Brandon has been worried about his son Michael for a few years. “He’s always been really into sugar, sweets, and junk food,” says Brandon. “I’ve tried to tell him he needs to avoid sugar. Telling him it’s bad for him doesn’t change anything. I’ve tried hiding the sweets, not buying sweets at all, and even punishing him for eating too many sweets. It seems like sugar addiction, or is it an eating disorder?”
I can understand where Brandon is coming from. There’s a lot of fear about sugar right now. In fact, there’s a lot of common knowledge saying that sugar is a direct cause of disease and weight gain. But the first thing to know is that scientifically sugar is a causal factor in tooth decay, but it is only correlated with other health issues. The truth about sugar is complex and nuanced.
But the media hates nuance and loves a bad guy, and sugar is it right now. Most of us parents were raised to fear fat, but sugar has taken over as the new nutritional evil. Imagine if we’d heard about a butter board in 1998! The horror! Meanwhile, our “healthy” Snackwells fat-free cookies were loaded with sugar. Nutrition is subject to trends, so it’s a good idea to keep this in mind every time we meet a new nutritional bad guy.
It’s a matter of degree
Look, nobody’s saying we want our kids to eat only sugar all the time. That doesn’t make any sense. But there’s a huge distance between banning sugar and eating only sugar all the time. And that’s what I want to explore with Brandon. Just how often is Michael eating sugar? What’s happening when he eats sugar? Let’s tease this apart a little bit.
“I guess he eats sugar a few times a week,” says Brandon. “Since I rarely have sweets, cookies, and candy in the house now, it’s definitely a special occasion thing. For example, after baseball practice they always get a snack, and it’s often cookies or something like that. And of course there are birthday parties and family events. Stuff like that.”
Brandon has banned sugary foods from the house. It sounds like he’s concerned about how Michael responds when he gets access to it out of the house.
“He goes crazy for the cookies,” says Brandon. “I see him taking more than his share and it’s embarrassing. And at family parties when there’s a cake, he’ll have two or three slices if I don’t stop him.”
Got it. So the big question for Brandon is whether this is a sugar addiction or an eating disorder or something else.
Is sugar addiction real?
I checked in with registered dietitian Marci Evans to find out more about sugar addiction. “I’ve been carefully watching the science of food addiction for years,” she says. “And aside from the fact that the “news” about sugar as an addictive substance sounds a lot like fear-mongering to me, it also doesn’t square with my clinical experience as a dietitian. My quick answer is that I don’t believe that sugar is addictive in the same way as caffeine, alcohol, tobacco, cocaine, and other substances.”
Many dietitians, especially those who work with eating disorder populations, are deeply uncomfortable with the vilification of sugar in our culture. They don’t agree with the idea of sugar addiction. And they worry that fear of sugar can lead to an eating disorder.
“I think that the biggest issue with sugar is that, like everything, once a human is told that something is “off limits,” our brain kicks into deprivation mode,” says Marci. “I frequently hear people talking about food, including sugar, and telling me they feel as if they are addicted, by which they mean they feel they cannot stop themselves, and they would really like to stop. It’s important to note here that someone feeling as if they are addicted to something is not the same as being physically addicted to something.”
The body’s need for food is a biological necessity. The drive for food – including sugary food – is not the same as a drive for optional substances like alcohol, tobacco, and cocaine. Putting sugar in the same category as these substances is chemically inaccurate.
A behavioral addiction
But it’s also true that food can feel addictive. Behavioral addictions are an obsession with and compulsion to do a certain behavior. And eating can certainly become a behavioral addiction. But it’s important to separate behavioral addictions from substance addictions. This is because the treatment for substance addictions usually involves not taking the substance anymore. But most behavioral addictions require at least some continuation of the behavior.
For example, an eating disorder may be viewed as a behavioral addiction. But recovery is not about never eating or always eating. It’s about finding balance in your approach to the behavior of eating. Recovery from a behavioral addiction is not about abstinence, but acceptance and modulation of urges and desires.
“So far, there is absolutely no scientific evidence that any food is addictive,” says Marci. “Humans must eat food to survive. No specific compounds have been found in food that are like the compounds found in drugs and alcohol. The human drive for food is considered adaptive, while the drive for addictive substances is considered maladaptive.”
What about the rat studies?
“But what about the research showing that rats get addicted to sugar?” asks Brandon.
“There has been research showing that rodents consume sugar in an “addictive-like” way,” says Marci. “But this only occurs in settings that involve sugar restriction. This is critical because it is the reason I don’t promote restricting any food items, including sugar. When rats are kept in captivity and offered sugar on an intermittent basis, they exhibit binge-like eating, which researchers identify as addictive behavior. However, when the rats are offered sugar constantly, they do not exhibit this behavior, nor do they eat excessive amounts of sugar.”
“From my perspective, the study of the rats actually supports not vilifying sugar, since doing so can lead to binge behaviors that may look and feel like an addiction,” says Marci. “Again, there is no proof that this behavior is based on the substance itself, but rather the restriction of the substance.”
Ah! That is the key here.
Sugar is compelling
Sugary foods are delicious and compelling for most people, especially children. But there are plenty of children and adults who eat sugar regularly without any signs of addiction or disordered eating. And the secret is that these people are allowed to eat sugar regularly. Without restriction, sugar is delicious, but it’s not compelling. It’s not an obsession or compulsion. We’ve seen this with rats. And dietitians who practice the Ellyn Satter method and/or Intuitive Eating see it every day, too.
We’ve all seen the kids who dive for the cookies or brownies at the party. What makes them different from the kids who could take it or leave it? Usually it’s the amount of sugar restriction they’re experiencing at home. Because kids who have access to cookies regularly are not likely to feel obsessive, compulsive, or addicted to cookies.
“Higher weight and binge eating disorder, both of which are frequently associated with “sugar addiction” are far more complex than any single food item,” says Marci. “What I see clinically is that food restriction is a more significant problem and a precursor to weight gain and eating disorders than sugar.”
Advice for Brandon
I can understand why Brandon is concerned about sugar addiction and the potential for an eating disorder. But Michael’s excited behavior around sugary foods is most likely being driven by restriction. We can’t rule out an eating disorder. But we do know that restricting foods at home is a risk factor for eating disorders. So I have some advice for Brandon:
1. Relax the rules
First, relax your at-home rules around sugar. Remember there is a huge space between no sugar and only sugar. Introduce dessert occasionally or even every day and start normalizing sugary foods as part of a balanced diet. That’s right: sugar can be part of a very healthy diet. Incorporate sugar into your regular diet. This will remove the sense of restriction that may be driving the addicted-like behavior you’re seeing in Michael.
2. Add in more nutrients, structure, and pleasure
Next, focus more on what you add than what you take away. I’ve said to incorporate sugary foods, but also seek ways to add in more nutritious foods. Expand your family’s daily intake of whole grains, nuts, seeds, fruits, and vegetables. Now, add in is more structure around food and eating. Many families lack feeding structure. But structure has been shown to have a much greater impact on lifelong health than any diet. Do you have at least one family meal per day? If not, add that in! Finally, add in more pleasure! Eating is a social behavior in human beings. Enjoy food, enjoy eating, and enjoy each other.
3. Talk about balance
Once you’ve had sugar incorporated in your diet for a while, if Michael is still acting like he’s “addicted” to sugar, talk about specific behaviors you’re seeing. Make sure you’re coming from a neutral, non-judgmental standpoint. Michael may need help noticing that he is taking more than his share at practice. And maybe one piece of cake at the party is totally OK. But then he could add in something with greater nutritional value and then re-evaluate whether he wants a second slice. These conversations will go much better if you’re already modeling this behavior with sweets at home.
4. Stop food shaming
Finally, stop food shaming and any negative talk about food. All foods fit in a healthy diet. Brandon loves Michael and wants what’s best for him, but badmouthing food and calling it junk makes it feel restricted. We crave foods when they are restricted. When all foods are allowed, they are no longer worthy of obsession and compulsion. And never punish a child for eating. When you punish a child for seeking comfort and joy in food you support a disordered relationship with food that can have a lifetime impact on health.
Up for the challenge
It’s a lot to take in, but Brandon seems up for the challenge. “I can relate most of all to the kids who don’t get sugar at home grabbing all the cookies when they have a chance,” he says. “I remember kids like that when I was growing up. This one kid was on a really strict diet at home and he was seriously crazy about food. Give him access to pizza or M&Ms and he was all over it. The rest of us knew it was because he didn’t get it at home. I guess I’d forgotten about that until right now.”
Brandon’s going to give this advice a try and watch carefully for a reduction in the symptoms of sugar addiction and an eating disorder. Then we’ll re-evaluate whether there’s something more serious going on for Michael.
This is an update to an article published March 13, 2018 called “But, seriously, my kid is addicted to sugar. A discussion about sugar addiction with dietitian Marci Evans”
Marci Evans, MS, CEDRD, LDN, has dedicated her career to counseling, supervising, and teaching in the field of eating disorders. She is a Certified Eating Disorder Registered Dietitian and Supervisor, certified Intuitive Eating Counselor and Certified ACSM personal trainer. In addition to her private practice and three adjunct teaching positions, Marci launched an online eating disorders training for dietitians in 2015 and is co-developing a specialized eating disorder internship at Simmons College.
Ginny Jones is on a mission to empower parents to raise kids who are free from eating issues, body shame and eating disorders.
She’s the founder of More-Love.org and a Parent Coach who helps parents navigate disordered eating, eating disorder recovery, and other challenging emotional and behavioral issues.
For privacy, names and identifying details have been changed in this article.