So, every time you come into contact with a packet of cookies or a plate of brownies, you end up head-first at the bottom. Sounds familiar, right? Do a quick Google search and you'll learn you probably have a sugar addiction and the only way to 'cure' it is to eliminate sugar from your diet entirely. Forever.
The rhetoric in the media & from social media 'nutritionists' goes a little like this "OMFG, sugar is basically crack". Sugar has been likened to cocaine, heroin, and tobacco.
Some people experience feelings of being out of control around certain foods, particularly really tasty foods containing sugar, fat, and salt, leading them to believe they're addicted to those foods. They may eat past the point of comfortable fullness and may feel a sense of shame or guilt for eating them. But are these people addicted to food? Or is there something else going down?
First of all, let's define what we mean by addiction. Basically, it's complicated, but there are two main categories:
- A non-substance behavioural addiction, (know to you and me as a 'Netflix Binge') OR
- A substance addiction, like drugs, alcohol, or tobacco; 'food addiction' is conceptualised as falling into this category.
The symptoms of 'food addiction' are thought to be analogous to substance addiction, including: loss of control, withdrawal, and cravings for 'problem foods'.
But let's back up a sec, what does the research say? Is this a real effect?
First of all, most of the studies on food and sugar addiction have been done in animals, so we can't generalise to humans AND there are some huge methodological flaws with the studies making them even more dubious.
Studies in mice and rats show that 'pleasure centres' in the brain light up when the animals eat sugar, releasing dopamine and opioids similarly to when taking drugs.
BUT, 'pleasure centres' in our brains also light up when we pet kitties or puppies, listen to our favourite song (or podcast), and when we see people we love. So, that argument is doesn't stack up. It's just not enough.
And don't forget that food is SUPPOSED to taste good, otherwise we'd have no incentive to eat it! The food addiction rhetoric pathologises something normal and healthy, creating guilt and shame about enjoying tasty foods. Fuck that shit. Food is supposed to be rewarding and research shows that abstinence (through diets or cutting out food groups) actually increases the reward value of foods and makes you want it more. This is an evolutionarily survival mechanism, not "lack of willpower".
Other studies on rodents show that they 'binge' on sugar, which some researchers have claimed is evidence for addiction. BUT this effect is only seen after a 12 hour fasting period. The control rats who weren't fasted didn't binge on sugar. GO FIGURE. What this study actually measured was a reaction to food restriction, NOT food addiction!
Studies in humans also have major issues; they don't control for dieting or food restriction. Like in the rats, food restriction in the form of dieting or cutting out food groups (like sugar) could explain the so-called 'addiction'. Basically, after a period of restriction, you get an eating 'backlash'; in other words food addiction studies are measuring the binge/restrict phenomenon, not a true addiction.
Scientists and clinicians also believe there's too much overlap between 'food addiction' and both binge eating disorder and bulimia nervosa for them to be considered separate conditions.
Interestingly, a study on 'compulsive eaters' who were encouraged to eat forbidden foods as part of their treatment (along with mindful eating training) decreased binge eating significantly. If food addiction was a real thing then it would have had the opposite effect, right?
Research in Intuitive Eaters who are more in tune with their natural hunger & fullness cues show that they have lower eating restraint (meaning they don't restrict or eliminate food groups), and simultaneously less disinhibited eating (overeating or binging).
Drugs, alcohol, and other addictions are very real and require professional support. But we don't need alcohol and drugs to survive, we do gotta eat tho, so it doesn't make sense that we would develop an addiction to something fundamental to survival. And remember food is supposed to taste good.
In a recent review paper of sugar addiction, researchers concluded that 'the science of sugar addiction at present is not compelling' meaning there isn't enough evidence that it's a separate phenomenon to BED or BN.
But what if you feel totally out of control around food? Remember that cutting out food groups is probably not the solution and can exacerbate the problem. If you're experiencing binging episodes then it's worthwhile asking yourself if you've been restricting foods or food groups or reducing the amount of food you are eating/dieting/clean eating as this may (at least partly) explain what's going on. Hopefully the idea that you're not addicted to food is liberating and you can begin to give yourself unconditional permission to eat all foods.
BEAT recommend self-help as the first step towards treating BED, I'd recommend the 3rd edition of Intuitive Eating by Tribole & Resch as a great starting point or follow along with my non-diet advent calendar.
If you feel like you need more support, talk to a non-diet Registered Nutritionist, dietitian or therapist.