If you watched the Super Bowl, you probably saw the ad for Weight Watchers likening overeating to addiction to drugs or alcohol. You may have seen it while you were eating dinner or perhaps while you were leaning into the seven layer dip, picking up another chicken wing, or loading your plate with slices of pizza. The commercial struck a chord because in many ways, eating disorders are akin to addiction.
As more and more studies are done, there is increasing evidence that sugar acts on the brain in the same ways as alcohol and drugs do. This is not just a stimulation of reward pathways. Many activities and substances stimulate those pathways, not all of which are negative or addictive. However, it seems that sugar in particular may cause changes to the actual structure and function of the brain, just as drugs and alcohol do. If this is proven to be the case, sugar will be able to be classed as an addictive substance for the same reasons that alcohol or heroin are.
However, unlike alcoholism or drug addiction, eating disorders are much harder to treat. Alcohol, marijuana, or heroin can simply be avoided. The longer the clean time, the easier it becomes not to use these substances at all. But food must be eaten and every meal is an opportunity for relapse. Sugar, perhaps the greatest challenge because of its chemical action on the brain, is hidden in many common foods and is ever so tempting because of its prevalence.
And the pressure to “give in to temptation” is strong. “I made this just for you.” “Oh, a little bit won’t hurt.” These are phrases you’d never use with your alcoholic or drug abusing loved one, but are commonly used to pressure those who struggle with food problems to go off the wagon.
The evidence that sugar is an addictive substance is building. As we learn more, help yourself and your friends by challenging food norms. Food is not love. If your friends or loved ones struggle with weight, give them a break. Show them you love them without forcing decadent foods on them.