New Study Challenges Sugar Addiction Claims

Last updated on November 4th, 2019

For years, we’ve been warned of the addictive dangers posed by sugar. From warm and gooey chocolate chip cookies to jelly-filled doughnuts, researchers felt certain that a steady diet of sinfully sugary treats not only packed on the pounds, it also created a physical addiction to sugar. Now, however, it looks like that train of thought was incorrect. According to new research from the University of Edinburgh (UE), there’s no reason to think humans can become addicted to the chemical substances in foods.

So, Sugar’s Not the Bad Guy?

The new EU-funded study, published in the September edition of Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews, took a hard look at the traditional scientific evidence that had labeled food addiction as a “substance-based addiction.” Instead of finding supporting facts, the researchers discovered that it’s not the sugar we’re addicted to – it’s the act of eating.

When it comes to unhealthy eating habits, the real Achilles heel is a psychological compulsion to eat until we feel the pleasure and satisfaction associated with certain foods. For example, there’s a unique sense of satisfaction that comes from eating chocolate. The researchers point out that people, as a whole, aren’t addicted to the sugar, carbs, or fats contained within these unhealthy foods. Instead, we are addicted to eating these foods for the sake of, well…eating.

Related: Understanding the Binge Eating Cycle: The Role of Dieting

The Unhealthy Relationship

The UE study doesn’t negate the fact that certain people can develop unhealthy food dependencies – especially for foods containing large amounts of sugar. Despite knowing the health risks, people continue to overeat and participate in “addictive-like relationships” with these foods.

Instead, the study’s authors suggest that a fondness for over-eating sweets should be looked at as a behavioral disorder.

The human brain responds differently to sugar than it does to addictive drugs. For example, eating a piece of chocolate pie doesn’t elicit the same neurological results as a shot of heroin. Whereas the body can become physically dependent on heroin, there is no such dependency on sugary foods. Instead of a physical addiction, people develop a psychological compulsion to eat these foods – one that’s driven by the positive feelings the brain associates with eating.

Simply put, sugar is not addictive. Instead, the study’s authors suggest that a fondness for over-eating sweets should be looked at as a behavioral disorder. They go on to draw a direct comparison to gambling addiction, pointing out that it’s a behavioral compulsion that draws gamblers back to the slot machines and card tables until they’re in financial ruin.

Treatment Going Forward

When people gain weight, it can be easy to blame the food. However, if over-eating is approached as a behavioral disorder, alternate treatments could offer better results. For example, if we can figure out why a person is overeating and help them transition to a healthy eating pattern, it goes without saying that he or she will lose weight and enjoy better overall health.

Learn more about treatment options for binge eating disorder.
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