I’ve talked a time or two already about how my pre-diabetes diagnosis has me looking at various ways to reduce the amount of sugars and carbs in my daily food intake. What that also means is I have stumbled across so many books and websites that play on the tired old trope of “sugar addiction.”
I’m not going to amplify any of those sources here tonight—you can find them easily enough by making your own visit to Professor Google. Besides, you don’t need to know much more than the fact that this metaphor is out there loud and strong in the culture to be able to ride along with my complicated feelings on the topic. Mostly critique, but some small resonance, as well.
To begin with, I uniformly hate the ways that fat hatred and diet culture have played into the ubiquity of conversations about food addiction. I hate putting that sort of disease and disorder lens around a substance that we humans quite literally need to survive. It’d be like shaming each other for being addiction to breathing or to oxygen.
(Now I have Robert Palmer singing in my head “You might as well face it, you’re addicted to air.” And I think I’ve found tonight’s post title.)
I’m also appalled by the ways that—as with so many other pieces of diet culture—the conventional wisdom, the things that “everybody knows”—like, for example, that eating sugar lights up the same pleasure centers of the brain as cocaine does—isn’t well-supported by good science.
Conventional thinking about food and diets being more influenced by prejudices than by science? I am shocked! Shocked, I tell you!
Du Breuil and colleagues wonder where the headlines are about the research finding “little support for sugar addiction in humans,” as one comprehensive 2016 article in the European Journal of Nutrition concluded. Or the 2014 review in Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews finding a lack of support for the notion that the brain responds to food in the same way it does to, say, opioids. The research shows, among other key differences, that while similar neuropathways are involved in both drug and sugar consumption, the brain changes that lead to needing more and more cocaine to get the same high aren’t seen with sugar. (1)
With it being a couple of deadline-intense weeks at work, I’d be lying if I pretended I was completely immune to the stress of that. And as I’ve spent my weekend trying to get office work done and accomplish all the domestic-type things I need to do when I’m not at work, I’ve noticed myself being very strongly drawn towards the batch of snickerdoodles sitting in the cookie jar.
So I categorically defy the concept of sugar addiction whilst simultaneously remaining aware of my own tendencies towards baked goods as a way to self-soothe and provide comfort for myself in stressful moments.
And that’s a behavior I’ll keep thinking on to see what other modes of self-soothing and stress release I can access in my life. But even when I choose to go for that cookie (or doughnut or whatever), I don’t plan to demonize that instinct.
Framing any food as addictive also pathologizes human nature, some experts say. “There’s a part of the brain that’s job is to keep us alive, so it rewards us for doing things that sustain life, and those things include eating, having sex and moving,” as well as connecting with other humans and nurturing children, Du Breuil says. So if you want to call sugar an addiction, she and comrades point out, you should also be prepared to call the desire to hang out with friends and squeeze your toddler addictions too. The brain’s reward center “lights up” for them all. “We pathologize pleasure,” Gaudiani says.
Pathologizing women’s pleasure and autonomy? That never happens in diet culture. Except, of course, when it does. Which is, like, all the effing time.
So yeah, in my new pre-diabetes reality, I’ma gonna be a little bit more thoughtful about my love of snickerdoodles. But I ain’t gonna should on myself for those moments that I decide to have one or two.
(1) Can I mention in passing that the way this story’s headline calls the myth of sugar addiction “bullshit” gives me such joy.