“Oreos may be as addictive as cocaine, morphine” CBS News Oct 16, 2013
“Research shows cocaine and heroin are less addictive than Oreos” Forbes online Oct 16, 2013
“Sweet poison. How sugar, not cocaine, is one of the most addictive and dangerous substances” Daily News Feb 10, 2014
If you simply believe the headlines these days, you can become addicted to food. Sugar in particular has been singled out to be as bad as cocaine when it comes to ‘hijacking’ our brains; the food equivalent of blow, snow, Big C, flake etc.
But can you really be ‘addicted’ to sugar in the truest sense of the word?
What is addiction?
Working in addiction treatment at Canada’s largest mental health and addiction teaching hospital, the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, or ‘CAM-H’, I’ve come to understand what addiction is and what it is not. Prior to working here, I was like most people who saw addiction as a genetic predisposition which makes one’s brain susceptible to the actions of a compound, i.e. a drug, which ‘hijacks’ our circuitry; one hit and someone could become addicted.
We hear it in the language around how drugs affect brain chemistry. Heroin is one of the ‘most addicting’ drugs out there, or because cocaine raises dopamine levels, the neurotransmitter associated with reward and reinforcing behaviour, by 500%, or crystal meth by 1500%, that these are equally problematic.
In other words: chemical exposure [cocaine] = chemical changes [increased dopamine & serotonin] = pleasure = need for more = addiction. Addiction has been, still is to some degree, positioned as nothing more than physical dependency.
Thankfully it isn’t this simple.
Our brains don’t have drug addiction centers that are just waiting to be triggered by a chemical since not everyone who uses drugs become addicted. People can casually use drugs for years without becoming addict. This is not to say that people who become addicted don’t have biological, social or environmental predispositions for addiction including impulsive thinking & behaviour, learned helplessness, inadequate coping skills for life’s stresses and trauma etc. They do.
But addiction is not the same as physical dependency. You could take pain killers like percocet for an extended period of time and experience withdrawal symptoms one the medication is finished but this doesn’t make you an addict. Addiction can only happen if you started taking them to deal/cope with issues other than the pain they were prescribed for.
Addiction is ultimately a learned pattern of behaviour that is used for the purpose of soothing unpleasant feelings [anxiety, sadness, loneliness], coping with stress, avoiding uncomfortable situations & feelings etc. In order for an addiction to develop, a substance has to be taken repeatedly for emotional relief to the point that one can’t seem to live, or ‘deal’ with stuff, without it.
Eventually the brain shifts it’s response from deliberate choosing of a substance to a reflexive, automatic and habitual response to a trigger or stress; drugs or alcohol become the go to choice for life’s challenges. The behaviour to use is an auto pilot.
Is sugar a drug?
This brings me to an article I read in the Globe and Mail written by Affan Chowdhry about one man’s story of a recovering ‘sugar addict’. In it, Jason Holborn recalls an article he read in the New York Times – Is Sugar Toxic? by Gary Taubes – which changed his life. Jason was, in his own words, ‘very seriously addicted’..’it was really, honestly, a chemical drug addiction’ reinforcing the myth that addiction is as simple as chemically altering the brain and creating dependency.
He says he had, and probably still has, a ‘serious addiction to refined sugar’ likening it to the inaccurate model of how something like cocaine forcibly seizes that part of the brain responsible for addiction. Substituting sugar for cocaine, we get:
chemical exposure [sugar] = chemical changes [increased dopamine & serotonin] = pleasure = need for more = addiction
There’s no denying that we have an area of the brain that is responsible for experiencing pleasure and joy and that it ‘lights up’ in brain scans when drugs or alcohol are consumed, but it does as well when any experience brings pleasure or stress release. Activation of this area does not equal addiction whether that’s from food, sex, the sense of relief when you realize you didn’t forget your cell phone at home after all, shopping, looking at photos of loved ones, or achieving a goal. I feel it whenever I manage to finish a crossword puzzle even if it’s the beginner’s level of difficulty.
To say that sugar is addictive in the sense that it chemically changes the brain is inaccurate. Sugar consumption doesn’t even lead to physical dependency whereby withdrawals symptoms surface [show me real scientific studies, not anecdotes from your yoga instructor]. This is a very different story with the patients I see under supervised medical detox for alcohol, opiates, benzodiazepines, or THC (marijuana) where whithdrawal symptoms such as seizures, headaches, depression, sweating, racing heart rate, palpitations, nausea, vomiting and diarrhea are a real concern.
Is it really emotional eating?
Emotional eating is defined as eating for reasons other than hunger. Instead of the physical symptom of hunger cuing us to eat, we eat in response to emotional triggers. When people eat in this manner, they tend to be looking for the feelings that are associated with eating versus the food itself.
Enter comfort foods.
We tend to associate emotional eating, and comfort foods, as a way to manage negative emotions or feelings. There’s no denying that people do eat in this way when they’re feeling down or depressed – think cookies and milk after a bad day at school – and no, I’m not blaming mom but people also eat comfort foods to maintain good moods.
Getting back to Jason’s story of sugar addiction, he admits he ate a lot of sugar when he felt bad to improve the day because he thought he ‘earned’ it for feeling bad. He used to eat sugar whenever he had a great day too and he wanted to reward himself.
Curiously, like many, he didn’t satisfy his sugar addiction with just plain sugar, or plain rice, pasta, or potatoes for that matter all of which are pure glucose. Rather, it was not uncommon for him to add 1/2 cup of sugar to a bowl of Frosted Flakes or Cocoa Puffs. He admits to eating a mixture consisting of 1 cup of butter and 1 cup of sugar everyday after school, a mixture that would also have a lot of fat (184 g) and sodium (1460 mg); two nutrients that also have an enormous pleasure potential, especially when mixed with sugar . He also said his lunch would frequently be a key lime pie or cake for dinner; sugar, fat, chocolate, and other intense flavours. Ice cream was also a go-to staple where several times a week he’d eat a two-liter carton at a time.
Retrain your brain and taste buds.
While the concept of sugar addiction is alive and well, it doesn’t fit the model of addiction as a stand alone ‘substance’. It’s true that eating can be distorted as a way of managing both pleasant and unpleasant emotions, to relieve stress, or avoiding uncomfortable situations but people are not reaching for the sugar bowl, or plain pasta which is pure glucose for that matter, as they would alcohol or cocaine. People may use sugary foods like ice cream, chocolate bars, pies, cookies, or candy as a coping strategy but that doesn’t mean they’re addicted to sugar itself .
Whether or not food can be addictive is hotly debated. If food is being used to manage emotions or relieve stress like a drug, does it fit? Or is it emotional eating? Does it even matter? We do know that highly palatable foods are more rewarding and human beings are hard-wired to seek out those experiences. Regardless if it’s a drug or doughnut, drug addiction or emotional eating can’t happen without one’s own free will to engage in it; if it didn’t, then learning healthier ways of coping, and learning to enjoy the taste of real foods again would be impossible.
Jason’s own words provide us insight to what was/is likely really going on:
“Spiritually and emotionally, my life is on a much more even keel now. I have a lot fewer emotional ups and downs during the day”
“It’s hard to go without it on hard, tough, or angry days. It’s definitely a challenge to get over that hump. You’re used to making your bad feelings go away in a certain way. Now you have to come up with something different. That is definitely a challenge”
“Everything tastes different. A lot of things that didn’t used to taste sweet, they taste a little bit sweet now. A glass of milk tastes really, really sweet to me now – in a way that it never tasted before”.