Two common reasons you feel you’re addicted to sugar and what you can do about it

In my 15 years practising as a dietitian, one of the most common things I hear people say is; “I can’t stop at just one.” While some people have a very complex relationship with certain food that goes beyond the scope of this piece, the majority of people I see discover they can stop at just one and that they are not addicted to sugar when they address the following issues.

Issue 1. Being hungry and simply needing to eat.

When your body needs food energy (aka calories), your brain releases a chemical that tells you to look for food – usually something with carbohydrate – as this is your brain’s preferred food choice. This is a basic biological need, as powerful as the need to breath and sleep.

If you haven’t eaten enough at lunch or breakfast (or you skipped one of them), you’re going to need even more fuel (calories) by the afternoon. While some people will notice they are hungry, others won’t and I’ll talk about later. When it’s time for your afternoon break, if you plan on a sweet biscuit or two, but always find yourself eating much more, this is because your body actually needs more food energy than can be obtained from a couple of sweet biscuits. This real need for food energy (calories) drives you to eat much more of the food than you intended. When this happens, you might mistakenly think it’s because sugar is somehow “addictive”, when in reality you just needed more to eat.

In my clinic, one of the most common presentations I see is people not eating enough during the day, very often they are not even aware they are not eating enough. In most cases, once people start eating more, their sugar cravings reduce significantly or disappear completely. In time, these people are able to enjoy sweet foods in smaller amounts, a block of chocolate can last all week in the fridge and the unopened packet of Tim Tams doesn’t disappear within a day.

Given this seems like such a simple “cure” for “sugar addiction”, why aren’t we just advising people to make sure they eat enough?

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Answer: Almost everything we are taught about managing our health – be that through various health/medical professions, media and diet culture – revolves around eating less, or restricting food, often with a goal to lose weight. When people are restricting food and actively eating less, our culture validates this with messages that we are being good, are disciplined and even comments like “I wish I could be more like you”. If weight loss also occurs, the food restriction is further validated with comments around how great a person looks. This validation happens regardless of the very real fact that behind the scenes, at some point in time, many of these people may be feeling out of control around food in certain situations, experiencing heightened comfort eating, binge eating and/or being preoccupied with thoughts about food and weight to the point of what can feel like obsession. This validation also occurs despite the food restriction or weight loss usually only being short term, often less than a year (for the record, short-term is anything less than 5 years).

Given this, it’s understandable why so many people end up under-eating. When your energy intake is low and blood sugar drops, it makes sense your brain wants you to eat high-energy food (often food high in sugar and fat) as this will replenish your fuel more quickly. In understanding that under-eating is a key driver of over-eating, it starts to make sense as to why so many people feel they are addicted to food and especially sugary food. After all, if you were deprived of air to breath, you would suddenly have a strong desire to get more air and when you found that air, you would be gulping it down.

I mentioned earlier that not everybody will recognise their physical hunger, this disconnect with appetite can occur as a result of dieting (or any form of restricting food to lose weight), disordered or chaotic eating patterns or just not paying attention to the body and is very common in our busy chaotic lives. If you feel addicted to sugar, or struggle with food cravings and over-eating, a useful first step is to practise getting back in tune with your appetite cues. You can do this through a process called intuitive eating, an approach that takes the focus of restricting food or calories and importantly, takes the focus off weight loss. While some will find this fairly straight forward, many will find it challenging and may need help from a practitioner experienced in this field.


A side note:
Diet culture and the associated “wellness industry” drives sugar addiction and then sells us the “solution” in the form of various diets or “healthy lifestyle programs” that for many people only serve to compound the feeling of addiction… Such programs include “I quit sugar”, “keto”, “whole 30”, “Paleo” to name just a few. I want to be clear that I am not saying these patterns of eating are wrong for everybody, if you are someone, or know someone, who eats this way and has truly benefitted long-term, then I have no issue. What I take issue with is how these programs or patterns of eating target everybody and for many people they are not the solution and long-term these people find themselves feeling even more “addicted” to sugar or experiencing more intense bingeing behaviour and feelings of guilt and shame.

 

Issue 2: Restricting sweets and then finding yourself in the “last super effect” every time you eat something sweet.

The last supper effect is what many people experience when they make a decision to take action on their eating habits, be that starting a new diet or eating program, seeing a dietitian or to stop eating a particular food. In the hours leading up to the intended diet change, you find yourself eating lots of the food you plan to never eat again. The last supper effect can be so strong that many of clients experience it before seeing me even though they know I’m not going to put them on a diet or tell them to restrict. To quote something I read “scarcity makes us anxious and abundance allows us to feel calm.” The very idea that you might not be able to eat a certain food again, can make you feel anxious to the point of wanting to eat as much as possible before it’s too late.

Along with the last supper effect, the idea that you shouldn’t be eating a certain food, or not too much of it, can lead to a range of diet mentality thoughts including:

“I’ll just have this one and then I’ll be good tomorrow”

“I just finish this packet so it’s not in the house and then I’ll never buy it again!”

“I’ve stuffed it now, I may as well write off the rest off the rest of the day and I’ll be good tomorrow/start again on Monday.”

“It’s so delicious, I’m just gonna eat it all and then I’ll be careful tomorrow.”

The problem with this diet mentality is you end up eating more than you intended, often to point that any satisfaction you could have received from the eating experience is ruined by feeling uncomfortably full and/or beating yourself up over it. In addition, as I know you all know, there’s always another tomorrow.

The ability to eat food to the point of satisfaction where you don’t feel you’ve eaten too much, or to leave delicious food on your plate, often only become possible once you truly start to believe that you can eat that delicious food whenever you are hungry for it. While this can seem like an impossibility at first, learning how to rewire your brain to change the way you think about food will allow it to happen. Just as it’s normal human psychology to want more of we can’t have with things that bring us pleasure, if you were made to eat an entire block of chocolate everyday, you might start to resent having to eat chocolate. This is not to say chocolate can’t be enjoyed daily (I enjoy chocolate most days), but if eating a whole block makes you feel a little sickly afterward, would you want to do it as often? There may be someone reading this who feels they can eat a whole block of chocolate and not feel sickly or experience any mental anguish, and that’s fine, this blog is directed toward those who do feel a level of physical and/or mental discomfort.

In summary, if you feel are you addicted to sugar (or any other food) and you haven’t explored whether or not you’re eating enough (as mentioned many people don’t even realise) or explored the process of not restricting food and rewiring your brain to change diet mentality thoughts, then I urge you consider these processes. The intuitive eating approach I mentioned earlier can help you do this. On the other hand, if you feel are you addicted to sugar and simply avoiding it works for you without any downsides emotionally, mentally or socially, then I have no issue with your choice – but please don’t expect that this is right for everybody.

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Chocolate is not unhealthy.

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This is something I often say to my clients. It’s very common for people to feel they “have a problem” with chocolate (insert other sweet food). When I ask my clients what they feel the problem is, the answer is often along the lines of “it’s bad for you” or “I eat too much of it” or “I need to lose weight”.

Let’s start with “It’s bad for you”…

No one food on its own is bad for your health. Eating 50g (or even 200g) of chocolate is not going to adversely affect your health, eating 10kg of chocolate in one sitting – if it were possible – would likely put you in hospital and quite possibly kill you! But so would eating 10kg of broccoli or drinking 10L of water in one sitting. The point being, it’s “the dose the that makes the poison”. 

This is when my clients might tell me “but I can’t just stop at 50g of chocolate, once I start, I can’t stop”. While there may be a number of reasons for this, one of the key reasons is labelling chocolate “bad” and trying to restrain yourself from eating it. At some point, restricting your eating nearly always leads to over-eating or binging, this has been well documented and if you have ever tried to control food intake through restriction, you’ll know what I am talking about.

Emotional hunger is another reason and this can be complex and often needs to be addressed with a skilled practitioner such a dietitian or psychologist who works in a weight neutral and non-diet space.

One of the biggest paradoxes with our dieting world, is that restricting food often leads to over-eating whereas allowing yourself to eat what you want when you feel like it, actually makes it easier to decide you’ve had enough. After all, when something is available all the time, we cease to be as excited by it and after a while, we may even lose interest. There are many biological, physiological and psychological reasons for this, which are explained in the books listed here.

In addition, when something tastes good and brings pleasure, why on earth do we insist this is bad for us? I think we can blame diet culture for this.

With respect to “I eat too much of it”…

When I ask my clients “what makes you think you eat too much?” The answer is usually to do with the sugar or fat content (or calories) and the idea that you can’t possibly lose weight eating chocolate. This is where it’s important to separate health from weight loss. There is clear evidence that shows people do not need to lose weight to see improvements in their health and in fact, focusing on weight loss often leads to poorer health. Click here for research. These facts aside, it is possible to eat chocolate and be a weight that is right your body.

If you can learn to separate your eating habits from weight loss, you can learn to enjoy chocolate, really enjoy chocolate, no guilt attached and still improve your health. The Non-Diet or Intuitive Eating approaches can help you with this. Separating your eating habits from weight loss can be difficult and you may need help from a skilled practitioner.

Lastly, I would like to argue that enjoying chocolate (insert other sweet food) is actually healthy. The ability to enjoy eating without fear, guilt or anxiety is pivotal to having a healthy relationship with food and your body. Having a healthy relationship with food and your body is vital for your overall health. Research shows time and time again, that the better your feel about yourself, the more likely you are to engage in healthy behaviours be they related to eating, being active, social or your mental health.

Thanks for reading and as always, I’s love to hear your thoughts on Facebook! The Moderation Movement.

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When it comes to nutrition and the human body, there is still much we don’t know and we still have so much to learn.

When I first started working as a dietitian, I could be quite dismissive of anything not backed by mainstream science or medicine. After 13 years working as a dietitian one of the key things I’ve learned, is that just because science hasn’t proved something, or Western medicine doesn’t agree with a particular idea, does not mean that idea is necessarily wrong. The human body is complex and nutrition is still a relatively new science, which means we will always be discovering new things and sometimes we will make mistakes and we will need to change our stance and text books will need to be rewritten.

So now, when a client, or anyone, tells me their homeopathic remedy or sugar free diet is helping them, I don’t try to explain that homeopathy is not grounded in science or that they shouldn’t eat sugar free. I listen to that person and if they feel strongly an alternative treatment or particular diet is helping them, I simply move on to find out why they have come to see me and how I might be able to help them.

Once I have established a good rapport with the client and they trust me, it’s very likely at some point we would discuss whether or not they are truly benefitting from eating sugar free, if they feel they are, then it’s not my place to tell them otherwise. If the client has a very disordered relationship with food and finding themselves bingeing on sugary food, or feeling highly distressed whenever they eat something with sugar, then this conversation would come earlier, but then that client is not comfortably eating a sugar free diet.

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I do however, get up in arms when nutrition claims that have no clear evidence, are broadcast as what someone MUST do to better their health. Or when a person, usually a celebrity or TV personality, uses their anecdotal evidence to encourage millions of people to do what they are doing because it worked for them. Especially when this can cause harm in some people, harm such as disordered eating, eating disorders, emotional distress, anxiety, poor body image and damaged self worth.

Peter F, Sarah W and Pete E may all have found salvation through quitting sugar (or going Paleo) and good luck to them, I am not denying it hasn’t helped them or many of the people who have also chosen to follow there rhetoric, but at this stage we don’t have evidence that what they promote actually improves health long-term (or on a population level), to be suggesting the entire population quit sugar or go paleo. The other factor we need to consider, is that if quitting sugar or going paleo is done in the context of calorie restriction with weight loss as the main objective, and often this is the case, then this is no different to dieting. There is clear evidence that dieting is ineffective and often leads to weight gain and that dieting is the number one risk factor for developing an eating disorder that does significantly worsen a person’s mental and physical health. No, not everyone who quits sugar or eats paleo will develop disordered eating or an eating disorder, but enough will and when there’s not enough evidence to back their claims, shouldn’t this be considered problematic? 

We do have an issue of highly processed (often sugary) food being too readily available at the expense of more nutritious food and this can and does cause health problems. I strongly believe the issue lies with food industry and policies, rather than the food itself. I don’t know what is required to address this, but I do know that focusing on the food products and the individual as the problem, is leading to a significant number of people ending up with a disordered relationship with food and adverse mental and physical health outcomes.

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Suggesting sugar is not evil does not mean you’re saying it’s ok to eat an entire box of donuts!

Why is it that when you speak out against extreme views, the perpetuators of those views suggest you must be encouraging the opposite – so with food, suggesting sugar is not evil means you’re saying it’s ok to eat an entire box of donuts!* 

This type of black and white thinking is what causes so much confusion around what it means to eat well. Some more examples…

Choosing not to quit sugar does not mean you are going to automatically eat excess sugar.

Choosing not to cut carbs doesn’t mean you’ll eat an entire loaf of bread everyday.

Enjoying a beer and chips does not mean you or your diet is unhealthy. In fact enjoying any food or drink seen as “unhealthy” does not mean you or your diet are unhealthy.

Equally… quitting sugar, or any food, or choosing to go vegan, paleo or gluten free does not mean you and your diet are automatically healthy. You can do these things and improve health, but they are not necessary, and in many cases extreme measures only have a short-term effect, with the longer-term effect being an on-going struggle with food and weight which leaves many emotionally and physically worse off.

The wonderful news is there is a place which flows somewhere in between the extremes of abstinence and excess and that place is called MODERATION. I say “flows” as moderation is not a static or fixed place. Moderation means sometimes saying no and sometimes saying yes, sometimes having a little and sometimes having more. All of this depends on the circumstances at the time of eating.

If you’re disagreeing with this and thinking that you are likely to polish off a loaf of bread or box of donuts, it may very well be because you’re trying restrict these foods. It’s human nature to “want what you can’t have” and making things forbidden, brings on “the forbidden fruit” effect and the food becomes even more enticing. A bit like that piece of clothing you see in a shop that you like (last one in your size) but you calmly pass it by before someone else picks it up to try it on, and suddenly you decide you really like it and pray they don’t buy it! Scarcity stirs up anxiety and abundance creates calm.

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With regard to food, especially carbohydrate rich food, these natural and very human tendencies are even stronger than with non-food items because our brains are wired to want carbohydrate rich food. Carbohydrate is the bodies most efficient fuel sources and your brain rewards you for eating them as this encourages basic survival. After a period of restricting sugar or carbs, your brains reward system will go even more nuts when you eat carbs and you can feel driven to just keep eating. This is often when people feel out of control and blame the sugar when your body’s just doing what it’s designed to do. 

If you choose not to cut out (or restrict) sugar (or carbs) from your diet, for most people, you’ll still want to eat these food, but your brain will not go as crazy for the food and you’ll find it easier to know when you’ve eaten enough. If you would like to understand more about this, check out what intuitive eating is all about.

Another layer of complexity with human behaviour around food is the food supply and food environment. Then there’s your socio-economic status which influences access to certain types of food in terms of availability and cost. If the food environment continues to be flooded with cheap highly processed foods, then I am afraid we may be fighting a losing battle when it comes to helping more people eat an adequate amount of fresh whole food (such as fruit, veg, legumes, nuts, grains, eggs, meat, fish, dairy) and not eating too much of the highly processed foods.

Note: for many people the drive to keep eating is more complex then what is described here, with factors such as the emotional strains of everyday life, stress, relationship issues, body image issues and past or present trauma being key drivers. If you feel this is you, I urge you to seek help from a non-diet dietitian or HAES® (Health At Every Size) practitioner. 

You can find us here:

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*As in most cases eating a whole box of donuts would leave one feeling uncomfortably full and somewhat sickly, I would not encourage this as you will get more satisfaction out of your eating experiences when you eat in a way that leaves your body feeling good – this is a key aspect of intuitive eating.  Now, if you eat a whole box of donuts mindfully paying attention to taste and satisfaction and how your body is feeling, if once you’ve finished you feel really comfortable mentally and physically (so not too full, sickly or with thoughts you shouldn’t have eaten them all), then eating a whole box of donuts may not be an issue. Provided the donuts are not displacing other nutrients on a regular basis or causing any other health issues, then no one has the right to tell you eating them is problematic. 

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No food on its own is unhealthy or bad for you

The reason no food on its own is bad for you and the damage that can ensue from such thinking…

Like with everything in life – context matters.

Extreme example to make a point:

If you were lost in the wilderness and all you had to eat for several weeks were cakes & pastries would they be bad for you?

A: No as this food contains the vital nutrients carbohydrate, protein and fat and believe it not, they even contain a range of vitamins and minerals. This food would also provide some water… It would help keep you alive.

Now I want you to imagine this same scenario but all you have to eat is broccoli, which would you be better off with, the cake or the broccoli?

If you said the cake, you’re right; while broccoli is an excellent source of many vitamins and minerals, it is a poor source of the vital nutrients carbohydrate, protein and fat. You might still be alive when you’re rescued after several weeks, but you would be in much worse shape.

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More realistic example:

It’s 3.30pm and you’re hungry, in your mission to be healthy you’ve brought a nutritious snack of chopped up veggies and hummus. It’s been a crazy busy day and you don’t have time to take a break, let alone time to sit down and munch on veggies and hummus (plus you’re really quite hungry and the veggies are not calling to you). You decide to ignore your hunger and skip your break. By the time you finish work at 5.30pm, you’re ravenous and on the way home you grab some food from a vending machine, this doesn’t really satisfy you and you continue to much your way through whatever is easy to eat once you arrive home. You then find you’re not that hungry for dinner but think you should eat anyway as at least it’s a nutritious meal. You end up stuffed full and feeling like you’ve blown your mission to be healthy. Neither your physical or mental health benefit in this type of situation.

Now I want you to imagine the same scenario, but instead of ignoring your hunger, you grab a muesli bar you’ve hidden in your bottom draw – you hid it when everyone told you sugar was evil and muesli bars were full of this “evil” (most aren’t). When you finish work at 5.30pm, you’re a little hungry and now you have time to enjoy your veggies and hummus. By the time dinner rolls around, you’re moderately hungry again and finish your meal feeling comfortably full and content. You’re pleased you made a choice that felt right for you in that particular moment – that’s choosing to eat the muesli bar – as it served you well and you ate a range of nutritious foods that satisfied you.

Note: I am not saying the veggies and hummus are better than the muesli bar, or that muesli bars aren’t a good choice, quite the contrary. In the scenario described here, the muesli bar was a good choice. I am also not saying food from a vending machine is bad and there are times where such food does the job. One of the complexities with nutrition, is that it is not black and white (unless of course you have a food allergy or Coeliac disease) and there is no right or wrong choice.

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The ability to be so selective with what we eat is a Western world privilege.

In terms of the Western world, I strongly suspect an over-abundance of food, our desire for convenience and of course the food industry, are reasons we have so much highly processed food in our diets. The proliferation of such processed food is, I believe, a large part of why so many people are turning to different forms of eating, be it ‘paleo’, ‘clean’, gluten free, quitting sugar, vegan etc. After all, if we only had fresh whole food available to us, the term ‘clean eating’ most likely would not have arisen. I also suspect that if we only had fresh whole food available to us, and this includes whole-grains and legumes, the paleo diet also would not have come about. There is no doubt the over-use of refined sugar in processed food is a why people have started quitting sugar.

The one thing all these new styles of eating have in common is the elimination of highly processed food. Well at least that’s what the idea was, the food industry has responded with plenty of packaged paleo food (there’s paleo chips, paleo chocolate, paleo protein bars, paleo muesli) and highly processed sugar-free (insert anything free) food, which ironically is exactly how we got into this “food fight” in the first place. Watch this space, in a few years there will another style of eating to combat all the new processed food that has infiltrated paleo, clean eating and quitting sugar – at some point I’m sure the halo will fall from rice malt syrup and it too will be seen as “evil”.

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While all this goes on, there are millions of people in the world who are just happy to have whatever food is available. They have no interest in whether the food is sugar free, clean, paleo, alkaline or Calathumpian and most likely they don’t even know theses terms exist – except maybe Calathumpian.

Rice, maize (corn) and wheat provide 60 percent of the world’s food energy intake (see source below). Of the top 10 crops in the world, all are carbohydrate rich food. I am not suggesting that this is the way it should be, but it is the current situation. The overwhelming majority of people in the world cannot afford (and I don’t just mean financially) to adhere to these Western world food trends. Luckily for them, they don’t need to, and nor do we. I’m not saying eating clean, paleo or sugar free is wrong, I’m just pointing out it’s not necessary in order to eat well and looking at some of the reasons these styles of eating have come about. Dietitians and nutritionists have been banging for years about reducing sugar – for some reason our collective voice is not really heard, it seems you need to be a celebrity, or have the message SUGAR EQUALS DEATH to be really heard. The power of the food industry might just be playing a part in our voices being drowned out, and this is probably happening to quitting sugar too.

However you choose to eat, try to keep things simple, ensure the bulk of your diet is whole fresh food (veggies, fruit, nuts, legumes, whole-grains, eggs, meat, fish, dairy, oils etc), consider how much highly processed food you consume, from an environmental and nutritional stand point, and be thankful you have access to so much nourishing food. Try to avoid placing a moral value – I’m being so good, let’s be naughty – on how you eat, or following a style of eating that doesn’t fit in easily with work, family, social events or travel, or where you don’t receive pleasure from food and eating.

Why? Aside from the practical difficulties and having to restrict food you might actually enjoy eating, restrictive eating can foster an unhealthy relationship with food and can lead to disordered eating or eating disorders. If one of your reasons for following a specific style of eating is weight loss or your appearance, then you may be increasing your risk of body image dissatisfaction, weight cycling and ultimately, weight gain. If you have ever dieted, you will know what I mean.

Note: if you have been properly diagnosed with Coeliac disease or a gluten intolerance by a health professional, then of eating gluten free is necessary for you. Vegan is also an ethical choice for which a person has every right to.

Source: What the world eats

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