Along with gluten and dairy, sugar seems to be one of those heavily demonized food ingredients. I say ingredient because as a culture, we tend to throw around the phrase, “addicted to sugar”…but when in reality, we aren’t sitting on the couch with a 5 lb bag of sugar and a spoon. We are eating foods with sugar in them. We’ll talk about that more in a bit.
Sugar is one of the main foods that a client and I spend a lot of time decreasing anxiety around when working together. Sugar is one the main foods that you will hear intelligent health professionals tell people to eliminate because it’s inflammatory. Because it causes acne and brain fog and other symptoms that we blame sugar for. As a culture, and health profession as whole, I think we’ve created a very extreme and unscientific view of sugar. The diet industry’s success centers around pseudoscience, fear mongering, and low self esteem. And the conversation around sugar feels similar to the conversation around diets.
The word “diet” that we use when talking about diet culture doesn’t just include the South Beach and Atkins diet, it also includes all the rigid ways of eating we’ve cloaked in the word “lifestyle.” Any way of eating that applauds weight loss, tells you to count points or macros or calories, or labels certain foods/food groups as bad/damaging/off limits and other foods/food groups as good/allowed/permitted is a diet. Diet culture is a system of beliefs that equates thinness to health, encourages weight loss as means of success and demonizes certain ways of eating while glorifying others. So no matter what label you want to throw on eating, if it aligns with any of the above it’s a diet. That includes a 21 day sugar detox, clean eating, a non-toxic lifestyle, Whole30, paleo, vegan (if it aligns with the above), keto, autoimmune diets, weight watchers, low carb….all of that. Most of us have been there, myself included, dipping our toes (or full on face diving) into the alluring world of diets. But food is not that black and white.
I think what is most frustrating is that either consciously or subconsciously, the diet and healthcare industries take advantage of the general public’s vulnerability – people who don’t know how to tease through the scientific literature, or don’t care to take the time because how many people not in healthcare open up PubMed on a Saturday morning?? Not many. I wouldn’t either. People trust their health care practitioners to give them evidenced based information and lead them to sustainable health. And I think those of us who are healthcare professionals need to recognize the trust and authoritative voice our patients and clients give to us – it’s our responsibility to protect them from fear mongering pseudoscience….not encourage them to live by it.
Marci Evans, a friend and colleague here in the Boston area, is beyond knowledgable in the area of food addiction (or lack thereof) and knows the scientific literature surrounding this topic very well. I’ve learned a ton from listening to her speak and by delving into the research myself. If you’re interested, I highly recommend listening to some of the podcasts she’s been on. Between listening to her speak and reading journal articles myself, there are a few things we can confidently conclude. First, the idea of a particular food being addictive has zero scientific evidence to back it up. The research that does argue for the idea of food addiction, utilizes the Yale Food Addiction Scale which is based on a person’s own experience and doesn’t take into account food restriction. We know based on the neuroscience that when a food or foods are restricted, the reward of that food or foods is increased. That’s a biological survival mechanism! People feel they are “addicted” because they feel out of control and chaotic around certain foods, but that is very different than a food substance being physiologically addicting.
What I’ve also learned is that when people claim sugar lights up the same regions of the brain as cocaine or other drugs, that isn’t fully true. In the studies done on rats, that only happens under forced deprivation aka dieting. Like we talked about above, under deprivation and restriction a person’s reward response is heightened. We could go on and on about this for hours, but I think the take home point is that food has an enhanced reward response under conditions of restriction and deprivation either mentally or physically. Food and drugs do share neural pathways, but the brain does not develop a physiological dependency on food substances. Headlines and sweeping statements might seem compelling because as a society, we love to be able to control – food and exercise are areas we are really good at controlling – but the story is far more complex.
Based on everything we just talked about, we can see how eliminating sugar wouldn’t make you “less addicted” to sugar. It actually ENHANCES your reward response and you want it more. Sure, you might be able to not eat sugar for a set amount of time in the short term, but eventually your biological primal drive to eat will win out over willpower (every time) and you will find yourself in a chaotic eating situation with sugar. Which then further solidifies the self fulfilling prophecy that you cannot be controlled around sugar…or any food that you restrict for that matter. Eliminating or telling yourself you can’t have sugar or you can only have x amount of sugar doesn’t make you more competent and in control around sugar, it makes you more crazy around sugar or any other food you restrict. Although the scientific evidence to support the idea of food addition is lacking, I do want to acknowledge that the lived experience of feeling out of control with food or feeling “addicted” to food that I myself and maybe many of you reading have experienced is real. But we are not powerless around food. Maybe you feel like that right now, but as you develop new eating skills and learn to decrease your vulnerabilities around certain foods, you can grow to feel fully competent and in control around all foods. I truly believe that.
I want to touch on the claim about sugar being inflammatory here for a second. First, inflammation is seen as a bad thing, when inflammation is actually the the body’s natural healing process. We need inflammation to survive in this world. The problem with these studies on sugar and inflammation is that they are isolating sugar in the form of fructose, glucose or sucrose (aka having subjects drink a pure sugar drink that equates to about a 1/4 cup of sugar) and then are drawing conclusions based on that. WHAT?! How many of us sit down and drink 1/4 cup of simple syrup without any other food? So taking a study result that found increased inflammatory biomarkers when people drank a drink resembling straight up sugar syrup and then saying the sugar in your cookie is inflammatory and will cause chronic disease is straight up bad science. Cookies have fat and protein and other nutrients in them as well that are going to alter the metabolism of the sugar itself. There is failure to acknowledge the limitations in these studies and to look at the totality of the evidence.
There are a lot of things that are inflammatory. Stress is inflammatory! And I’m going to step out on a limb and conclude that micromanaging sugar intake that closely or eliminating it all together creates a lot of psychological stress. The air I breathe in Boston is inflammatory. Smoking and alcohol are inflammatory. Lack of sleep is inflammatory. Our bodies can handle inflammation. In no way am I saying that sugar is a “health food” and that we should eat sugar all day without regard to how we physically feel. Not at all. And I’m also not saying that we should disregard our physical health and just go inflammatize (that’s not a word :)) ourselves with cigarettes, loads of coffee, six hours of sleep and fast food three times a day. If the end goal is intuitive eating and honoring our physical health in addition to our mental and emotional health…you won’t lead that life. Caring for and respecting your body won’t lead you to that lifestyle. Just like restricting your calorie intake or food groups and exercising in a regimented way leads to dissociation from your body, eating very little, if any, physically nourishing foods every day and not getting sleep and waking up with coffee and going to bed with wine…that also happens when we dissociate from our body’s needs. Almost everyone would agree that daily excessive sugar intake isn’t necessarily adding to our physical health. But excessive is very, very different than enjoying a cookie or a glass or wine or maple syrup on your pancakes or a piece of fruit for heaven’s sake. Claiming the metabolic effect of drinking pure sugar in liquid form is the same as eating sugar within a balanced diet (aka intuitive eating) that honors your physical and psychological health is irresponsible and unsupported by the literature.
Lastly, if you’re reading this and thinking….but I’m recovering from disordered eating or an eating disorder or I’m starting intuitive eating and I’m eating more sugary foods than ever before… THAT IS OKAY and normal and part of the recovery and IE process of coming to a peaceful and full permission place with all foods. Like we talked about in the beginning of this post, in the presence of restriction, we experience a heightened reward to those restricted foods. You won’t always crave brownies, ice cream, cookies, donuts etc at this increased frequency, but you will continue to crave them all the time until you give yourself permission to eat them whenever you want them. Meaning you release that restriction that enhances your reward response to that food. In the beginning of your intuitive eating journey you may feel like all you want are these types of foods, but be patient and give yourself time. And if you find that you are highly distressed over incorporating these types of foods, I’d really encourage you to find a dietitian that has expertise in the area of eating disorders and intuitive eating – whether that’s myself or many, many other amazing RD colleagues I know and am happy to refer you to.
I’d love to hear your comments and thoughts below! I enjoy having healthy and respectful discussion around these topics so please share!
Megan @ A Continual Feast says
SO MUCH good info here!!! A lot of it was new info to me, like how those rat studies were actually done under forced deprivation. Crazy! Also agree one thousand percent with this statement: “But excessive is very, very different than enjoying a cookie or a glass or wine or maple syrup on your pancakes or a piece of fruit for heaven’s sake.” Let’s all just relax and enjoy our desserts without villainizing sugar!
So glad you enjoyed it Megan!
Beth Huffman says
I use to yo-yo diet and food restrict and I have experienced first hand exactly what you said. I wanted the foods even more after I restricted it. However, I recently had a new experience. I had a tooth rot and my dentist said I had several more teeth ready to rot and I needed to give up sugar. The cost of having my rotted tooth repaired was $3000.00. I easily gave up sugar and no longer crave or want it because I just think about how I love my teeth more than sugar. I have lost 25 pounds in doing so since I have given it up Jan 1 . I eat all the fruit I want (natural sugar) and have not once experienced wanting to reward myself with the refined stuff that made my teeth rot.
The only problem is that “excessive” is an established amount, by disease organizations, and it’s a lot less than what most of us consume if left to our bodys “intuitive” choices. This article also excludes the studies that show that sugar significantly increases risk of depression, causes anxiety symptoms, andgreatly raises risk of heart disease. We may not drink a quarter cup of sugar by that much can easily show up in the foods we eat. Another study that has been left out is that when given a choice between cocaine or sugar, rats chose sugar. A lot of fallacies and misinformation here
This is what I’m thinking, as well as the personal experience of eating WAY too much sugar for years. I haven’t been restricting sugar at all, and yet still just want to eat more and more of it. I want to eat, and have eaten, sugary things all day. But thinking back to when I didn’t have the means of having sugary things around, I wasn’t thinking about it all the time like I am now. No restricts or limitations, and all I do is eat sweet things.
I can’t tell you how refreshing it was to read this. I was literally beginning to drive myself crazy trying to follow all the latest nutritional “research” that is touted in the mainstream news. Oh, alcohol and sugar are linked to cancer…well I guess I can’t have those anymore…I can’t tell you how many things I’ve cut out in the name of disease prevention. I’m so glad I found your blog and I’m so thankful for the work you’re doing. It’s hard to tune out ‘diet culture’ and the fear that comes with it, but your balanced and sensible approach is helping me to undo all of it slowly.
All the nitty gritty details will drive anyone crazy so you’re not alone! Stress is what is going to kill us all in the end I think lol. So glad you are here and welcome! 🙂
So much good info! I’m still taking it all in and trying to digest and apply to my own life. I know this isn’t true, but I feel like there is such a fine line between eating an “acceptable” amount of sugar and eating too much. I’m still learning intuitive eating, so very much in the process of “releasing that restriction that enhances your reward response to that food.” The whole idea of unconditional permission to eat is overwhelming!
As you go along in your process of IE, you will learn how to nourish your body 🙂 Giving permission can be overwhelming but having some support (and RD or therapist) might be helpful! Email me if you need some recommendations <3
Robyn, Your words are truly a BLESSING and a breath of much needed fresh air in this world for people like me who struggle with disordered eating. Trying to find a balance between happy and healthy is difficult in a culture that vilifies SO many of the foods that are meant to be enjoyed in a responsible, reasonable way. You have more impact than you know and I hope that you realize how much GOOD you are doing. I relate to every single one of your posts and will continue to follow you for as long as you wish to write. THANK YOU!!
Your words mean so much Laura <3
Those sneaky lifestyles that are diets in disguise!! As I have come to the surest footing I’ve ever had in my eating disorder recovery, I have definitely noticed a shift in my desire for sweets. I used to be able to down a pint of ice cream and still want more. If I did that now I would end up feeling sick. I still love sweets, don’t get me wrong, but the urge to eat a ton in one sitting has definitely decreased. I still get nervous having certain things in the house, however. I am working on that with my dietitian now. The ED voice is really sneaky. It’s a fine line between wanting to keep as many nutritionally dense choices on hand as possible and never having anything “fun” in the house because it ends up calling to you from the cupboard. One thing I will say has made a huge difference is being really cognizant of the media and messages that I consume. I deleted so many accounts from my Instagram feed that promoted disordered eating and followed a ton of HAES, non-diet people instead. I’ve realized that when I read even one tiny sentence that suggests “sugar is terrible” or sugar should be associated with feelings of guilt or clean eating is the only way to health, beauty, freedom, inner sunshine-out-of-your-butt peace, etc…even though I know that’s not how I think any more, those old pathways in my brain are triggered and thoughts will pop in questioning that caramel popcorn I had with lunch or the pretzels dipped in Nutella my husband and I are going to dive into tonight . I am learning what kind of messaging serves me and slowly practicing on letting all the other noise float right on by.
One thing I will say has made a huge difference is being really cognizant of the media and messages that I consume. I deleted so many accounts from my Instagram feed that promoted disordered eating and followed a ton of HAES, non-diet people instead. I’ve realized that when I read even one tiny sentence that suggests “sugar is terrible” or sugar should be associated with feelings of guilt or clean eating is the only way to health, beauty, freedom, inner sunshine-out-of-your-butt peace, etc I lol’d at that last part 🙂 This is so so so key so thank you for sharing Hillary!!
Meah Konstanzer says
That’s so interesting that those studies were done on restricted rats. I can totally attest to th fact that withholding something like sugar can really lead to an urge to overconsume it once you get the chance. That’s why I’ve found giving yourself freedom to eat dessert whenever and such is really the key to a good relationship with sugar. But, I do think it’s important you stay mindful so you’re not eating ice cream just because it’s there and a habit, but rather because it’s what you want right then. In terms of effects of sugar though, I’ve found my body can be sensative to it. I really don’t like when things taste “too sweet” (I probably have a different option of what this is than others) and there are a lot of bars or bakery desserts where when I have them it goes right to my head and I get a sharp headache. For that reason, I like baking things at home where I can make the ingredients suit me or getting desserts from higher quality places because they seem to focus on the flavor and taste of their beyond just sweet.
Mindful consumption and mindless consumption of sugar are certainly two different things — mindlessness dissociates you from your body. Which can happen sure from time to time but being aware of when it does is helpful.
I love this! This is such great information about sugar. I really like your point about the studies on sugar and how they were giving participants a 1/4 cup of a sugar syrup. There’s very few instances where someone will get that much sugar at one time, and normally there are other nutrients to slow down that digestion. That was a big aha moment for me! Thank you for sharing great information.
yes it was 50g of fructose, glucose or sucrose. Far different than eating sugar in a cookie. So glad you found it helpful!
Lauren Zampieri says
I’m hugely appreciative of this impeccably times post – the esthetician I go to for waxing and facials JUST told me I need to eliminate dairy and sugar. I’ve been sitting with this for a few days and then realized the majority of my skin issues come from stress and the stress-response I’ve developed in touching/picking my face. Soooo, no, I will not buy $250 worth of skin care and eliminate dairy/sugar until the root of the issue is addressed. Clarity and peace are beautiful things in an often convoluted world!
Oh man. That is where we have to ask, “is this person in their own lane?” I’m sure she is a lovely esthetician and woman, but probably not someone credentialed in nutrition. I hope this brought some clarity and peace in addition to this post I did on skin health. https://www.thereallife-rd.com/2018/01/skin-issues-and-how-to-heal-them/
Love to you!
“Is this person in their own lane?” The answer to this question is NO, like, 85% of the time, I swear. Especially with the internet and social, where everyone has a platform to say whatever they want.
I’m not selling you. Im truly in a place of recovery myself. I manufacture a pure collagen called Shore Magic. It really takes care of acne with no change in diet. Just wanted to share that.
Such a great and informtative article, Robin! Thank you for being such a refreshing voice in this community.
Maggie Niemiec says
Robyn, YES. I wish I could “like” this a thousand times. Thank you! I especially loved this part. So much truth!
“Lastly, if you’re reading this and thinking….but I’m recovering from disordered eating or an eating disorder or I’m starting intuitive eating and I’m eating more sugary foods than ever before… THAT IS OKAY and normal and part of the recovery and IE process of coming to a peaceful and full permission place with all foods.”
love to you maggie!
Thank you, Robyn! Love these posts
Really appreciate this post. I know so many who demonize sugar or who are even currently in a diet of “giving up sugar”, which I think is funny because sugar is something our body needs to survive! I wish this message was more vocalized in the health community.
so glad you enjoyed it Abbie!
Amber @ Bloom Nutrition Therapy says
Such a great post! I hate to say it… but I used to be one of those people that would happily instruct everyone about how sugar “lights up reward centers in the brain.” (Shakes head and slaps forehead). Through Intuitive Eating, I definitely learned otherwise and that all foods can fit and be enjoyable, even sugary ones. You know what else lights up reward centers in the brain? Hugs. 🙂
YES!! So many things light up reward pathways because they are SUPPOSE TO. Laughing lights up reward pathways….that doesn’t mean we stop laughing.
While these are good points and I tend to agree that sugar is overly demonized, all I know from my own experience is that sugar begets more sugar. The more I eat it, the more I want to eat it, even though I get instant sugar headaches and feel like crap half the time afterward. I still include it in my diet, but I also restrict certain types of sugar that I know are the fast-track to feeling physically terrible. Homemade cupcakes – yes. Handfuls of cheap Halloween candy throughout the first week of November – no. It’s okay to have reasonable limits and to prioritize feeling better over going so far in the anti-diet direction that you actually cause yourself physical discomfort.
Hi Liz – I believe Robyn is saying just that – that we do not want to demonize any foods but if we listen to our bodies and live without restriction, we will want to avoid things that make us feel sick. That will be different for each of us and it sounds like you know what it is for you. Also I wonder if the candy you are speaking about is more pure sugar type vs cupcakes which have a variety of ingredients. That said, sometimes when starting IE, we may eat a lot of a food that makes us feel sick because we have restricted it and are this is part of the process of learning to trust we truly can have whatever we want, whenever we want. That is how I hear the message anyway – hope it is helpful for you.
Hi Liz. Thanks for sharing your own experience and for commenting. I’m wondering if you’re speaking of being in a situation where you’re dissociating from how your body physically feels when eating sugar? Or eating are high sugar food by itself, that can also cause us to not feel physically well vs eating a piece of halloween candy with a handful of nuts as an afternoon snack – that would keep your blood sugar more stabilized. Sometimes it might be the quantity of the food not the food itself that makes us feel bad and that can be a journey of learning what feels best in your body. Restricting foods can often make it hard to be mindful around them. I hope that helps shed some light!! <3
Krista K says
Great post! I love that you’re spreading awareness! I’ve been surrounded by family members who really thrive on the elimination diets and it drives me crazy when foods are labeled as ‘good’ and ‘bad!’
That being said, I’m 31 weeks pregnant and had to take the glucose test a few weeks ago. With my first pregnancy, I had no trouble and passed the 1 hour. How we, with this pregnancy I failed it and then had to do the 3 hour test, and passed. Your comments on the sugar syrup in this post had me wondering what your opinions are on using the glucola drink as an accurate way to measure blood sugar levels. I definitely don’t feel like it’s normal to drink straight up sugar water and expect to pass when that’s not something on generally consume! Just curious about your thoughts!
Thanks again for the great and informative posts!
Krista K says
Also, sorry for the typos…currently chasing a toddler around! 🤦🏼♀️
That’s a really interesting question Krista because you’re right, we don’t drink straight up sugar usually. I’ve never actually thought about this but now you’ve given me food for thought! I’ll have to educate myself more before I form an opinion. Congrats on your baby!!
Erin Drum says
This is amazing. You’re amazing. Thanks for sharing the science! So helpful. Gosh, I want to read this over and over and send it to everyone I know. SO good. xoxo
so glad you found it helpful!
Love your view on everything!! You are the voice of reason in a crazy diet obsessed world!!
Emily Swanson says
I love and appreciate how balanced you are in this post Robyn. It’s especially helpful that the studies on sugar were done with the test subjects ingesting pure sugar, and I love how you reminded us that pure sugar is not equal to a cookie. And it’s so true that the sweet cravings do not last forever in recovery. But I have noticed, just like you said, that the more I restrict sugar the more desperately I want it. But if I know I can have it, I usually don’t want it in huge amounts.
Thank you so much for sharing your experience Emily!
Jessica Levinson, MS, RDN, CDN says
Such a great post. I’ve written and talked about this topic so many times and yet this is a myth that will just not go away. Sharing your article now!
Thanks for sharing Jessica!!
I really appreciate this perspective and am really happy the conversation is moving past extremes. I would just like to mention that as someone who both struggles with a semi-recovered eating disorder and a lot of very real food intolerances and allergies, sometimes posts like these make me feel incredibly guilty because I am “not intuitive enough” and invalidates the things I need to do to feel good so that I can actually enjoy eating things that don’t make me feel sick. I realize that ultimately what you’re saying is “do what works for you” and I think that’s great, and a super individualized process 🙂 Just wanted to add that perspective for others who might be in my position.
Hi Elena, I am so glad you posted this. I think IE looks different for EVERYONE because everyone’s body is different. It’s never really about the behavior itself, but the motivations behind it. If someone is truly allergic to dairy, avoiding diary doesn’t mean they aren’t intuitive – it actually means they ARE intuitive because they are listening to their body and an allergic reaction is your body saying, nooooo we don’t like that. IE is bringing together head and body knowledge vs just head knowledge like we tend to do. So glad you brought this up! IE is NOT a one size fits all. <3
Thank you for responding! The support you give your readers is really wonderful.
WONDERFUL article. Thank you so much for taking the time to really delve into this topic and share the research. Personally, the scientific research (or lack thereof of credible research) really piques my interest and resonates with me- so I loved this post! So interesting and a much-needed breath of fresh air. Sharing immediately!
So glad you enjoyed it Anya!
This is super interesting and I love hearing new takes on sugar and addiction.
I have a few questions for you..I was wondering what you thought about the issue of candida and how certain bacterial overvrowths crave sugar—to me that feels addicting as someone who’s struggled with this.
And as it relates to your mitochondria, when they’re used to getting their energy source from sugar instead of fat isn’t there science to show they can affect your willpower and lead you to strongly crave sugar. Going off of Dave Aspreys take on this…
And lastly wondering what your thoughts are on the studies that show the link between sugar and growing tumors, how they “feed” cancer. Is that hyperbolic to you? Curious to hear your thoughts on these! Thanks!
Hey Natalie, I would have to research this a lot more with candida. I also feel like I see this diagnosis quite often but I’m unsure about the validity of the diagnosis. I think when we talk about extreme medical conditions, the therapeutic effect and healing power of food can be powerful. But for the everyday person, they aren’t fighting cancer. I hope that helps!!
I too, have suffered from significant Candida symptoms because I LOVE the taste of sugary foods. Doctors had no clue how to help me so I started researching on my own – extensive research. One of the aspects of my continued healing is that I significantly restrict – not eliminate- sugars. I found too, that they do indeed cause inflammation in my body and cause terrible headaches. I’ve also noticed that if I have sugars in the morning- pancakes, cinnamon rolls, etc – that I’m more prone to crave them all day. I allow myself a small treat after a nutritious lunch and another after dinner and try to keep those as nutritious as possible on most days. Thanks to Candida I have to be wheat and dairy free which helps restrict some desserts. If someone is having health issues I whole heartedly believe and elimination diet can be helpful, eliminating the big three – dairy, wheat/gluten, and sugar. While others believe my “diet” to be restrictive I beg to differ, I am so much healthier than before and am proud that my food repertoire has greatly expanded!
Michelle baker says
This was by FAR the best info and post I’ve seen regarding this topic! So clear and relatable and genuine:)
glad you enjoyed!
Anna S says
I really like your approach this topic but I have to say, I feel like I get more addicted to sugar the more I eat it. I was eating chocolate (like Reeses/snickers, not good quality chocolate) after every meal for a while (breakfast, lunch, dinner) and became obsessed. I thought about it all the time. Now I try not to have chocolate/desserts during the week and just enjoy them on occasions or the weekends and it works for me. My cravings have drastically decreased! And now when I eat chocolate/sweets, I actually enjoy them instead of eating them out of routine with little pleasure. I’m sure everyone is different and this might drive some people crazy but it’s working for me so I’m going to stick with it as I think it’s healthier that eating multiple Reeses after every meal.
Hi Anna! Thanks for sharing. I’m wondering if while you were eating the chocolate you were either 1) telling yourself you shouldn’t be eating it or you should only eat x amount? Or if there was an emotional component there (which is totally normal) but we want to have many ways to soothe ourselves. Or if eating the chocolate was a mindful experience or a mindless, more automatic experience? It sounds like there wasn’t much pleasure in the chocolate after meals or you weren’t focused on it so you craved more to experience that pleasure?
I cannot thank you enough for sharing such an important message with the “wellness world.” Every word you wrote was spot on, and grounded/supported by scientific evidence and research. It’ was also clearly organized in a way that sheds light on your personal wisdom and insight. Again, thank you!
As someone in recovery from an eating disorder, I’ve fallen victim to the hyperfocus on demonizing sugar (and other food groups—the “lifestyle diets”). I have found myself in my own head, at a mental war of sorts over having a piece of fruit, or a Rise Bar, or some Greek yogurt, or even the liquid nutritional supplements that I need to have daily. “But all of these have sugar…” my mind warns, and I back down from the opportunity to challenge myself (and the ED) to truly tune into my body and soul, asking it what it truly needs/wants in that moment.
By adhering to these messages we hear all over the wellness platform of social media, we’re distancing ourselves more and more from our true, intuitive nature. I myself struggle with this greatly, and each day brings the difficult, uncomfortable task of rekindling that authentic relationship with my body and my soul.
Your posts have been a source of inspiration and hope, knowing that intuitive eating IS possible; recovery IS achievable and worth so much more than labels, numbers, and lifestyle subscriptions; that life is truly worth living fully and freely.
Thank you so much for sharing your comment Brianna! It truly is a mental war that we will never “win” since the opinion on nutritional details are every changing – and like you said they pull us farther and farther away from our body’s wisdom. SO much love to you!!
I really appreciate your approach and that you include scientific studies. I did find it interesting though that one of the author’s had significant conflicts of interest:
“J.M. Rippe’s research laboratory has received unrestricted grants and J.M. Rippe has received consulting fees from ConAgra Foods, Kraft Foods, the Florida Department of Citrus, PepsiCo International, The Coca Cola Company, the Corn Refiners Association, Weight Watchers International and various publishers.”
I love so many points in this article, but it left me with one observation and one question:
– Observation: I think people use the word “addiction” quite loosely in many regards, not to necessarily sensationalize (although that happens, too) but to compare the feelings. There have been many evenings where I’ve “needed something sweet,” and feel anxious until I get it – and because I’ve never been addicted to substance, that’s the closest feeling I can associate with addiction (as a person always-recovering from ED). I know it’s not a true physical addiction, but it’s hard for me to distinguish.
– Question: I wonder how many people *do* consume sugary drinks without simultaneously eating other food. I’m thinking of former coworkers who drank giant sodas all day long, a family member who only drinks coffee (no breakfast) in the morning with no milk, but a heap of sugar, etc. I wouldn’t say it’s most people, but I think the occurrences might be more often than we’d originally guess.
Just some thoughts to add to the conversation. My dermatologist would be thrilled to see you promote the mesaaage that sugar does not equal acne – she’s been preaching this for years!
This post is so timely for me. I’m eating a pan of homemade brownies this week, and I noticed that I’m having stronger cravings for them than I typically do for other sweets that I keep around. I sat down and thought about it, and realized that I hadn’t allowed myself to make these brownies in nearly a year, even though I have craved them on multiple occasions. Now that I’m working my way through intuitive eating, I followed the craving and made them, and let myself have a piece each night as I wanted it…until last night, I found that I didn’t really want any! (I’ll also add that I ate WAY too big of a piece that first night and felt sick lol. Noted, body, noted.)
Working through one “fear food”, one day at a time has been so helpful for me, I thought maybe this example would resonate with other readers.
Intuitive eating is the real deal. It takes work, and you have to be mindful, but it WORKS. With sugar, with cheese, with French fries, with kale. It. Works.
Thank you, Robyn <3
Also, I WILL be finishing them as intuitive eating guides me to, just in case anyone’s worried lol.
Robyn, this was much needed information! Thank you for helping me normalize eating and understanding why I may crave sugary foods. This is so freeing. I also didn’t know how these studies were done to determine inflammation and so-called sugar “addictions”. I was starting to believe I was addicted to sugar and there was something wrong with me.
Thank you for this!! I’m an RD2Be and I’ve decided to spend a lot of focus on “inflammation” and disease. I have an autoimmune disease that causes arthritis. I’ve had my own intuitive eating journey and have learned balance with food and “inflammation”. I have a sister who has R.A. and religiously believes in food inflammation causing her flares. I understand that it absolutely plays a part, but I’m telling you it’s a way more serious problem. She doesn’t eat wheat, sugar, red meat, processed foods, some fruit, etc because she read on some blog that someone with her same illness took out X amount of food and has been “healed”. I don’t ever discuss it with her, obviously. But sometimes she asks me questions. How do you discuss this and that not everything you eat causes inflammation when someone believes the food they eat “cures” their flare/inflammation?
Nicole @ Laughing My Abs Off says
This is an amazingly informative post. I will admit, I’ve had times that I’ve been so confused with the whole sugar debacle. Instinctively, I always knew it wasn’t the devil so many made it out to be. I especially was appalled when people would demonize fruit, which humans have literally been eating forever. It felt so utterly wrong to me that sugar is the culprit behind all that is wrong with the world, and indeed, your explanations make perfect sense. No, sugar is not perhaps the pinnacle of health, but compared to other things that are part of our lives, it is NOT the worst offender in terms of health. In fact, unlike things like sleep deprivation or excessive stress, sugar actually can make us happy! So I’ll eat some cake to that 😉
This was a very informative article. After 10 years of bulimia and disordered eating, I agree that allowing yourself to break free of food rules can actually help you make healthier choices (physically and mentally). I’ve been in recovery for 3 years but have struggled constantly with dieting and trying to lose weight after gaining in recovery. I made the decision not to participate in diet culture or any diets and the mental shift was pretty incredible. Now I see food differently and don’t feel the need to over indulge in sweets since it “may be the last time I get to eat them”. I just eat them when I want them. Thanks for sharing!
wow Kayla thank you for sharing how pivotal stepping away from diet culture and pursuit of weight loss was for you!
Kim Foster says
I love your take on the “sugar addiction” bombardment today. This is so refreshing to think back to how our parents/grandparents were already most likely intuitively eating….not sure where this all got dropped. Keep on keeping it real for all of us RDs as well as the general public.
totally agree! we’ve complicated eating so much in recent years unfortunately…
thanks for reading Kim!
Since starting to read your blog, I’ve slowly come to the realization that what I thought was me trying to be healthy (e.g. restricting certain foods, regimented exercise, etc) was just me playing into this diet culture mentality, which resulted in a lot of stress every time I ate (or did not eat) anything. Thank you so much for shedding light on just how dangerous diet culture has become and calling out supposedly ‘factual’ claims about healthy eating/exercising. I’m not quite at the intuitive eating stage and still struggle with food guilt/over analysis of what i’m eating, but I can see light at the end of the tunnel! Keep doing what you’re doing, you’re helping a lot of people!
I use to be in very similar shoes to yourself Mira until I found my way out of diet culture so I can so relate on many levels. Know that we are all on our journeys and we never arrive – we just keep learning more about ourselves!
Yes so happy you wrote this!! I totally agree, if we eliminate something we naturally enjoy, then we are going to want it more. Love how you pointed out the study had them drink 1/4 cup of pure sugar. Obviously that’s going to produce a physiological effect! Excited to share this post with people!
You say there are no studies on sugar being addictive? That would be incorrect. PubMed.gov – evidence based studies.
Food Addiction, High-Glycemic-Index Carbohydrates, and Obesity.
Hi William! There are no valid studies…the studies that prove sugar to be addicting are done under conditions of forced deprivation…in essence, dieting. That’s bad science. This is a link to just the research abstract which doesn’t tell us much…do you have the full article? Thank you!
This is so good. So, so good. This message needs to get out! ❤️
Rachel Rowe says
Great to see the studies behind this claim explained! Ive seen several arrivals with scientific claims to sugars addictive qualities.
I’ve lost 80lbs with weight watchers and gain it plus 50lbs. I’ve been doing WW again for the last 6 months. I’m having success but cam see the problems with it long term. How can maintain it and not be doing WW…or counting something…and all the emotions that goes with it.
I’m super nervous to start intuitive eating. Moving past the number on the scale seems crazy and the idea of eating this way can get me to a healthy weight but for me eating without counting something has been the ultimate goal. Super excited to have found your site!
It IS nerve racking to leave behind external cues that are black and white and forge into internal cues that are subjective – that is totally normal! 🙂 Know that IE and HAES are weight neutral and focus on health promoting behaviors that will eventually help you settle into your set point. Your weight could go up, go down or stay the same. It sounds like you want to let go of the scale which is wonderful! Rooting for you in this journey Rachel! <3
Great article Robyn and I am happy someone is focused on getting to the root of problems as opposed to covering with band aids. In my early twenties I wish I had a blog like this to read, so much time and energy wasted on things that are more mental than physical. Many of these problems, the control issues, are psychological and can with professional help be fixed.
Robyn, I really enjoy your writing on sugar. From a person who WAS “addicted” to sugar. It had a lot to do with lifestyle choices and mindset, habits, etc.. Anyway, for reasons I don’t know, I have had some serious issues with hypoglycemia. I was wondering how I would go about dealing with this from a nutritional standpoint? Where do you stand on all of that? Mainstream says very restrictive diet.
Hi Jess, I’m so glad you found it helpful. With low blood sugar, I have no idea your personal history and can’t speak to individual circumstances via blog comments but i’d encourage you to seek guidance from your doctor and a mindful dietitian. Of course eating adequate carbohydrate, balanced meals and every 3-4 hours are some basics but figuring out why you’re having hypoglycemia is the first step
I found this post in a Google search and I’m so grateful for this information. I’ve been reading SO much about how sugar is bad and evil (much of it by medical professionals like Dr. Lustig) and it’s refreshing to see the other side of things and what the science actually says.
I’m still digesting all of this… Would you say that giving yourself permission to eat anything should be balanced by mindfulness? Because I know people, I think we all do, who don’t restrict certain foods they like (I’m thinking of a cola “addict” I know) and it doesn’t seem to make their craving go away, to the point that they’re consuming amounts that I think are objectively unhealthy (far above recommendations from reputable medical organizations). But it seems to be more of an automatic habit for them, not something they’re being mindful about.
Robyn Nohling says
Hi Michael! Glad you found the post and I’m so glad you’re here!
As you work through full permission and coming to a neutral place with all foods (two huge things that get in the way of intuitive eating) your body will crave an overall balanced and nourishing diet. Just as someone who dissociates from how they physically FEEL can develop an eating disorder or malnourish themselves with not enough calories, nutrients etc. Someone can also dissociate from how they physically feel and eat in a way that favors low nutrient dense foods over a more balanced way of eating. Keep in mind though, that in the presence of deprivation (even telling yourself you cant’ eat something) the reward response in the brain is heightened.
This is extremely helpful. After decades of BED, diets, hospitalisation for BED I am still in it and now I am REALLY reminded it is because of my thinking around food and dieting and wanting to look a certain way. Its sad but my self esteem is measured by my size. Growing up in a home with dieting parents I got a lot of indirect approval when I lost weight. This shaped my self thoughts. So this article, so kindly shared, has given me RELIEF. Relief that I haven’t felt in a very long time. Thank you.
Robyn Nohling says
Liz I have so much empathy and compassion towards you <3
I'm so glad this post brought relief!
This was very informative thank you!
Mon Corps Adoré says
Hi, do you authorize me to publish extracts of your article (in French) on my site: http://www.mon-corps-adore.com
Thank you, déborah.
I’m not exaggerating, but this is the second of your articles that I’ve read, and I think you’ve saved my life. I’m overweight and I’ve been on diets since I was 9 yrs old, and I’m currently dealing with an EDNOS and depression because of my relationship to food. Suicide has been in my thoughts, and just… thank you for this. Thank you so much!
Absolutely love these posts. The truth is needed more than ever right now. As an eating disorder therapist, I love to educate the community about these “slippery slope” fads that can lead to dangerous and disordered behaviors.
Cassie Lei says
Informative post. Sugar can be addicting but you can retrain your taste buds to eat foods that are not as sweet. Eliminating one sweet food from your diet every week can help.
Mind. Blown. Wow. So much good in this article I never realized. So, very, very helpful. Thank you for this! I pinned it so I can go back to read it over and over again and show it to every one I know who struggles with misinformation. LOVE!
So much good info!
Hey Robyn! Do you have the resources/references you used to write this blog? Curious to read more. Thanks!
Robyn Nohling says
You’ll see PubMed studies linked (in the pink text) all throughout the post 🙂
I am reading this again after two years but I needed to! I am in a behavioral health addictions class and I just got done watching a TED talk about how taking in sugars, fats, and Salt overtime damages the bodies natural reward system. And while I understand it’s relationship with dopamine, I wanted to reread this to have a better understanding of overall scientific literature. Dopamine is there for a reason. But I do believe for all addictions (behavioral and substance) we have to look into our entire life: emotional, physical, social, relational, etc. A very holistic approach. If someone is eating tons of added sugar and not a balanced diet, wouldn’t it make sense that their neural circuits be altered to want that all the time?
And our culture is very good about influencing us with all sorts of ideas that they generalize among all populations. It is true that not this intervention will work with this population like it does another. Very good work Robyn!
Madeline Theis says
Suger is one of the alie of weight gain, and it should be avoided if someone is trying to lose weight. Can you suggest sugar-free desserts that are sweet for people who can not resist a sweet taste?
It’s true, I’ve never sat in front of the couch and eaten sugar straight out of a five pound bag. I’ve poured the sugar into a bowl first and eaten it out of the bowl with a spoon. Figuring out that added sugar, added sweeteners, and grain flour were causing migraines, orthopedic pain, and making me fat set me free.