Introductory note: The information presented in this doodle is a visual summary of content produced by the dieticians, therapists, and eating disorder experts at Opal: Food + Body Wisdom (an eating disorder treatment center in Seattle, Washington) via their podcast The Appetite (Episode 51: Myths about Sugar). I’m a therapist and illustrator, not a dietitian, and while I’ve summarized the illustrations in text to provide content, I make no dietary recommendations on this website. If you have questions or would like to know more, please check out the podcast, reach out to Opal, or contact an Intuitive Eating dietitian in your area.
You’ve probably heard influencers and pop-wellness professionals promote the long-standing myth that sugar is as addictive as cocaine- but is it really?
The Appetite hosts are careful to note that most research on “addiction” to sugar (or any food that is commonly demonized) is usually done on chronic dieters (a group of people who are, by definition, dis-regulated in craving/satiation cycles, and not a fair baseline for generalizable research).
So, how do these myths continue to be perpetuated? Often, it’s through a lack of knowledge on how different foods function in the body and why our bodies need diverse types of nutrients.
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The Drive to Eat
According to The Appetite Podcast, Neuropeptide Y is a neuro-modulator that drives feeding and eating. So, that desire to eat- it’s hardwired in- not a sign something is wrong with us.
Neuropeptide Y is released when our body needs carbs in order to motivate us to eat those carbs. Feeling the desire to eat is a natural one – and listening to and gently nurturing that desire through mindful, intuitive eating is one way to navigate towards less restrictive eating patterns.
The elements of food most demonized in diet culture (sugar, carbs, calories, fat, etc.) are actually necessary elements that the vast majority* of bodies require to function. For example, among other things, saturated fats- once vilified- are now known to be essential building blocks for the brain and immune system (source).
(*All bodies are different, and while the vast majority of bodies need diverse nutrients, some disorders may medically limit tolerable nutrients. These disorders generally cannot be self-diagnosed.)
Why Eating to Self Soothe Isn’t (Always) a Bad Thing
For some of us (realistically: most of us) eating is sometimes used as a way to soothe overwhelming feelings. This behavior- though really common and even exhibited by infants- is often a source of shame. However, using food to self-soothe is not a bad thing!
As long as we have 1. awareness of why we are using food to cope and how it is helping, 2. kindness toward ourselves in the process, and 3. access to additional coping skills we can draw on instead of using food every time, then using food to self soothe can be part of a healthy set of coping skills.
In fact, The Appetite cohosts say, because our bodies need food to function, and nutrients play an absolutely essential role in our body’s ability to organize our thoughts, self-soothe, and calm down, taking a break for a snack while upset can literally be a way to biopsychologically reset ourselves to employ “higher” coping skills. (This is probably why “taking a break for a snack” actually made it onto the RO-DBT therapy model’s list of How to Respond to a Mental Health Crisis).
Sugar + Diets
The podcast continues on to explain that when we eat sugar or carbs, our bodies convert those to glucose and then to insulin. It does this in order to get glucose from the blood into the cells. Extra glucose from this process is stored in the muscles with water. This is why crash diets seem to work at first: the extra stored glucose (and the water containing it) is flushed from the body first.
So, even though our bodies need sugar – is there such a thing as too much sugar?
The dietician and therapist of the Appetite Podcast argue that if a person’s diet lacks diverse macronutrients (different sources of protein, fat, carbs, etc.) then, yes.
Signs that a body might be getting too much sugar: 1.) If a person experiences “sugar crashes” – quick energy bursts, but low energy later (indicating a need for nutrition in the form of longer release energy). 2.) Forgetting how to eat intuitively due to chronic dieting.
The thing about nutrition research, the podcast continues, is that it is (almost) always correlative and is not causative – in other words, it finds patterns and trends, but does not necessarily explain why something happens or how it comes to be.
In other words, we don’t really know the long-term effects of trend diets: cutting carbs or sugars, or micro-managing nutrient-intake. However, many dietitians and medical doctors believe that any diet that deprives the body of entire categories of nutrients may be potentially harmful in the long run.
Food as Energy
Depriving the body of carbs and sugar for the sake of a fad diet is not the answer. The podcast continues on to report how carbohydrates, along with proteins and fats help our body maintain its blood sugar, which helps us sustain energy!
Eating carbohydrates with proteins and fats creates energy that the body can access in the short term, along with energy that the body can break down and use over several hours.
The Sugar CRAVING
So, if sugar is good for the body, why do some of us have such strong cravings for sugar? Accoding to eating disorder experts at Opal, obsessive thoughts, compulsions, and cravings may be clues that our body isn’t getting enough sugar. Eliminating an entire category of nutrient stresses the body and the biological foundations of our emotional selves- no wonder we feel unstable!
In other words, our bodies are meant to eat a widely varied diet. When we remove one nutrient – or macronutrient – from our diet, we create stress in our biopsychological selves.
While it is true that bodies can make their own sugar by breaking down proteins and fats, this failsafe is the work of a body in crisis. Over time, a body taxed with doing this work every day can experience damaged organs that are not meant to perform this function as a primary purpose.
Emotionally-speaking, the brain enters the scarcity mindset any time an entire food group is eliminated. Scarcity is linked to obsessive thinking, excessive food intake, and an inability to focus on anything else – creating precisely what could look like, to some, symptoms of a “sugar addiction.”
Pleasure Model vs Addiction Model
To take another perspective on this, The Appetite’s hosts as us to consider the “Pleasure Model” vs. “Addiction Model” applied to sugar:
Pleasure Model: If a person is allowed to access sugar, they will be satiated and seek other nutrients.
Addiction Model: Addiction involves increasing tolerance and increased intake of drug. Falsely assumed, if a person eats sugar, their tolerance to it will be greater and they will not be able to resist eating it.
Although this theory is often promoted by those who profit from fad dieting, this is is not how it works. Whether it’s sugar or any other food, enacting a “Pleasure Model” view allows for a healthier relationship with that food.
What Even is Sugar?
Sugar is a generalized term for certain kinds of carbohydrates: monosaccharides and disaccharides. Simple carbohydrates include glucose, fructose, and galactose.
Muscles live on carbs; Brains live on sugar.
We Need These Nutrients!
Sugar (a.k.a. carbohydrates) is a macronutrient that bodies need to survive – so much so, that nutritionally stressed bodies will make their own sugar by breaking down proteins and fats. This process of breaking down proteins and fats to produce sugar for the brain taxes the liver and kidneys – and in some cases can damage organs.
Brains depend on glucose (and only glucose) to function. When it doesn’t have enough sugar, the brain may experience the following symptoms: brain fog, difficulty focusing, depression, and anxiety.
It’s All About Balance:
So – what’s the solution? How can we best manage our sugar intake? Or, what’s the “right amount of sugar?”
According to professionals at Opal, the answer is BALANCE.
Whether through natural sugars (fruits) or through another sweet food (candy, baked goods) – eating sugar should not be off the table. Instead, it should be brought alongside other nutritious foods for a well-balanced, nutrient-rich, and non-restrictive diet.
And What About Sugar Cravings?
Well, consider this perspective: Cravings are narrow, chemically-based alerts that our bodies need something. So, intense cravings for sugar aren’t symptoms of addiction – they’re signs of survival.
To best curb “cravings,” we need to learn to listen to these internal cues and learn to honor them.
To learn more about Intuitive Eating and HAES, check out my resources. For sources referenced in this sketchnote, more postcasts like this one, or information on Eating Disorder recovery, visit the website for Opal: Food + Body Wisdom (an eating disorder treatment center in Seattle, Washington).