Addicted to sugar? Really?

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Addicted to sugar?

I love sweets.  Ice cream, cake, cookies, pie, chocolate candy, you name it.  I could eat sweets all day everyday, but I don’t.  I know it’s not healthy, so I deliberately choose to limit my intake.  When I do indulge, I stick to quality items in small portions.  And I don’t waste my sweets allowance on stupid stuff like sugar in coffee or sugary soft drinks.  Am I addicted, desperately trying to control my cravings?  Not in my opinion.  But plenty of people see food, particularly sweets, as no different from heroin or meth — highly addictive and impossible to resist.  Once you start, you can’t stop, with ruinous affects on your health.

It’s fashionable to believe in food addictions.  According to a consumer survey, almost 9 out of 10 people believe in food addiction.  Researchers are studying the relationship of foods, particularly sweets, to signs of addictive responses in the brain.  Yet unlike drugs or alcohol, humans actually need to eat food to survive.  Claiming an addiction to food is sort of like claiming an addiction to oxygen.  What’s the point?

What’s the harm in believing in food addiction?  According to John Blundell, professor of psychobiology at the University of Leeds, the concept of food addiction is an oversimplification of a very complex behavior.  Food preferences and hunger have a biological basis, but learned behaviors and food availability also affect choices.  Blaming the obesity epidemic on food addiction isn’t likely to solve the problem.  In fact, belief in food addiction might make the problem worse:

  1. It makes food — or sweets — seem like a forbidden and unhealthy pleasure.  Eating these foods is something to be done in secret, and in excess.
  2. It gives sugar and sweets a fashionable heroin-chic aura.  It’s hard to resist swinging from complete abstinence to gorging.
  3. It’s a convenient way to rationalize poor food choices: “I’m addicted, so I can’t be expected to eat in moderation, and I can’t be expected to change my behavior.”
  4. It creates a self-perpetuating sense of helplessness around sweets or other tempting foods.  If you’re “addicted”, you can’t control yourself.  Result: you don’t control your food choices.
  5. Your food choices are not your fault, therefore you won’t have any motivation to change.

Result: the obesity epidemic continues because people continue to eat too many calories.

Out of sight, out of mind.

If you feel out of control around certain foods, removing them from your environment can be very helpful.   Which is not the way a true addiction works.  If the candy bowl or doughnut box disappears from the break room at work, you don’t sneak out of work and drive off to the convenience store to feed your “addiction”.  And that’s the difference.  People who like sweets, or some other food, typically don’t engage in destructive food-seeking behaviors that disrupt everything else in life.  They typically don’t sit around at home gorging on sweets all day, ignoring family, work, school, personal hygiene, home and social engagement.  Their love of sweets typically doesn’t cause them to lose their job due to chronic absence and poor performance.  Their love of sweets typically doesn’t cause them to engage in criminal behavior, to feed their habit.

So why you do feel out of control around sweets?  And what can you do about it?  While humans have some natural preference for sweet flavors, foods with natural sugars, like fruits, are not excessively sweet.  You can start the process of re-training your taste buds by cutting out all overly-sweet foods and drinks, including artificially sweetened soft drinks, candies and desserts.  They might have fewer calories, but the excessive sweetness can distort your taste buds.  If you’ve learned that all foods must taste really sweet, you can’t appreciate the subtle sweetness of a banana or melon or raspberry.

Blaming a food addiction is not helpful.  You can take control of your sugar habits.  The first step is to re-train your taste buds.   I don’t believe in food addiction at all.  But I do believe people can let bad habits get out of control, and eating too many sweets is an example of a very bad food habit.

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