“I’m addicted to chocolate.” I can’t tell you how many times I have heard this statement during one of my counseling sessions. It’s something that’s easy to joke about, but I have seen those who seriously struggle with cravings for sweets that are so intense they will do anything possible to get their hands on chocolate, ice-cream, cookies…anything to get their fix. Is sugar addiction real? Is it something that can be treated? Or is it just a matter of having good willpower?
There are physiological and environmental factors that influence our drive to eat. This starts with metabolic sensors in our body that are controlled by internal fat stores, blood glucose levels, nerves in our gut and hunger/satiety hormones. Physiologically, food intake is also influenced by the pleasure we get from eating. There is a pleasure-reward circuitry in our brain and when we eat something that is highly palatable (such as a food high in sugar) this causes the release of opiods (“bliss chemicals”- includes endorphins) that make us feel good. Sometimes even the anticipation of food can release these chemicals and give us pleasure! Ever been to a Christmas party and see the arrangements of sweets on the table and feel the need to eat one as soon as possible? Just the external stimuli of highly palatable foods can cause the release of dopamine (another one of those bliss chemicals that when activated can stimulate the pleasure “hot spot” of the brain, which just magnifies the pleasure we feel during activities like eating, sex and nurturing) in such a small amount that it teases us into wanting the full effect. Studies have actually shown that continuous consumption of foods that are high in sugar can stimulate the drive to eat more even when there is no physiological need for food. Overconsumption of these foods can lead to a greater release in dopamine (which results in greater pleasure). There is actually a “dulling” effect of the reward system in our brain when we overeat these highly sugary foods which results in a need for eating even more of these foods to bring dopamine signaling back up to pleasurable levels. This can lead to a vicious cycle that results in the need to eat more and more sweets to get the feeling of gratification, leading to addiction to that particular food (or anything in general that is high in sugar).
Amazingly, sugar addiction is caused by activation of the same regions of the brain that are activated in response to drugs that are highly abused. There is evidence to show that repeated exposure to large amounts of foods high in sugar can alter the brain similar to the way drugs do to promote constant consumption and loss of control. The excess consumption of these foods also downregulate pathways (as mentioned before), so continued intake becomes necessary to relieve stress or seek comfort. It becomes much like drug usage, continued intake is needed to prevent withdrawals.
So what makes a food have addictive qualities? It’s highly processed foods that are made by science (typically accompanied by chemical additives and flavor enhancers) not products of nature (fruits and vegetables, grains that are not processed) that trigger the release of dopamine and opiods into our system, similar to the way that recreational drugs do. Foods especially high in sugar can be highly addictive because of their rapid absorption into the bloodstream, causing a spike in blood sugar resulting in a spike of dopamine, followed by a crash of the two resulting in hunger and the need for more sugar to get that “sugar high” again. High fructose corn syrup (added to sugary items such as soda) can make food even more addictive because fructose is associated with reduced levels of appetite suppressing hormones. Fructose consumption can actually increase food intake by promoting sensations to increase hunger despite metabolic needs. Finally, artificial sweeteners such as splenda can increase our addiction to sugar. Usage of these confuse the brain- it thinks we are getting something sweet but we are really not getting any calories from consuming them. This leads us to being unable to read our internal hunger signals which can disrupt our ability to eat intuitively. The intense sweetness of these sweeteners also increases our sweet threshold which can result in increasing our preference for sweet flavors.
While highly processed and sugary foods have addictive qualities, foods naturally high in sugar do not. I’ve heard so many people say they don’t eat fruit because their diet won’t allow it, it’s too high in sugar, they’re avoiding carbs….the list goes on. Fruit does have fructose but the quantity is substantially less than that found in processed foods. Fruit also raises blood glucose levels, but at a much slower rate than processed foods high in added sugar, which results in a much slower release of dopamine. Fruit also is high in fiber and phytochemicals (health benefiting nutrients), something that highly processed foods with added sugar do not have.
So how can you conquer or prevent sugar addiction? There are stages as outlined by the Food Addiction Institute:
1). Stop getting high on trigger foods- any of these are false fixes that lead to a short-term reward.
2). Choose healthy fixes- These include physical activity, nourishing food choices, and positive interactions. Eating more of these “whole food choices” help to recalibrate brain chemistry. Good choices include lean protein to promote satiety, healthy fats (especially foods high in omega 3 fatty acids) and carbohydrates that are not processed but high in fiber (fruits, vegetables, whole grains and beans). All of these positive fixes can boost dopamine response.
3) Expect withdrawals- Know that it may take 2-5 days for cravings to subside. It’s important to have a good support system during this time
4) Know that your taste buds CAN change- but gradually- it can take 8-12 weeks for recalibration to occur. Be patient and stick with it. Eventually you can train your brain to appreciate and enjoy the taste of healthful foods.
5) Learn how to deal with emotions and stress in ways other than eating. Exercise, prayer and a strong support group are all good outlets.
6) Make realistic long-term goals to work toward, and set short term goals to get there.
7) Do NOT diet!!!! I cannot stress this enough. Diets don’t work and mess with our ability to eat intuitively. Dieting induces neuroadaptations in the reward circuitries of the brain that were designed to favor survival in times of food scarcity. This can result in behaviors that lead to binging, obsession with food, and the increased desire for highly palatable foods. This is why I always recommend staying away from dieting and focusing on developing a healthy relationship with food and peace with your body.