Ep 54: You Don't Have to Quit Sugar: A Closer Look at Sugar Addiction

Happy New Year! Happy 2019. I’m actually recording this little intro snippet on New Year’s Day, in my pajamas (I’m in my pajamas at least 75% of the time when I create podcast episodes!) and we stayed up late playing games and slept in late and I’m just feeling so grateful and happy for my life and for this new year.

I also have just taken the past half hour or so to read all of the kind reviews that were left over the past week for the planner giveaway. I’m going to announce the winner (which was chosen randomly before I read them all), but I first want to say thank you to all of you who shared your thoughts with me. I was crying grateful tears as I sat there reading your words.

Thank you for being here with me and for allowing me to be a part of your journey of life. Thank you for being willing to think about food and nutrition differently. Thank you for supporting me in this - it means more to me than I can say. It is often really scary and vulnerable to put myself out here. But your kind support makes it much less scary and gives me the courage to keep going when it’s hard or when I meet with resistance. So thank you, thank you - to those of you who left reviews, to those of you who didn’t but still listen regularly, to those of you who have just stumbled upon my voice somehow and are giving this podcast a shot. Thank you for being here with me.

Now to announce the winner! The winner of a new 2019 Nourished Planner is SarBar110. She left a review that is titled “Update!” and it says, “Stephanie, your podcast is incredible! Your perspective is exactly what I’ve been searching for since becoming painfully aware of diets and body image when I was about 10 years old. You are so knowledgeable and insightful, and you are completely changing the way I look at food and at myself! I submitted the previous review a while ago, but I just had to sound off again about how much I LOVE this podcast! I have talked myself into listening to every episode, even ones that seem like they address a topic that doesn’t necessarily relate to me. No matter what, I always come away from each episode with renewed enthusiasm and self-worth, as well as at least one bit of wisdom and really resonates with me. No matter what the topic is, Stephanie speaks to me! You are amazing, Stephanie! I adore your sweet blend of gentleness and no-nonsense! You are helping me to heal not only my relationship with food, but also my whole sense of self! I have adopted your mantra of, “You are here to do SO much more than look nice! Your worth has nothing to do with your ability to shrink!”

Thank you, SarBear110! Love that. You can shoot me an email at hello@nutritionredefined.co to give me your address and we’ll get that planner out to you!

For those of you who are still looking for a new planner, I want to once again HIGHLY recommend the Nourished Planner. This is my 3rd year using them and I absolutely love it. It gets better every year and this is definitely the best, most usable layout yet. There’s space for planning your meals, tracking your daily movement if you want, space for your top 3 must-dos each day, and tons of white space to do whatever you want, which might be my favorite part. There’s also monthly and weekly topics and challenges to help you live a more nourished life, and I just love it. You can go to nutritionredefined.co/planner and use the code NUTRITIONREDEFINED (in all caps) to get 15% off and $5 shipping on your own planner.

The new year might have already started, but it’s not too late to get your hands on this tool that will be so effective in helping you achieve your goals, whatever they are, and be more intentional about the way you take care of yourself.

Okay, so let’s dive into today’s episode! Here we go.

I’m here today with my coaching partner, Emily Fonnesbeck, again, and we’re going to talk about sugar addiction. This is a really popular topic and gets a lot of hype, especially in January when people are setting goals around food and body, so we wanted to address the research on it and our thoughts, as well as what we think is a more helpful perspective on sugar. This episode is sponsored by Eat Confident Collective, our online group coaching program, which is opening for enrollment in just one week.

Emily and I are teaching a free online masterclass next week as well - we’re teaching it 3 times to be sure you can find a time to come live, because we have a special freebie only available to people who show up live! - and we’re really excited about it.

The class is called How to Make Peace with Sugar, and we think it’s the perfect time of year to look more closely at your relationship with sugar and avoid all the social pressure you may be feeling to cut out sugar, detox, or go sugar-free this month. That is all totally unnecessary - don’t even go there! - and we hope that our masterclass will help you feel more peace and confidence about sugar and how you can have it as part of your food without guilt and without feeling out of control around it.

That’s also the goal for this podcast episode! This goes along perfectly with the masterclass, so we highly encourage you to sign up for that. You can go to nutritionredefined.co/masterclass to save your seat. Again, there will be 3 different live times to choose from (Wed, Thu, and Fri), so find a time that works for you and make an effort to be there live! We promise it will be worth it.

Okay, so let’s talk about sugar addiction. I also want to mention that this episode is based off of a fabulous blog post Emily wrote.I wanted to provide a podcast on the same topic, because those are easy to consume and some people prefer listening to a podcast. But if you want more of the research or you prefer the written format (or you know someone who might benefit from reading about it), I’ll also link Emily’s blog post in the show notes, or you can find it on her website at emilyfonnesbeck.com.

We also want to say right up front that we’re not trying to say that sugar is nutritious, or that you need to eat sugar in order to be healthy. We are very well-informed, as nutrition professionals, about sugar and the affect foods have on the body. What we do want to point out is that restrictive eating patterns, like eliminating sugar, is unhealthy - more so than sugar is unhealthy. We’re not here to argue that sugar is a health food. We are far more interested in what affect eliminating sugar has on a person’s food behaviors.

The driving force behind the food addiction research and popular movement is weight stigma. Weight stigma is stereotyping based on a person’s weight, or the belief that people in larger bodies are less-than people in smaller bodies.

A prevailing belief, among both the average member of society and medical professionals, is that if someone is unhappy with their body, or they are made to feel shame about their size and weight, that they will be motivated toward healthy behaviors. This is why you see all the fearmongering and shame-based tactics behind the so-called “obesity epidemic” and body shaming people in larger bodies.

Weight stigma is actually positively correlated with disordered eating - NOT increasing health-promoting behaviors. In other words, shaming someone (or yourself) for your weight or size actually will NOT help you eat better or move your body regularly. It will just make you feel more shame, and leave you more likely to continue behavior patterns that don’t serve you. The weight stigmatization we see in diet culture has the very opposite affect it’s intended to have.

I’ve heard the argument that sugar is like smoking or cocaine, and that nobody is arguing you need to smoke to live, so by extension you should quit sugar. This is a fundamentally broken argument. Eating sugar is nowhere near smoking a cigarette or being addicted to drugs. It’s not the same thing at all, and it shouldn’t be included in the same argument.

You can’t be addicted to something that you need to live. Are you addicted to oxygen? You don’t see anyone telling you to stop breathing, that you should be ashamed of yourself for being such an oxygen addict, and if you just had more willpower you could cut out breathing. But it’s almost as ridiculous to tell someone to stop eating carbohydrates. You need carbs to live, you need oxygen to live.

The food addiction model has 2 drawbacks that make it difficult to translate into a normal eating paradigm.

1. It was adapted from screening tools for drug and alcohol addiction, which is not at all the same as food addiction.

2. The theory of food addiction does not account for restrained or restrictive eating patterns, like abstaining from sugar or going on a diet.

These are 2 huge red flags that make the theory of food addiction wobbly from the start. We can encourage abstinence from drugs and alcohol, but not from food.

You may have heard of the study where rats preferred sugar to cocaine, leading everyone to the assumption that sugar is MORE ADDICTIVE THAN COCAINE and that our only hope for relief from our broken selves is total abstinence from sugar.

Looking more closely at that study reveals that the rats underwent forced food restriction, which is what led to them essentially wanting to binge on the sugar. Much like a human on a diet, if you are deprived of a certain food, the perceived reward of that food grows and grows, and when you are finally given the chance to have some, you will go all in. This leads us to the next main point:

Using the term “addict” is disempowering and unhelpful. If you’ve ever called yourself a “sugar addict,” how did it feel? Did you feel like you could go out and conquer the world? Did you feel like you were ready to successfully overhaul your life, change your behaviors, and start practicing regular self-care? No.

Speaking as someone who was once very bought into the sugar addiction paradigm, I can tell you that using the term “sugar addict” is incredibly disempowering. It feels helpless and hopeless. Like I’m a victim to my own circumstance, and the only way out is complete elimination. Which, also speaking from experience, is incredibly difficult, unsustainable, and totally no fun.

You may think that saying “I’m never eating sugar again” might feel like you’re finally in control of yourself, but I promise it won’t last long. Restricting carbohydrates will lead to your brain fighting back and overriding your carefully controlled willpower until you eventually give in and swing right back to the other extreme of overeating sugar and feeling out of control all over again.

Craving, enjoying, and wanting sugar is not abnormal, and it is not a sign that something is wrong. The dopamine increase that happens in your brain when you eat sugar also happens when you listen to music, hug someone you love, pet a dog or cat, or hear the little giggle of a baby. That does not mean you are addicted to petting your dog. It means your brain is wired to take pleasure in that action.

Just like eating sugar, it is pleasurable and rewards you with a flood of chemicals in your brain that make you feel good. It is not pathological - it is normal. When you term this normal response as an “addiction,” it distorts your entire relationship to food, which leads to you feeling broken or like something is fundamentally wrong with you.

If you think you’re unique in your liking for sweets, I have news for you - you’re actually just a normal human being. If you want something sweet after a meal, welcome to earth - most everyone else does, too.

The root problem in the way we relate to food and sugar in particular isn’t a lack of control, an addiction, or a willpower problem. What it comes down to is really an extreme approach to health that, in the long run, is not helpful or effective.

Hopefully we have dismantled the idea of sugar addiction for you and you feel even just slightly different about sugar and the role it plays in your life. The good news is that this conversation isn’t over! We’re going to be talking about sugar all month long here on the podcast, because it’s probably one of the top 3 most commonly-asked questions for both of us (something relating to sugar), so we really want to equip you and answer all your questions so you can feel more confident around food in general and sugar specifically.

Next week here on the Nutrition Redefined podcast, Emily and I will be talking again, and doing a Q+A style episode where we bring some questions we’ve been asked and answer them just like we’d do on a coaching call.

Also, like I mentioned at the beginning, if this is a topic that interests you, I’d highly recommend you sign up for our free online class, How to Make Peace with Sugar. We’ll be going even deeper into your mindset around sugar and giving you some action steps to move forward in feeling confident + in charge about your food choices - sugar included. You can go to nutritionredefined.co/masterclass to register for that - it will be going down next week and it’s going to be awesome, as our online classes always are.

Emily, thanks so much for being here with me.

Thanks to you for listening, and we’ll talk to you next week!

Stephanie Webb