsively." Yeah, I did that too...
It's tragic what happens when we base all of our health tactics on single perspective studies, who are in addition widely misinterpreted.
Yes, studies have found that sugar gives you a dopamine rush in the brain which gives you a sense of pleasure, and it is correct this happens more for some people than others. But so does falling in love, music and seeing a good movie. So does work for some people, or sports. Everything that is pleasurable will give you a dopamine rush in the brain. We don't look at music as inherently addictive, right? Why is that?
For a substance to be called physically addictive, we don't only need it to provide us with dopamine/ aka pleasure. The actual medical definition of a physical addiction implies that it is defined by the" physical dependence on a substance"—that is, "increased physical tolerance for a chemical substance accompanied by the experience of physical withdrawal symptoms when someone stops using."
The physical withdrawal symptoms of heroin or alcohol are extreme, while the physical withdrawal symptoms of sugar are 'a headache and being cranky'... Mild to none...
Refined sugar, when broken down in our bodies, simply becomes glucose in the body. Whether you eat a banana, a cookie or a spoonful of unrefined maple syrup, you will end up with glucose. The difference between the 3 options is the level of refinement of the food - which has to do with the time it will take to be digested and the amount of vitamins that will still be present in the food. Refined sugar, for example, is digested very quickly, but it is not a foreign chemical our body suddenly becomes physically dependant on like it does on opiates or nicotine. In fact, we are born physically dependant on glucose, it is a substance our bodies need and thrive on.
I couldn't say it any better than fellow anti-diet activist & emotional eating coach Isabel Foxen duke:
"When researchers discovered that sugar triggers a dopamine response similar to that produced by cocaine (as well as a bunch of other stuff that makes you feel good, but whatever), health media, and other arms of the diet-industry, interpreted this to mean that sugar must therefore be “physically addictive” (and that “quitting sugar” must be the answer to compulsive eating) despite the fact that this research has nothing to do with gauging physical withdrawal or dependency (aka the actual criteria of “physical addiction”). "
3. The sugar/food addiction mindset does not take into account our psychological mechanisms around food
The worst part of it all is that this sugar research instantly prompted health media and professionals to tell everyone who overeats to avoid and restrain sugar at all cost, not considering what eating psychology research had meanwhile discovered ...
In Phd. Linda Bacon's review book you can find this key conclusion of the research:
“Compulsive feelings around food – emotional eating or binge eating- almost exclusively occur in ‘restrained eaters’, that is , people with a history of restrictive thoughts, feelings or behaviors around food. “
The more someone tries to restrict and restrain food, the more likely they are to overeat or binge in the long run. Also emotional eating is linked to restriction. For over 80 years we've been told to restrict & avoid this , then to restrict & avoid that (first it was fat, then it was sugar,..)=> while in fact, we know now that the very act of restricting or avoiding may be what drives compulsive eating.
In my opinion, Food science on its own is generally unhelpful for compulsive/ emotional eaters because it only talks about the physics, without considering the complex interplay with other factors.
Beyond sugar detoxes, the long term solution
I know a sugar detox sounds much more sexy and exciting than what I propose, but as a coach I’m here for the long term result, not the short term superficial one. For chronic dieters, emotional eaters and bingers, the research as well as many's personal experience points out that going on a sugar detox or any type of restriction may only induce more compulsivity around food.
That's reason enough to stop doing that, but consider the social factor too: do you want to be the one who cancels on socials or fears them for presence of your trigger food? Or do you want to be able to handle presence of all food- all the time? Many people can incorporate 'evil' foods into a balanced diet quite easily without overdoing it or feeling ruled by them - and I think they are all living in France. Just kidding, you can become like that too! I did.
So what can you do now if you feel like you're in the grips of sugar/food? Ditch the diets and detoxes, for good, practice intuitive eating (you can read more about that here) , work on accepting your body unconditionally and put your precious energy where it belongs: work on the emotional root cause of your overeating. (You can read more about that here.)
Besides the research you can find tons and tons of ex-overeaters explaining their story online to back this up. If you want to experience a tad of my approach when it comes to helping women release addictive food behavior - download my breathwork audio and be prepared to be wow-ed.