Sugar has become the most infamous antagonist in the world of wellness. More vilified than carbs, fat and even gluten, the sweet stuff is often painted as villainous, poisonous, all-powerful and all-destructive. Beyond the matter of nutrition, sugar holds symbolic ties to gender, race, religion, social status and even sexuality. It’s tinged with references to desire and indulgence, but also to corruption, sin, weak will and guilt. As a focus in historical, political, industrial and cultural debate, the connotations attached to sugar are far more complex than just a term for something we put in cake.
The Language of Sugar
Over the past year, sugar has been the subject of many a dramatic headline. It’s been called ‘the new tobacco,’ in the Daily Mail, suggested to be ‘more addictive than cocaine‘ by the Guardian, and the Telegraph named it ‘the most dangerous drug in the world.’ Meanwhile, health influencers continually write popular blogs and best-selling books about turning from ‘sugar junkies,‘ ‘hooked‘ and ‘dependent’ on cookies, ice cream and haribo, to going totally ‘cold turkey’ on the refined white crystals, psyching instead over bliss balls and ceremonial raw cacao. The most renowned online resource for sugar abstinence, Sarah Wilson’s I Quit Sugar plan, is almost like a glamourised rehabilitation programme, serving to ‘detox,’ followers of their addictive habits and get their back bodies into a ‘clean’ state. With all this talk of sugar ‘highs’ and ‘crashes,’ ‘fixes,’ ‘cravings,’ ‘habits’ and ‘withdrawals,’ it’s clear that our overall understanding of sugar is deeply embedded in metaphors of drug use and addiction.
I guess it’s no surprise then that emotions run high when the topic of sugar comes up. Stop anyone on the street and they’re sure to have an opinion on the sugar tax and declining size of Kit Kats. But are we right to demonise sugar in the same way we do critically harmful substances?
The Bitter Truth?
First, let’s clear up the big question. Is sugar actually addictive? I reached out to Nutritionist Pixie Turner (ANutr), aka Plant-based Pixie, to find out what the evidence suggests. Here’s what she had to say:
‘A review of sugar addiction studies in both human and rats found little evidence to support the idea of sugar addiction in humans. Even in rats, the addictive behaviours are argued to only occur due to the restricted and intermittent access to sugar – basically restricting and bingeing behaviour rather than a chemical addiction. The study conditions don’t resemble the typical human environment where we have access to food all the time, so I would agree with the researchers that they aren’t applicable. On top of that, any sugar “withdrawal symptoms” can arguably be “cured” by food that isn’t sugar, which further refutes the idea of a chemical dependency…’
The appropriateness of defining sugar as ‘addictive’ has also been questioned by psychologists. After reviewing the diagnostic and neurobiological concepts of ‘food addiction,’ researchers stated that whilst addiction is a superficially attractive explanation for the prevalence rates of obesity, calling food addictive overlooks the fact that tendency to overeat can be down to a whole host of factors, including genetic, emotional, psychosocial and circumstantial variants totally unrelated to the food itself. Therefore, ‘food addiction’ is not an evidence-based description of our consumption habits.
So, based on science, the representation of sugar as an addictive substance is inaccurate. Of course, you might ask what difference does it make? We know that too much sugar can be harmful and if likening sugar to addictive drugs has the intended effect of encouraging people to reduce their intake, then that can only be a positive thing, right? But language is pretty important. It has an influence over our perceptions and so, if labels are misused or misrepresented, especially ones linked to mental health and behavioural disorders, it can create some very dangerous beliefs about food and those who consume them.
Addiction is a hugely perjorative label, loaded with moralistic judgements about individual character. It suggests a lack of control and self-management, and as we often hear reports on addiction tied up in legal battles and criminal activity, the label comes hand in hand with stigmatising beliefs. Stigma in itself is incredibly damaging as it encourages shame, guilt and forces people into isolation. It can take a serious toll on mental health if attitudes are internalised, increasing susceptibility to depression. Mental health activists are already campaigning for the moralistic language of addiction to be reconsidered in order to avoid perpetuating negative stereotypes and biases that may dissuade people from seeking help when they need it.
A study published in the Journal of Basic and Applied Social Psychology found that the use of the label ‘food addict’ has an exacerbating effect on weight stigma. Those who were labelled ‘obese food addicts’ were more likely to receive higher stigma ratings than those labelled ‘obese,’ due to the implied blame that comes with addiction. With evidence suggesting that weight discrimination has negative health outcomes and doesn’t motivate individuals to pursue healthy behaviours but instead adds psychological distress, likening eating habits to an addiction is unlikely to encourage any long term positive changes for health and is more likely to result in a decline in wellbeing.
Given that sugar is already a target of the ‘bad,’ ‘sinful’ and ‘unclean’ dichotomising dialogue of dieting, no doubt talk of sugar addiction does nothing to help remedy the turbulent relationships with food that manifest from these attitudes. It only serves to contribute to food anxiety and makes it very difficult for individuals to feel at peace around food.
A Self-Fulfilling Prophecy
Labels have a fascinating way of creating the very thing they describe. The phenomenon, known as a self-fulfilling prophecy, occurs when expectations evoke cognitive and behavioural processes, which in turn make that expectation true. This behaviour has been documented in social class and academic achievement, prior offence records and subsequent criminal convictions, and even the diagnosis and prognosis of chronic illness.
Now, this doesn’t necessarily mean that being labelled a ‘sugar addict’ will result in addictive behaviours towards sugar. But what it can do is give meaning to certain behaviours which otherwise wouldn’t be of any consequence. For instance, if you’re someone who always needs something sweet after a savoury meal, you might worry that this is a sign of sugar addiction, rather than considering it a habit you’ve developed which could be replaced by something without sugar. Or if you find yourself reaching for sweet snacks throughout the day, you may attribute this to a dependence on sugar instead of questioning whether you had enough sleep or ate enough calories in your meals. Because we jump to the conclusion that eating sugar regularly is a sign of addiction, our actions both carry more stigma and become much harder to transform because we feel as though we’re fighting against something negative that is out of our control.
The problem with representing sugar as addictive is that it pathologises behaviours that are actually perfectly normal. Everyone has days when they want to eat a whole tub of ice cream in one go. Everyone has occasions when they just cannot stop thinking about the family pack of chocolate bars sitting in their kitchen cupboard. There could be a whole host of reasons why we eat sweet treats that have nothing to do with addiction, and there’s really no justification or benefit to portraying these behaviours as unusual in any way.
Interestingly, reviews of research on sugar addiction note that neurochemical changes in the brain were observed when animals consumed sugar after periods of intermittent fasting. As Pixie pointed out earlier, this is more reflective of binge and restrict tendencies usually identified as disordered eating rather than a physiological dependency. This may mean that restricting sugar could have an influence on addictive behaviours.
The common thing people do when they want to curb their sugar addiction is cut it out. Because there’s such a need to stay on track and a fear of slipping up, a number of rules are put in place around how much sugar is allowed, which sources, if any, are permissible, and when it can be eaten. The problem here? The more you try to restrict something, the more you crave it. So, what are you going to do when you’re gifted a box of chocolates for your birthday or find some leftover cake in the fridge? Eat the whole lot, of course. When you’ve starved your mind and body of something that it enjoys for so long, naturally you’re going to struggle with practising moderation when you do indulge. And afterwards, when you’re feeling guilty and ashamed for relapsing, you go back into the restriction mode until it happens all over again.
With addiction, there’s no grey area. You’re either on the wagon or you’re not. This means that the prospect of temptation carries a huge amount of anxiety because there’s always a worry of tipping the balance and getting hooked again. In these cases, social isolation is not uncommon, adding to an already unhealthy mental state.
No food should evoke fear and nothing should feel like it’s not permissible or acceptable to eat if you want it.
Concluding Food For Thought
It’s true, not every instance of the word ‘addiction’ is meant to entail a stigmatising dependency on food. When we enjoy something a lot and simply wouldn’t want to give it up, a colloquial use of ‘addiction’ is typical and for the most part won’t do any harm. Hell, I announce often enough that I’m a self-proclaimed peanut butter addict! But when those addictions venture into territories where they are problematised and made out to be more serious, more devastating and more uncontrollable than they are, that’s where a line must be drawn and we need to consider whether we are offering valid nutritional information or perpetuating food phobia.
Sugar in large quantities is not the recipe for health – no one is disputing this. But perpetuating a false representation of sugar won’t help people learn that balance and moderation are key. Perhaps if we stopped painting a such black and white picture, people may be more willing to adopt a healthy diet when they understand that it includes the things they love. Of course, that’s probably too much to hope for in the era of clickbait.
More like this