When I was younger, I never really thought much about food, I just ate what I wanted. We had a farm and I was always fairly active outside -- cleaning stalls, hauling hay or water buckets, riding horses, my bike, hauling wood, etc and I was always pretty tiny.
In my early teens we weren't on a farm anymore so that activity stopped and by my mid teens, I had put on a couple pounds. I do mean a couple... I was under 120lbs and 2-3lbs over the course over a few years is hardly anything to be concerned over, especially when you're still just a teenager.
But I thought I was fat and wanted it gone.
Low carb diets to the rescue.
They told me carbs were bad and not eating them was the answer to being skinny. So I went "low carb". Rather, I tried to go low carb. Within about 4 hours of non-stop obsessive thoughts about all the foods I loved and could no longer have, I caved and had carbs.
Instantly I hated myself and thought I was bad. After all, we're told "we are what we eat", right?
Carbs are bad. Fat is bad and "Dr" Atkins said carbs are bad and make us fat so obviously, I'm bad and am going to get even fatter because I ate them ...again.
Over and over again, I tried to stop eating carbs and follow the rules. Over and over again I was consumed with thoughts of carbs & sugar in ways that I never had been prior to the low carb rules and over and over, I'd cave and hate myself.
I gained about 5lbs from that first attempt and that roller coaster of often obsessing over what I should and shouldn't be eating and "trying to be good", but ultimately "caving and being bad" continued, as did the weight gain, until I was in my early thirties.
Atkins and his low carb rules started an almost 2 decades long battle with my weight and food.
By the time I was in my early thirties, I was considered almost morbidly obese by BMI and height/weight charts (at the time that was a big deal to me, now I know they don't mean shit) and deeply ashamed of how I thought "I had let myself go" by gaining so much weight and not being to stick to anything.
I blamed myself.
Desperation is a pretty strong driving force when it's deeply rooted enough and I managed to, finally, lose the weight I wanted (I gave up the low carb rules and just ate what I wanted but I ate very, very little).
But I still hated my body so I hired an IFBB figure pro to help me transform it further. She gave me my first "clean eating" meal plan and food obsessions and sugar cravings became unbearable almost instantly. Within four days I had my first ever, binge and within 8 months I was sitting in a therapists office hearing the words bulimia come out of his mouth.
And I spent the next several years convinced I was a sugar addict. I obsessed over feeling like I desperately needed to have it, non-stop. I've often described those feelings as what I'd imagine an addict feels like when they need a fix. I'd even have physical sensations like trembling and anxiety if I didn't let myself cave and have it.
The more I had, the more I needed. I knew I felt a million times better when I didn't eat it but I couldn't stop. I felt completely out of control with it and it was not uncommon for me to eat thousands and thousands of calories of sugar/carbs in one sitting and then continue eating thousands more over the course of the rest of the day. Bingeing, particularly on sugar/carbs was an almost daily occurrence for a long time -- because I was an addict. Right? I couldn't stop. I couldn't control myself. It sure as hell felt like an addiction at the time.
Like most other people in the fitness world, I preached "clean eating" to clients and the dangers of sugar. I researched and even wrote articles about its dangers -- hoping to scare myself (and others) into quitting that evil little sugar demon completely.
I found info that reinforced my feelings of addiction with their "Scientists are claiming that sugar can be just as addictive as illegal drugs like cocaine" messaging.
Well, if science says so, and I'm experiencing those exact thoughts/feelings, it must be true. Right? Yeah, I believed it for a long time, too.
But, it's simply untrue. As always, in the nutrition world, details often get misconstrued, misinterpreted and/or misrepresented.
Do you know a single person who ever ended up homeless because they couldn't quit Twinkies? Or sold their body for a hit of gummy bears?
Granted, I did a lot of stupid & self-destructive stuff to "get my fix" when I was in the middle of my so-called sugar addiction but I never left my young child at home alone so I could go sit in a candy store all night shoving a needle full of high fructose corn syrup between my toes.
Studies that claim sugar is as addictive as illegal drugs have been misinterpreted. When reviewed, what they actually show is that addiction like behaviors are only present if they restricted the animals access to sugar. When they allow them to have it whenever they want, they don't show the addiction-like behaviors¹ .
Addiction like behaviors are only present if they restricted the animals access to sugar. When they allow them to have it whenever they want, they don't show the addiction-like behaviors¹
Hisham Ziauddeen, a psychiatrist at the University of Cambridge, says that “What this means is that it is the combination of that particular kind of intermittent access and sugar that produces those behaviors. Further you get the same kind of effect if you use saccharin … so it seems to be about sweet taste rather than the sugar itself.”
There are parallels between the effect of cocaine and sugar on the brain in that they both interact with the same reward system but unlike for cocaine, the animals do not seek sugar if it is paired with an unpleasant event, like an electric shock.
But Ziauddeen said that was not surprising. “The reality is that quite simply the brain’s rewards system and the circuits that control eating behavior are the same ones that respond to drugs of abuse,” he said. But, unlike sugar “drugs of abuse seem to hijack those systems and turn off their normal controls.”
Tom Sanders, emeritus professor of nutrition and dietetics at King’s College London said that while it was true that cravings for sweet things can be habit-forming, it's “absurd to suggest that sugar is addictive like hard drugs.”
So again, review of the studies show that you only see addiction-like behavior in rodents when the animals are restricted in their access to sugar. When the test subjects are allowed to eat sugar whenever they want — like humans — the addictive properties vanish.
The reason this actually happens is not because of addiction but because of our brain's hardwired survival center.
Programmed into our DNA since the beginning of time is the overwhelming urge to survive above all else and food equals survival. So, food or sugar restriction activates the survival center in our brains that creates the cravings, compulsions, desires, & obsessions that cause us to feel out of control and/or addicted. Then, when we "cave" it activates that reward center in our brains and hard wires that act of caving into a habit.
Craving sugar or food in general, even to the point of feeling out of control or obsessed doesn't mean we're addicted. It happens because in trying to restrict them, wiring in our brains causes it to panic and become desperate to save us from starving. When the restriction and fear of not being able to have them again is gone, so too are the cravings and restrictions. I shared a bit about my own story in the beginning to show this in action. I never felt "addicted" to food or sugar until diet culture told me certain things were bad and I had to stop eating them. It started with Atkins and clean eating sent it over the edge into a full blown eating disorder with feelings of addiction. When I eliminated the food rules, that all changed.
While true physical additions to food aren't a thing, we can also have that addicted feeling because of you could call mental addictions. In case we'd define addiction is any habitual psychological dependence on a substance, thought, behavior or practice that one can’t intentionally control and these mental addictions happen purely as patterns that get wired into our brains as auto-pilot actions and reactions.
Emotional eating is often a good example of this. When we have no other copying strategies for difficult emotions, we may feel desperate and out of control with food as we try to self-soothe. Our brains have wired reaching for food as the autopilot "fix" for anything and everything we experience.
Again though, that doesn't mean it's an addiction in the same way that drugs are, as some people claim. Eliminating all the food rules, allowing myself to just eat whatever, whenever I want, learning to understand all the patterns of behavior that were making me feel addicted to food and learning to accept and manage my emotions without relying solely on food have all cured my so-called "sugar addiction" and will for you too.
It's a very simple process when you do it right, but it's not easy.
I created The Cognitive Eating Academy to help guide you through the exact process I went through to "kick my sugar addiction" -- and spoiler alert: it doesn't involve "detoxing" and "going cold turkey" like all the books keep telling you. The CEA teaches you to work with the way your brain is wired, rather than trying to fight against it with willpower (which never works) and deprivation so you can actually rewire it in a way that makes you actually start wanting to reach for less and less sugar. It also teaches you to build connection between your mind and body, rebuild self-trust and the relationship you have with food and your body. Obsessions and addictive-type feelings are just gone and not a single food restriction is required. Learn more about cognitive eating and The Cognitive Eating Academy.
1. Westwater, M.L., Fletcher, P.C. & Ziauddeen, H. Eur J Nutr (2016) 55(Suppl 2): 55. https://doi.org/10.1007/s00394-016-1229-6 not support the idea that sugar was addictive to humans.