I spent years struggling with obsessive thoughts about food, particularly sugar. And I spent many years feeling like I was full-on addicted to it. The harder I tried to stop it, the more I craved and felt uncontrollable around it.
This is how I got there, and how I learned to stop feeling obsessed with, and out of control around, it.
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, though, I put on a couple pounds. And 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.
I had no food issues. I never really thought about food, I just ate what I wanted when I was hungry and stopped when I was full. But I didn't know anything about food or weight. I just thought I was fat, was terrified of gaining more and wanted it gone.
Atkins and his low carb, sugar is evil, miracle cure 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?
I went into it reading his messaging already believing that body fat was bad.
Then "Dr" Atkins said sugar and carbs are bad and make us fat so obviously, after reading his book,I believed I was bad and was 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 and felt like a failure.
Desperation is a pretty strong driving force when it's deeply rooted enough and eventually I managed to, finally, lose the weight I wanted in my early thirties.
I decided to give up the low carb rules and just ate what I wanted but I ate very, very little and started exercising an hour and a half a day. (please don't do this, it's a slippery slope from there to an eating disorder and that's not a hell you want to live)
But despite losing the weight, 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. It was so bad.
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.
Within four days of trying to eat clean, I was bulimic. It took 8 months for the official diagnosis but it only took four days for the bingeing and over-exercising to get out of control.
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. I'd be so desperate to get into a bag of candy I'd struggle to open them fast enough, I'd be shaking so bad.
It got BAD.
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 all the"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? And if it's true, I have to just keep trying harder and harder to restrict it, 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 what that means is it's not the sugar itself that produces those behaviors, it's the intermittent access to it that does. The exact intermittent that we live every single day with attempts to "be good" and not eat the "bad things" only to cave and overeat them.
He also said you get the same kind of effect if you use saccharin so it seems to be the sweet taste rather than the sugar itself.
Yes, 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 continue to 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, you only see addiction-like behavior in rodents when the animals are restricted in their access to sugar and it's connected to the habit/reward center rather than a physical dependency.
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 the way our brains survival center programs habits and rewards - to protect us. Yanno, to keep us alive.
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 hardwires 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. Sugar can get more easily and deeply wired into it than other foods simply because it has a faster impact on those systems than other things, especially when we build comforting feelings and associations with sweet treats growing up. 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 the weight loss and wellness industries 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.
So about that habit-reward system. While true physical additions to food aren't a thing, we can also have that addicted feeling because of what you could call mental addictions. In this 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 coping 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 sugar, or food in general, as the autopilot "fix" for anything and everything we experience.
Your brain is driving it.
Your body knows when it’s hungry, it knows when it’s sufficiently full and it sends you signals accordingly. It also knows what makes it feel its best.
And I cannot possibly drive this point home hard enough - your body isn't driving you to eat things that make it feel terrible. It WANTS to feel good… it doesn’t want to overeat things that make it feel like crap.
Your brain is driving those choices. It's not a physical dependency, it's a dependency rooted in your brain that's only made worse by trying to restrict those things.
The reality is, for people who struggle the hardest to eat well (like the women I work with and I used to be) we KNOW. We’ve been told for years what we should or shouldn’t be eating - knowing what we should or shouldn’t eat in any given moment is sooo not the problem because trying to force ourselves to stop eating what we "shouldn't" eat is, in large part, what drives those very feelings of addiction.
All the information in the world about what we should or shouldn’t eat does nothing to help change our patterns of behavior around food because we can’t make ourselves stick to those rules or we stick to them some of the time but the rest of the time is a train wreck of eating too much stuff we think we shouldn’t and feeling like crap as a result.
And we certainly spend enough time asking ourselves “why do I keep doing this?!” but rarely do the digging required to actually uncover the answer so we can learn to stop.
But that’s the key. That’s where the power to actually change it, lies. Understanding WHY we can’t seem to make ourselves stop eating the things we think we should be more consistently and changing all those things going on in our heads that’s driving it all is the answer.
So, one of the biggest causes, as I've been discussing is food/sugar restriction. What that really boils down to is feelings of scarcity around food because, again, our brains know that food is necessary for survival. When thoughts or feelings of scarcity are present, our brains start creating obsessive thoughts and feelings. These feelings of scarcity can come from attempts to restrict (which is superrr common in people who have been dieting for years), or from present or past issues of food insecurity.
Another one of the biggest causes can be self-punishment. This comes from underlying feels of inadequacy, self-loathing, shame (related to food choices or any other kind), a number of places, really. But that's a subject for another post.
What you need is more awareness, not more information about what you should or shouldn't be eating at any given time.
Mind-body-self awareness is key. What are my thoughts saying about food? How are those thoughts making me feel? How do I react as a result?
AND you need more body connection so you can hear and understand its signals and more awareness of not only your thoughts, but yourself. This helps you be aware of and change the (both conscious and subconscious) things going on in your mind that are driving (almost uncontrollably) the reasons why you struggle to listen, or even care enough to listen, to your body.
Wouldn’t you just love to be able to trust your body and eat and live without always thinking or worrying about food and trying to micromanage and control your intake? Wouldn’t you love to just be able to eat and enjoy a small slice of birthday cake and not feel guilty or even sick because you ate too much of it? Wouldn’t you love to not have those all-consuming thoughts about food in your head all day every day? Wouldn’t you love to stop feeling like you’re always trying to willpower your way through life?
This is how my Cognitive Eating Academy clients learn to eat and live. It’s what has changed everything for me, and does for them.
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 did not support the idea that sugar was addictive to humans.