Addiction is a complicated diagnosis. Experts from multiple fields have a hard time pinning down what exactly defines an addiction, but certain behavioral components seem to usually be included. Preoccupation with certain behavior, loss of control, and suffering negative consequences all play a role. Depending on the thought or substance, defining addiction can also include building up a tolerance and signs of withdrawal when not using.
The most common addictive substances we see in America are currently alcohol, narcotics, and nicotine. Given our current obesity epidemic, it should be no surprise that addiction experts are starting to consider adding another substance to that list — processed sugar.
It does seem to tick a lot of boxes. Sugar can create a temporary high and spark energy. A mental connection between sugar and energy could potentially create a pattern of dependence, and addiction can emerge.
Depressed mood, anxiety, stress, and fatigue can all drive people to consume more processed sugar. Think of the satisfaction quick drive-through fast-food delivers during a busy workday or how comforting a pint of ice cream feels after an emotional breakup.
Binge eating can be quickly followed by feelings of guilt, shame, and disgust. Withdrawal symptoms could include mental fogginess, irritability, moodiness, and low energy. The word “hangry” comes to mind.
One small study has shown a possible genetic link between people suffering from self-perceived sugar addiction and their alcoholic parents. More research is needed to help establish this relationship, but it hints at a possible connection.
Yes, moderation is possible, and natural sources of sugar like fruit can be considered “healthy,” but the same could be said of alcohol — a substance that definitely has addictive potential.
Most tips to help curb dependence on processed sugar revolve around training both your body and mind. Here are three of my favorites:
Learn to separate cravings from hunger. Hunger is a feeling that your body requires nutrition. A craving is your brain craving the release of dopamine in the reward center of your brain — no matter the stimulus. The problem is that they can both happen at that same time.
When you are feeling hungry, force yourself to eat a healthy, filling meal instead of processed sugar. Consider keeping healthy snacks around in order to address the speed at which cravings can come on, but to save yourself from the easily available empty calories of fast or junk food.
When you feel a craving, exercise. This will help release endorphins and appease the reward center of the brain. If you are able, do a few push-ups or body-weight squats in place to release endorphins. If not, consider going for a brisk walk before eating.
If you can eat junk food occasionally without binge eating, congratulations — you are one of the lucky ones. If you feel an uncontrollable urge to binge after even a taste of sugary processed foods, however, consider the possibility of sugar addiction and consider asking for help. With the proper assistance and enough time, science has shown that addiction can be controlled and that cravings can weaken and eventually disappear.
Dr. Myers Hurt is a family doctor with Paris Family Physicians and blogs regularly at www.DrMyersHurt.com. His health articles are published every other Friday.