Experts explain the effect of sugar on the body and whether its consumption can lead to addiction
The World Health Organization and psychology define addiction as a physical and psycho-emotional dependence, usually on drugs or alcoholic beverages, which leads to a generally uncontrollable consumption.
However, the colloquial use of the word “addiction” has further expanded the definition of the term, even being used to illustrate when a person is “obsessed” with anything from a TV series to food.
And when it comes to eating habits, as we see more and more early diagnoses of diabetes together with the increase in obesity levels, more debate about the relationship of some foods – mainly sugar – as the cause of possible “food addictions” .
We talked to experts in order to understand the relationship between sugar and its effects on the body, so it is possible to know if the consumption of certain foods can lead to dependence, as well as the difference between addiction and compulsion.
Is there an addiction to eating?
As popular as it is to say that we are addicted to a certain food, there is no indication that food can be addictives.
According to Amanda Menezes Gallo, psychologist and member of the multidisciplinary team of Ambulim (Ambulatory of Bulimia and Eating Disorders of the Institute of Psychiatry of Hospital das Clínicas), there are foods with high palatability – especially those rich in sugar and fats. In some people, they can activate the same regions of the brain where some illicit drugs or psychoactive substances act.
“There is no food addiction or dependence on food or sweets. What exists is activation in the brain – in some people – of regions of the reward circuit, a region activated when there is a feeling of pleasure. And because there is this feeling of pleasure arising from eating certain foods, this reference is created with addiction “, explains the psychologist.
The term “addiction to eating” may also refer to a more behavioral element. What can exist when eating food is the need to do or repeat a behavior in order to obtain pleasure, whether eating a candy or any other food.
According to Jônatas de Oliveira, a nutritionist and also a member of Ambulim’s multidisciplinary team, the desire to eat, also called desire, can have several facets, and changes as the intensity of desire increases.
“A specific desire can be programmed and fulfilled. The intense desire involves urgency, carries suffering and negative affection, with elaboration of what it would be like to eat something delicious (the person sees, imagines himself eating)”, explains Jonathan.
However, taking into account the pleasure of consuming certain foods, plus our contemporary eating habits and the problem of sugar we consume daily, this leads us to the question: is it really the fault of sugar?
Is sugar addictive?
One of the main reasons why sugar is seen as one of the great villains on the menu is due to its relationship with problems such as diabetes, heart and arterial diseases, obesity, reduced immune function, aging, stress and others.
However, it is necessary to understand, first of all, that sugar is nothing more than a simple and refined carbohydrate and that it, like any other food, is part of the daily diet of several people.
And just like any other nutrient, excessive consumption of sugar can in fact have negative consequences on the body. But can we really say that sugar is addictive?
“The high palatability of foods with sugar and fat ends up activating, in some people, regions responsible for pleasure in our brain. So it is natural, of the human species, to want to repeat what is good for us, what is good and what is good for us. it brings good feelings, and sugar for many people ends up occupying that place “, explains psychologist Amanda Gallo.
However, while the need to repeat something that involves pleasure and compensation may be similar to dependent behavior, addiction and addiction range from physical to emotional, psychological and behavioral impairment.
In a recently published study entitled “The body asks and the mind judges: Intense cravings for food in Eating Disorders (Oliveira & Cordás, 2020)”, exactly the relationship between prohibition and food craving is discussed.
“The feeling of suffering, awareness of the lack and the negative feeling make the person think that he is dependent on the desired target. It turns out that food is not addictive, so it is a suffering and a psychological mechanism that people call addiction, but it is not “, says an excerpt from the publication.
The? Demonization of food? and binge eating
Binge eating is a disease that comes under the classification of mental disorders with a multifactorial characteristic, that is, it does not have a single cause.
According to Jônatas de Oliveira, there is no specific food that causes binge eating or who must be present in an episode of binge eating.
That is why professionals in the field say that it is extremely misleading to directly associate binge eating with sugar or any other food.
“If a person proposes to ban some foods, he will target those he likes and those who are part of the food routine, that is, when obsessive thoughts and desires started to arise, the brain will come into contact with what is familiar, of the routine and that was recently consumed “, says the nutritionist.
Also according to Jônatas de Oliveira, restricting any element of food in a drastic and sudden way will cause psychological mechanisms of prohibition, self-control, stress and desire. “We tend to want what we don’t have, and what is needed too”, warns the nutritionist.
For him, the consequences of total sugar restriction are overeating and even compulsions in more vulnerable individuals.
How to create a balanced relationship with sugar?
Although there is an amount recommended by WHO (World Health Organization) for daily sugar consumption, in daily practice it can become more present than indicated.
Jônatas de Oliveira explains that establishing an exact consumption rule is quite difficult. What a healthy diet requires are care in selecting more nutritious foods, without being restrictive with yourself.
“People try to control hunger and don’t honor that signal. It’s interesting that they don’t try to hold their breath for a long time, because they know that this process will happen anyway. Getting energy to survive will also be a process that the body will prioritize, therefore putting you in physical (lack of energy) and emotional deprivation (under strict rules and thoughts of self-control) will cause increased thoughts about food, cravings and urgency to eat“, warns the nutritionist.
Another important point is to understand the dangers of demonizing any type of food and the role of each one, not only in the food chain, but also in our body.
More than cutting and excluding a single food from meals, it is necessary – and crucial – to vary the dishes and avoid overdoing any food.
Looking for professionals, both a nutritionist and a psychologist, can be instrumental in seeking to understand more deeply your individual relationship with food and its impacts on your life.