Sugar: Is it Addicting?

Note: This article was written in June 1992, after we had sumitted our manuscript for the Addictionary, but before it was published. We have not updated our research on sugar since then, but we think this is still probably pretty accurate.

Is sugar addicting? What about white flour? Wheat? Diet drinks? Is a food addict addicted to all foods, excess quantities of any foods, only certain foods, or what?

Some people say that sugar (and possibly flour, or even wheat) is exactly the same for the food addict as alcohol for the alcoholic. Others think that any specific foods in moderation, are OK. Some treatment programs for eating disorders even encourage eating “forbidden foods” like sugar, and say that occasional bingeing is to be expected.

I believe that there is a physical addiction that happens at the biochemical, neurotransmitter level, and that this imbalance can be affected by certain allergenic foods in fairly small quantities, by sugars or sugar-fat combinations in medium quantities, by almost any foods in excessive quantities, by starving, by purging, or even by thinking yourself into a binge!

The trouble is, I can’t prove any of this. And my challenge is: neither can you. For several years, I have hounded anyone vaguely considered an expert in this field to send me any studies or other remotely scientific evidence implicating sugar, or any other food substance, in addiction. At least a dozen people have promised to send me the information, and only one or two have done so. And I have yet to see any “smoking gun” that I could show to a skeptical physician or psychologist to prove my case about food addiction.

Wurtman Studies

Some food addiction programs cite the work by Judith and Richard Wurtman at MIT. In The Carbohydrate Craver’s Diet (1983) and Managing Your Mind and Mood Through Food (1986), Judith Wurtman spells out how eating some carbohydrate (not necessarily sugar), preferably without protein, can indirectly cause a release of serotonin, a neurotransmitter that affects your mood like a tranquilizer.

The Wurtmans don’t connect this with addiction, however. In fact, they say that low levels of serotonin cause carbohydrate craving, and offer plans to ease this deficiency by eating carbohydrates without protein, and to use high levels of protein and caffeine as an "upper" at other times.

Alcohol-Sugar Analogy

Let’s look at the idea that sugar to the food addict is like alcohol to the alcoholic. Is it the same? I think we would have a hard time convincing the general public of that. For one thing, it is easy to see the drug effect of alcohol. Most people who are drunk definitely appear drunk, for all to see. N0 one seriously doubts that alcohol is an intoxicating agent. But imagine the difficulty if you tried to prove in a court of law that someone was “sugared while driving.” Almost anyone would be concerned to see an airline attendant taking champagne into the cockpit. Few would be particularly upset to know that their pilot had just eaten a candy bar. It’s just not the same.

Several books talk about addiction to sugar, and give case histories, but report very few studies to back up their beliefs. These authors see, and I have seen, people who report a very high sensitivity to sugar in their foods. But normal people, and a good many food addicts, are not nearly so sensitive. While few would argue that sugary foods are nutritionally sound, the general public sees lots of people who eat a high sugar dessert without any observable intoxication or consequences, and would have difficulty believing that sugar equals alcohol. Alcoholics, especially, have trouble with the idea that sugar affects them like alcohol did. They remember quite well the profound effect that drinking had on them, and most of them know it is not the same, at least for them.

The Horoscope Effect

An alcoholic can virtually eliminate alcohol from his life, but a food addict will encounter simple carbohydrates (sugars) in almost all foods, to some degree. Anyone who says, “I don’t eat any sugar,” either knows little about human nutrition, or is saying a shorthand phrase that means, “I eat nothing that has a significant amount of added sugars in it,” and the word “significant” is open to interpretation.

I believe that there is a rather broad spectrum of sensitivity to sugar. Hardly anyone will show a reaction to the gram of dextrose (sugar) which is the first ingredient in a packet of Sweet’n Low, whereas few food addicts can occasionally eat a pint of ice cream without severe consequences. Food addicts who are over-concerned about small amounts of sugar in their foods become unable to tolerate a healthy but reasonably normal food plan. But if they are too lax, they may find themselves constantly fighting cravings and emotions may seem out of control.

Here I often see what I call the “horoscope effect.” If you can devise an ainoiguous set of symptorns that seems specific, people will identify with them. If food addicts are struggling with their abstinence, and you tell them that they are probably getting some hidden sugar in their food plan, they will certainly be able to find something that has it. Food addiction programs often describe symptoms of sugar withdrawal: headaches, irritability, difficulty concentrating, etc. They gloss over the fact that their patients have also been taken off caffeine.

A danger here is that many food addicts become paranoid about sugar in their food. When they find out that a food they ate has a small quantity of sugar in it, they panic, and the panic actually produces emotional chaos and cravings. This in turn convinces them they are super-sensitive to sugar. In fact, most food addicts experience cravings and emotional turmoil from time to time even if their intake of sugar is virtually nil.

Food Sensitivities

It would be nice to find one simple substance, like sugar (say, sucrose), to be the culprit. But some food addicts seem to be sensitive to flour, especially wheat flour. So some food addiction programs have said, “No sugar, flour or wheat.” But what if a particular food addict is sensitive to corn and not wheat? Or to nuts? Or to salty foods? Do we really know enough at this point to say that there is a One Size Fits All food plan that will avoid craving without also promoting obsession with diet mentality? I think not.

In fact, the more rigid a food plan is, and the more it focuses on weighing and measuring and “squeaky clean” adherence to an ideal, the more it becomes difficult to distinguish it from … well, the “D” word.

What do you even mean when you say “sugar?” Is it the white stuff we used to keep in our sugar bowls? That is sucrose, a disaccharide, or double molecule of the two monosaccharides, glucose and fructose. I have heard people say that eating fruit is OK because the sugar in it is fructose, not sucrose. Well guess what! The USDA booklet, Sugar Content of Selected Foods: Individual and Total Sugars (1987), clearly shows that most fruits and many vegetables actually contain a mixture of sugars. Raw apricots, bananas, cantaloupes, dried dates, grapefruits, mangos, nectarines, oranges, peaches, pineapples, and plums all have more sucrose than any other sugar. In fact, if fresh fruits were required to be labeled, the first ingredient would be water, and the next would be sugar! So would skim milk.

Sweet or Salty Fats

Several eating disorders therapists I know have taken very detailed binge histories of all their patients. They all report a surprisingly low percentage of food addicts who binged on sugar or flour without fat. Typically, they find someone who says, “Bread was my downfall. I could eat a whole loaf of French bread easily.” The therapist then asks, “Dry or with something on it?” “Oh, at least a stick of butter — it wouldn’t really tempt me dry.”

If sugar were the real culprit, wouldn’t we be seeing more people who would just eat it straight? How many cotton candy addicts do you know? We find lots of alcoholics who drank booze straight, don’t we? Why the apparent connection between sugar and fat, or salt and fat?

Harrvey Milkman and Stanley Sunderwirth, in Craving for Ecstasy: The Consciousness and Chemistry of Escape (1987), say that fat and flavor are related to the release of endorphins, the natural opiate-like neurotransimitters that produce calming and satisfaction. A full stomach releases serotonin. There are plenty of connections to suggest that compulsive eating is an addictive phenomenon, but it is at least as likely to involve fats and total quantity of food, as carbohydrates like starch and sugar.

Treatment Philosophies Based on Sugar

Treatment philosophies that try to equate sugar with alcohol are based on myth and shoddy science. Some of them convince their patients that the slightest quantity of sugar in their food will surely lead to relapse, hopelessness, and death. We have seen many of their graduates arrive home terrified that someone will slip them a salad dressing that has sugar higher than fifth on the list of ingredients.

Food plans that are given to food addicts are often descendents of the old Overeaters Anonymous “gray sheet,” a low carbohydrate diet. People who overly restrict their carbohydrate intake become hungry. Even if they don’t cheat on their food plan, the carbohydrate deprivation sets them up for a relapse.

Most of these people find it impossible to stay on the rigid food plan they were given in treatment, and when they get off it, they usually remember the prohibition against sugar, wheat, and flour, and try to avoid these, while they slowly and almost unconsciously add cheese, nuts, and other fatty foods.

They stop losing weight, become discouraged, and often abandon the food plan. Then they blame themselves and the sugar they have started eating for their failure.

Conclusion

It would be easier if we could simply identify certain foods that people with eating disorders should avoid, and we could make a direct translation between alcoholism and food addiction. Unfortunately, it just does not work. For one thing, the idea of avoiding all sugar is nutritionally unsound. And while many food addicts do seem to have some specific foods that encourage binges, these vary from individual to individual. Many food addicts binge on so many different foods that avoiding all of them creates a lot of food obsession anyway.

You can still use an addiction model in treating eating disorders — it just has to be based on better nutritional knowledge, an individualized food plan, and awareness that the Emotional, Mental, and Spiritual aspects of addiction are just as important as the Physical.

— Jan R. Wilson, 10 June 1992

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