Am I really addicted to sugar?

“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? 

Now that she's discovered sugar, she can smell it from a mile away
Now that she’s discovered sugar, she can smell it from a mile away

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.


I promise you can love veggies just as much as I do!
I promise you can love veggies just as much as I do!

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.

Raising our girls to love their bodies

We are at that point where we have entered the copy stage. It’s cute and amusing at the same time to watch Carli do all the things she has picked up from me. One of her favorite toys is her toy vacuum, probably because she watches me vacuum the floors constantly. I’m ashamed to admit that because she watches everything I do she is also a pro at using my iphone and ipad. She fully understands how to watch videos, make online purchases (one-click ordering isn’t so great when you have a toddler) and has made FaceTime calls to people I haven’t talked to in years at 6:00AM (sorry to anyone she has done that to recently).

Because I am mostly at stay at home mom (I work 1.5 days per week), Carli watches me get ready in the morning. Now she loves putting on lip gloss, brushing her hair and looking in the mirror. I didn’t realize that most mornings when I’m getting ready I tend to check out my body in the mirror. Carli caught on though, and one morning shortly after Christmas I found her in front of my cousin’s full length mirror checking out her tummy and bottom- just like I (shamefully) sometimes do in front of her. It was reality check, and also a reminder of how influential a mother’s view of her own body can have on her daughter.

Now that I have a daughter, I can’t help but not notice the statistics. Body dissatisfaction starts at such a young age it’s disturbing. According to the National Eating Disorders Association, 70% of 6-12 year olds want to be thinner and according to a study conducted by Duke University, 40% of all 9-10 year-old girls have already been on a diet. Implications of poor body image and dieting at such a young age include increased likelihood of developing an eating disorder, lower self-esteem, depression, and are even more likely to become obese as adults. But what causes our girls to feel this way? Is it just the media, or can the environment they’re raised in also shape the way they feel about their bodies?

image

 

These statistics are mostly blamed on the media. The average model is much thinner than a typical sized woman, and flaws are easily covered by airbrushing and photoshop. I agree that the media plays a big role in young girls’ desire to be thinner or go on a diet, but I also think that the most influential people in these girls’ lives can change the way they perceive their self-image. What conversations are we having with our girls about body image, and how are we helping to promote their self-esteem?

It starts at home, and both mom and dad play a part. As mothers, WE have to feel confident in our own skin. If we are constantly talking about how fat we look today, the number on the scale, the 5-day detox diet we want to go on to lose weight fast- our girls are going to pick up on that! We are their biggest role models and need to make peace with our bodies and food so that our girls can too. This does not mean that it’s okay to make poor dietary choices and consume excess calories from nutrient-void foods because we are okay with our body size. These are not healthy behaviors either. It means that we are an example to our girls, eating healthy balanced meals and not jumping from one fad diet to the next to lose weight. It means that we exercise to feel good about ourselves and to stay healthy, not solely to burn calories. Help your girls understand the difference between foods that are nutritious and should be consumed regularly (fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins) and foods that are okay to have as a treat but not on a regular basis (sweets, snack foods). Don’t label foods good or bad.

Dad’s role is just as important. Is he making comments about how “sexy” or “beautiful” women in the media are? Is he on mom to lose weight and telling her she should go on a diet? A father’s opinion of what a woman’s body should look like is the first a little girl will be exposed to, and that perception will mold her view of what her own figure should look like to please men.

Kids need to feel secure in their own skin. I think the worst thing we can do is stigmatize kids who are overweight, this usually results in weight gain, dieting, and body dissatisfaction- all issues that can eventually lead to obesity in adulthood. I work in pediatrics and not all kids that the BMI charts classify as “overweight” or even “obese” look to be at an unhealthy weight. Some pediatricians may recommend restricting calories, but I disagree. Instead, having an approach in the home that encourages healthy eating and exercise will not only help kids to be at a healthy weight but will also be one of the many keys to promote healthy body image. The verbiage we use around young girls is so important. Use words like “strong,” “smart” “creative” and “beautiful”- avoid using adjectives like “thin” “big” “tiny” and “stocky”. Even telling your daughter she is small may make her feel pressured into staying that way- something that can lead to restrictive behaviors to avoid weight gain.

As a mother, what I want Carli to understand is that most importantly God made her to be unique from everyone else, and that is so special. He designed every detail of her body and although she is beautiful on the outside, her heart is what’s most important. The love she exudes to others, her compassion, her desire to worship Jesus instead of her own body- that is a much more purposeful way to live.

DSC_0418
© Holli Hamby Photography

Luke 16:15- He said to them, “You are the ones whole justify yourselves in the eye of others, but God knows your hearts. What people value highly is detestable in God’s sight.”

Welcome!

Hello!

Welcome to my blog! There is so much misinformation about nutrition on the internet and I hope this can be a place for you to find helpful (and truthful) dietary advice. I want to be as authentic as possible, and I hope to do that by sharing some of my own struggles with food and dieting. As a registered dietitian I have completed a 4 year degree program at an accredited university (Purdue University- boiler up!!) followed by a 10 month supervised practice internship program in Corpus Christi, TX. FINALLY in 2011 I was able to sit for the RD exam, which upon passing I became a registered dietitian! The information on this blog is largely influenced on personal experiences in my professional practice and education and may or may not reflect the view of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. I can assure you that any recommendation for disease prevention and medical nutrition therapy is fully supported by evidenced based research.

I struggled with an eating disorder for many years before becoming a dietitian. Even while completing my education at Purdue and during my internship I privately fought the urges to fall back into my disordered eating habits- and I struggled to keep those thoughts quiet. I have fully recovered from my eating disorder and that is something I am proud of. My mission is to use my personal experiences along with my nutrition expertise to help people who struggle with the same issues I did for so long. From my experience, a person does not have to have a clinically defined eating disorder to allow food and eating rituals to control their life. The first four years of my practice I worked primarily with adults who were overweight or obese- many had multiple health issues which stemmed from their weight. Issues that came up so often were their feelings of guilt when eating, failing diets, feelings of hopelessness related to food and weight and the frustration that making the lifestyle change was not possible.

I think that for most people, this is normal. And to an extent, that’s okay. When you wake up in the morning and your jeans fit tighter than they did the week before it is probably going to be a little upsetting. You may feel a little guilty after eating 2 helpings of dessert. The difference is- do you let this dictate how the rest of your day goes? Does the number on the scale determine your self-worth? Do you have a bad day and then give up on yourself? I believe that normal, intuitive eating starts with developing a positive self-image. Once the focus is shifted away from the scale and good foods/bad foods (did I follow my diet perfectly?) then the changes can be made.

I’m here to help with simple meal planning, ideas on how to change your eating habits for LIFELONG change, and to discuss the struggles we all deal with on a daily basis when it comes food.

Can’t wait to connect with you!

 

With love,

Jennie