The terms ‘food addiction’ and ‘sugar addiction’ are flooding the media these days. But what do they mean? Are they the same thing?

With obesity and its associated negative consequences on the rise – not only in North America and Australia, but around the world – researchers have been focusing a lot of attention on understanding the factors contributing to the epidemic.

While trying to understand what it means to be addicted to food – how this is possible and how it is and isn’t related to obesity, the new terms “food addiction” and “sugar addiction” are thrown around a lot and their sometimes interchangeable use can be confusing.

Distinguishing Sugar and Food Addictions

Food addiction describes the multifaceted process and experience of using (eating) food compulsively and developing chemical dependency to food products. While sometimes used interchangeably, sugar and food addiction are not one and the same.

Sugar naturally occurs in many foods including fruits and vegetables. This type of sugar, however, is not the cause of sugar addiction. But refined (processed) sugar is another story. Refined sugar is in almost every food product sold – chips, crackers, salad dressings, sauces – every one of these products contains sugar. And recent research has proven that sugar is actually a highly addictive substance.

And while sugar is quite addictive on its own, when laboratory perfected proportions of salt, fat and sugar are combined to create “highly palatable” food, these foods become even more addictive. Thus, we have an overall food addiction (typically to these ‘blissful’ foods) and a sub-type which is sugar addiction. As such, sugar is often one of the main culprits, but not the only factor influencing overall food addiction — which is why the terms are sometimes used interchangeably.

But what does that mean for those addicted to food? Unlike abstinence-based addiction treatment for drug and alcohol abuse, people cannot completely abstain from eating food. Instead, they must learn to avoid the foods that trigger the addiction.

Food Addiction: What Does it Look Like?

In order to get a better idea of what food and sugar addiction looks like, consider a common scenario that parallels our understanding of classic alcoholism and drug addiction

Picture two people buying one pint of ice cream each. The first person eats a small dish of ice cream as a treat two or three nights a week. The second person plans on only having one small bowl that evening, but by the end of the night the entire container has disappeared. Later, the same two people are in a grocery store. The first easily passes by the potato chip aisle with no strong feelings one way or the other. The second, no matter how hard he tries, cannot leave the store without giving in and buying junk food. In some cases, this person may be willing to pass on the junk food – but runs out to the corner store later that day when a craving strikes.

Most likely this is not a lack of willpower on the part of the second party. Their relationship with food has become an addiction similar to that of an alcoholic’s with alcohol, or a drug user’s with his drug. Their brain’s reward system has been re-wired to a degree that these sugary, fatty foods are all that satisfies their cravings and calm their mood.

The Science Behind Food Addiction

Now that we understand what food addiction looks like, we can start to look at the science behind the disease, and how some people develop a food or sugar addiction:

  • Sugar Affects the Brain Brain scans have repeatedly shown that sugar activates dopamine receptors in the brain in the same way as other addictive drugs. Much of the research surrounding the addictive properties of food is focused on sugar, which contributes to the notion that addiction to sugar is the underlying cause of food addiction. But it is not only sugar that is problematic and addictive.
  • Highly Palatable Foods Processed junk foods common on the market today have been scientifically formulated to contain the perfect combination of sugar, fats, and salt that create a “bliss point.” These highly palatable foods, such as potato chips, processed meats, and most other processed snacks are especially addictive, and are actually purposely created to be that way so that the companies who make them can reap a bigger profit. People do not binge on 5kg of apples or broccoli, but a large bag of chips (or two) can disappear in a flash for someone who has a food addiction.
  • Overeating Compared to Drug and Alcohol Abuse Binge eating can be compared to binge drinking — and both can lead to addiction. While not all people suffering from food addiction become obese, and not all obesity can be attributed to an addiction to food, it is a damaging side effect. Many people suffering from obesity describe their experience with eating and food similarly to those suffering from other addictions. This includes eating even when they do not want to (or know they should not), multiple failed attempts to cut back or stop eating certain foods, continued unhealthy eating despite the negative physical and social consequences, and experiencing physical craving and withdrawal symptoms when certain foods are unavailable.
  • Children, Sugar, and Addiction If sugar is an addictive substance which some say is comparable to cocaine and other drugs, then what does this mean for the future of our children who are consuming these sugary foods on a regular basis? Are they destined to become child sugar addicts? For the average family, sugar in the form of soda, fruit loops, chocolate chip cookies, flavoured yogurt, or other ‘typical’ child’s snacks is run of the mill. Most parents would never dream of removing these items completely from a child’s diet. However, they would never dream of handing their 10 year old a cigarette or a bottle of beer, would they? While there is a slight movement from health-conscious parents to remove refined sugars from a child’s diet, this is still an area where further discussion is required amongst addiction specialists, researchers, big food corporations, and the general public. What can food corporations get away with? And what amount of refined sugar is safe to consume for children? These are just some of the questions that need to be answered.
  • Vicious Cycle of Addiction Underlying all addictions is a sense of shame and guilt on the part of the user. This often propels the user into a vicious cycle. In the case of a food addict, it looks like this: I eat because I feel bad, I feel bad because my eating is out of control (or I am overweight) and I know I should not have eaten that, then I eat because I feel depressed, and then feel bad once again for overeating. This damaging circle just goes around and around.

Getting Help for Food Addiction

As with alcohol and other drugs, most people can and do use them without ever becoming addicted. Addiction is a disease that is present before a person ever takes their first sip. For those who are aware of their own genetic disposition to addiction, they can avoid consumption of drugs or alcohol to keep addiction at bay. But avoiding food is obviously not possible. Avoiding high sugar, high fat foods however – is possible.

Unfortunately, however, it is not as simple as that. The cravings will continue, and many people will give in. Without professional help, just as with alcohol or drug addiction, the chances of complete recovery are quite slim. Through cognitive behavioural therapy and The Cabin’s own Recovery Zones programme, food addicts can be taught to rewire their reward systems through a change in their thoughts and actions upon them.

Those in recovery from addiction to drugs or alcohol are especially susceptible to food addiction as they try to curb substance cravings with what they believe is a ‘harmless’ food indulgence. This can quickly lead to food addiction.

Food addiction is a very serious disease which can cause mental, physical and social problems in the addict’s life. If you would like to overcome food addiction there is help available.

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