Sugar: Physical Addiction, Emotional Craving?

This is Part 4 in a 4-part series on Sugar and Other Sweeteners.

(1) Sugar Is Toxic: Heart Disease, Cancer & More
(2) Sugar: How Much Is Too Much?
(3) Artificial Sweeteners Make You Fat (3a: Health Risks of No-Calorie Sweeteners)
(4) Sugar: Physical Addiction or Emotional Craving?

One of the most frequent questions in the Normal Eating Support Forum is whether to cut out sugar in the early stages of recovery. For most emotional eaters, sugar is a two-edged sword: They feel out of control with it so cutting it out completely seems like the only solution. But when they cut it out completely, they eventually end up bingeing on it.

Is this apparent addiction physical or emotional, and what is the way out? Is it possible for an emotional eater to become a normal eater who eats sugar occasionally, as described in Part 2 of this series?

Is Sugar Physically Addictive?

Research shows that sugar can be physically addictive. Eric Stice, a neuroscientist at the Oregon Research Institute, uses functional MRI scans (fMRIs) to study how the human brain responds to sweetness (from 60 Minutes interview). When you taste something sweet, the neurotransmitter dopamine activates the reward centers of the brain, just like with alcohol or recreational drugs. Also, people who frequently eat or drink sweet foods seem to build up a tolerance, just like drug and alcohol users. (See the original study by Kyle Burger and Eric Stice, or this summary description.) The more often you eat a sweet food, the less the reward centers of your brain are activated by it. Since none of the subjects in the study were overweight, these brain changes seem to precede obesity. Perhaps people eat more more of the sweet food to feel the same pleasure.

If a person is not an emotional eater, they can say, “Okay, no sugar” and that is that – just as someone who is not an alcoholic can easily decide to stop drinking if it turns out to be a health problem. But for emotional eaters, it’s not so easy. They need to address the emotional issues first (or simultaneously) to be able to do it.

Many of the researchers were so alarmed by their findings that they themselves sharply reduced their sugar intake. They were able to immediately do this, despite the fact that sugar also has been found to have addictive qualities, because they were not emotional eaters.

25% of obese people do not have insulin resistance (just emotional eaters, I say!)

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