Why is Sugar so Addictive?
It seems so simple and unthreatening, doesn’t it? A spoonful of sugar on your morning breakfast cereal, a candy bar for an afternoon pick-me-up, or a soda for a little extra energy…they all seem harmless enough. But, when looked at as part of a total diet that includes processed sugar, natural sugar, and hidden sugar in foods we eat, many people are surprised to learn that they have a sugar addiction. As a Santa Barbara therapist I work with many patients who are trying to free themselves from the control sugar has over their lives.
In a landmark report that focused attention on our national sweet tooth, the U.S. Department of Agriculture stated that the consumption of sugar calories hit a record high in 1999 – an astonishing 155 pounds per year! The food industry practice of using high-fructose corn syrup as a sweeter has resulted in sugar showing up in some of the most unlikely places such as hot dogs, pizza, boxed rice, soups, spaghetti sauce, lunch meat, flavored yogurts, ketchup, and mayonnaise. It can be difficult to control sugar intake, even for people who maintain a healthy diet. For people who have difficulty managing anxiety it can be downright impossible.
As a Santa Barbara psychologist, I often witness first-hand the connection between sugar addiction and mental health problems. The relationship between food and mental health becomes so intertwined that patients sometimes depend on food and sugar to help them get through the day. While a medical doctor can help manage the physical aspects of withdrawing from a sugar addiction, I provide counseling to help patients work through the mental and emotional reasons behind their sugar addiction.
Understanding Sugar Addiction
Research has shown that there is a fundamental connection between sugar and brain cells. While sugar does supply the fuel your brain needs to function, your brain can also come to see sugar as a reward. Continued overuse of sugar results in the brain demanding more and more sugar. The feeling can be similar to the effects of drugs or alcohol, which provide an artificial “high.”
The “rush” we get from our mid-day sweet snack can be attributed to sugar. This turns into glucose in our bodies, and spikes our blood sugar levels. Unfortunately, blood sugar levels then drop quickly, which can leave you feeling lethargic and ultimately make you crave even more sugar. When combined with a stressful job situation, unhappy marriage, or traumatic life events, the sugar high can become an addictive way of making ourselves feel happy.
Some people don’t realize that highly refined, starchy, carbs,” can have the same effect. Things like pretzels, white bread, pasta, potatoes, and crackers raise and lower blood sugar levels quickly.
Signs of Sugar Addiction
It may be hard to realize that you have a sugar addiction. Think about your daily food habits and your relationship with food. Here are some questions that might help determine whether sugar is starting to exert an unhealthy influence in your life:
- Does it feel like you are always “craving” something sweet?
- Do you often think about eating sweets?
- Do you lose control when eating sweet foods?
- Is it difficult for you to say “no” to sweet foods?
- When you try to cut back on sugar, do you feel intense cravings?
- Do you experience mood swings that go up and down quickly after eating sugar?
- Have you even eaten more than you planned, or more than you know is needed, because of a sweet taste?
- Have you ever felt guilty or ashamed about the amount of sugar you have eaten?
- Do you turn to sweet foods to help you deal with emotions such as depression, sadness, anger, or loneliness?
- How often do you use sugar as a reward for yourself?
- Do you associate sweet foods with any specific positive memories or emotions?
These questions don’t necessarily indicate that you have or don’t have a sugar addiction, but they can be helpful guidelines. If you think there is cause for concern it is always best to check with a medical doctor to rule out an underlying medical condition and to consult a psychologist.
Dr. Adina McGarr-Knabke
What you need to know about Food Addiction
I provide therapy to patients who are dealing with eating disorders such as Anorexia, Bulimia, and Binge Eating Disorder, as well as disordered eating styles that do not meet criteria for an eating disorder. These are serious conditions that wreak havoc on patients by affecting their sense of self, their health, their relationships, and their well being. All of which ultimately diminish one’s ability to participate fully in daily activities.
After a general medical condition has been ruled out, I work with patients in therapy to determine the underlying psychological and emotional causes for their condition. In addition to the underlying factors contributing to one’s eating disorder, they also serve as powerful coping mechanisms. We associate food with memories, use it to make ourselves feel happy when we are sad, rely on it as a way of showing love for our families, and sometimes even punish ourselves with it. My goal is to help patients understand why they interact with food the way they do, so that we can work together to build a life that doesn’t revolve around food.
Understanding Food Addiction
It can be helpful to understand why food is so addictive in the first place. Research has shown that the same pleasure and reward centers of the brain that are triggered by addictive drugs like heroin and cocaine are also activated by food.
Highly palatable foods that are rich in sugar, fat, and salt trigger the release of brain chemicals, like dopamine, that just make you feel good. For some individuals, the neurochemical structure of their brains may predispose them to either being more sensitive to the chemicals released when eating highly palatable foods or less responsive, meaning it takes eating more of the food to elicit the same pleasure response. Over time, this can override normal feelings of satisfaction, induce cravings, and compel you to eat, even if you’re not hungry. Tolerance can build and despite more food being consumed, the same pleasurable effect is harder to achieve. Once food addiction occurs, eating becomes the primary source of pleasure and reward and the individual is less motivated to engage in other activities that were once appealing.
Signs of Food Addiction
It may be difficult to admit to yourself that you have a food addiction, and it can also be hard to identify in others, as there is a significant amount of shame and secrecy around food addiction. Below are some questions that may help identify in an addiction is present.
- Does it often feel like you are eating more than you planned, especially when it comes to certain foods?
- Do you feel the need to continue eating those foods, even though you are not hungry any longer?
- How often do you eat so much that you become ill?
- If a certain type of food is not available, what actions do you take?
- Is eating interfering with your ability to work or interact with others?
- Are you embarrassed by how much you eat around others?
- Do you eat in secrecy?
- If you try to cut down, do you experience anxiety, agitation, or any other physical symptoms?
- Have your eating habits caused you to experience depression, self-hatred, or guilt?
- Does it feel like to need to eat more and more just to feel any pleasure at all?
Food addiction may not look the same for everyone. These questions don’t necessarily indicate that you have or don’t have an addiction, but they can be helpful guidelines. If you think there is cause for concern it is always best to check with a medical doctor and a mental health professional.
Getting Help for a Food Addiction
Once a person becomes addicted to food, it is difficult to stop, despite any rational thinking or negative consequences that occur. It may require medical care, treatment for depression, nutritional counseling and physical training combined. Here are a few organizations which can provide further insights into the causes, symptoms, and treatments for food addictions:
- National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders (ANAD): This non-profit organization has been dedicated to the prevention and alleviation of eating disorders since 1976. ANAD advocates for the development of healthy attitudes, bodies, and behaviors. The organization also promotes eating disorder awareness, prevention and recovery through supporting, educating, and connecting individuals, families and professionals.
- National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA): NEDA was formed in 2001 through the merger of two groups – Eating Disorders Awareness & Prevention (EDAP) and the American Anorexia Bulimia Association (AABA). NEDA believes we can confront eating disorders with increased awareness, early intervention and improved access to treatment. The non-profit provides programs and services to give families the support they need to find answers for these life-threatening illnesses.
- The Something Fishy Website on Eating Disorders: This website has been raising awareness and providing support to people with eating disorders and their loved ones since 1995. They are determined to remind every sufferer that they are not alone, and that complete recovery is possible.
If you or a loved one is affected by a food addiction or an eating disorder, contact my office immediately to set up a session, and let me help you find a path to a better life.
Dr. Adina McGarr-Knabke
The Santa Barbara Therapist
About MySantaBarbaraTherapy.com: Known as The Santa Barbara Therapist, Dr. Adina McGarr-Knabke works with clients who have eating disorders, provides therapy for anxiety, and offers depression counseling as well as alcoholism and addiction treatment services. Her office is located at 1187 Coast Village Rd., Suite 10P in Santa Barbara. Visit the website at https://www.mysantabarbaratherapy.com to download a complimentary PDF, the “Top 10 Ways to Cope With Depression and Anxiety.” “Like” the Facebook page to receive updates, tips, and information on sustaining good mental health. Appointments may be made online or by calling 818-518-6775.
Excessive carbohydrate consumption causes the insulin level in the blood to increase, which reduces the blood sugar level. Research suggests that a decrease in blood sugar stimulates hunger and thus there is an intense desire to eat more food. Through functional magnetic resonance imaging, researchers observed intense activation of the nucleus accumbens (a critical brain region involved with addictive behaviors) after participants consumed a carbohydrate rich food with a high glycemic index. Chronic, excessive consumption of the latter food type may trigger the reward and addiction regions of the brain leading to food cravings.
Learn what you really lose when you starve yourself. How it can actually make you gain weight.
In an attempt to lose weight, people often think that by severely restricting their caloric intake they will achieve their goal. Initially, there is some weight loss, but eventually a plateau occurs and even worse, people actually gain the weight back and then some when they go back to their normal eating pattern. Simply put, significantly restricting caloric intake or starving yourself triggers the body to go into “starvation mode” as a means of survival. This means that your metabolism decreases to conserve energy (ie. your body burns less calories).
Many individuals abuse laxatives in the hopes of controlling or losing weight. This is actually not an effective means for weight loss as laxatives stimulate the large intestine to release its contents, however, food passes first through the stomach and into the small intestine, where most of the calories are absorbed. Hence, the laxative induced bowel movement contains little actual food, fat, or calories. The percieved weight loss is actually the loss of water, minerals, electrolytes, indigestible fiber, and wastes from the colon. As soon as the individual re-hydrates, he/she regains this water weight.
Health consequences of laxative abuse include:
Disturbance in electrolyte and minerals (improper functioing of vital organs, seizures)
Severe Dehydration (tremors, weakness, blurry vision, fainting, kidney damage, death)
Internal organ damage
Cathartic Colon Syndrome (anatomic and physiological changes in the colon that occurs with chronic use of stimulant laxatives. Signs and symptoms of cathartic colon include bloating, a feeling of fullness, abdominal pain, and incomplete fecal evacuation)
Binge Eating Disorder is characterized as recurrent episodes of binge eating that, on average, occur at least 2 days a week for 6 months. Persons with binge eating disorder feel the compulsion to eat large amounts of food and often feel out of control to stop. Even when very full, these individuals will continue to eat till to the point of nausea and extreme gastrointestinal distress.
Most people with this eating disorder are overweight and a great number of them are obese, as the compensatory behaviors seen in bulimia (i.e. laxative abuse, vomiting, etc.) are not present in binge eating disorder. Similar to other eating disorders, shame, isolation, and depression often plague the individual. (more…)