Thoughts from an Addiction Conference on Sugar as a “Bad Food!”

This article was written on the last day of a 4-day addiction conference in Colorado. I was there presenting on a genetic test, GARS, that purports to be able to predict with a fair degree of accuracy people’s predisposition to a variety of behavioral and addictive disorders, including to sugar. My Academy also had a booth in the exhibit hall, so I spent quite a bit of time wandering the aisles. And like every other addiction conference I have ever attended, 95% of the tables had a bowl of candy to welcome their visitors. That year, surprisingly, there were two tables other than mine offering fruit and nuts. Usually mine is the only candy-free table. The table next to mine had four lovely tall glass jars of very attractive varieties – pink, violet, apricot and pale blue – complete with metal scoops and little baggies. It looked like an Easter display! And boy did people gravitate to that table! Not for the sobriety protecting credit card they were promoting, but for the candy. I wished I could have video-taped it. I also wish I could say that it was sweet (pun not intended!) to watch this, but instead I grew increasingly alarmed. Some people would simply pour over the display, and carefully choose exactly one piece of colorful candy to enjoy as they walked away, but others would fill their baggies to the brim, and come back for more. 

On my table was a handout that boldly proclaims: “SUGAR IS ALSO AN ADDICTIVE DRUG” and discusses how many people in early recovery switch addiction from their drug of choice to sugar. This is because sugar fires and depletes the same neurotransmitters as both cocaine and heroin, and people in early and post-acute withdrawal desperately crave anything that will fire that dopamine and make them feel better. We know that poor little mice who have been fed a high sugar diet over a period of time, and then were denied sugar had exactly the same withdrawal symptoms of chattering teeth and shaking fore-paws as mice being withdrawn from heroin. Fascinating books such as The Craving Cure, and The Hacking of the American Mind, discuss how the food industry has carefully and thoughtfully designed food to be most likely to fire the reward center of the brain, and be physiologically irresistible. This is reflected in the sky-rocketing rates of obesity and diabetes in both the US, but also in third world countries who are being consciously targeted by marketing agents of the sugar industry. The Craving Cure, fortunately, goes on to share how keeping blood sugar stable and using the amino-acid precursors of our reward producing neurotransmitters relieves both sugar and other food cravings, and the withdrawal symptoms that happen in humans who stop eating these physiologically addicting or dependency forming foods. 

My health coaching colleague was particularly confounded by the bowls of candy on the tables of the eating disorder clinics. So, she nicely (she said she was nice!) asked the young lady at the booth about this. The rep, who was drinking Red Bull, got quite defensive and stated that there are no good or bad foods, and accused my colleague of shaming her for her food choices. And right here lies a big problem. The eating disorder treatment community, for the most part, frames their clients’ eating issues as a psycho-social disorder, not a physiological one. They don’t like thinking of them as biochemically driven physiological disorders with actually addictive components. They want to normalize eating and remove any shame or guilt from food choice. This is a good thing! What we eat or don’t eat (or drink!) should not be a moral issue. Alcoholism and drug addiction should not be seen as a moral weakness, nor should sugar or food craving! But let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater.

Food is simply a complex of molecules (chemicals) compounded together. These chemicals impact the body in many different ways. Some of them are used as necessary nutrients to fuel and drive all of the processes in the body required for life. Without enough of these key nutrients, the body will falter and may even die. Some of them, like insoluble fiber, have more of an overtly physical function used to bulk up the stool and bind to toxins. Lack of fiber in the diet can have disastrous consequences! However, if someone has SIBO, (Small Intestine Bacterial Overgrowth), fiber can feed the wrong bacteria, causing more problems.  Other nutrient-chemicals found in food such as glucose/sucrose are very useful in small amounts, but in larger amounts can overwhelm our glucose management system and lead to reactive hypoglycemia with its attending, often devastating mood and energy swings and cravings, and even Type 2 Diabetes, a life-threatening disorder. 

Most of the nutrient-chemicals found in food are bound tightly together and need to be fully digested in order to be used by the body. Optimal digestion requires enough specific enzymes created by the body (some of which are actually found in fresh food!), If the body is not getting enough specific nutrients, it CANNOT make enough enzymes. Poorly digested food is not absorbed, and usually causes inflammation in the digestive tract, which then allows undigested food particles into the bloodstream, which creates havoc. This havoc can include joint pain, headaches, brain-fog, mood and behavioral disturbances, and cravings. This is often referred to as food sensitivities. They do actually exist and can be tested for. They often result from intestinal permeability or “leaky gut” caused by the inflammation mentioned above. Oddly enough, many people seem to crave the foods to which they are sensitive. This could be caused by the endorphin release which occurs after tissue damage, including inflammation.

There are several high-risk groups for poor enzyme production: people not eating enough nutrient-rich food on which to thrive, rather than just survive; older people- as we age, we often stop producing optimal amounts of these enzymes; people with long-term eating disorders; people experience on-going stress and high cortisol levels. It is interesting that poor fat digestion can cause cravings for high-fat foods to make up for the deficit. Tragically, people who have had bariatric surgery, and are therefore often significantly nutrient deficient, often report a dramatic increase in the use of addictive substances such as alcohol or THC. 

Finally, FAKE FOOD is simply dangerous. What do I mean by “fake food”? These are non-nutritive chemicals that have been packaged together to look like food but contain few to none of the nutrients our bodies require. This also includes food additives such as flavorings, colorings, and preservatives. So, they may fill us up, or even taste good, but don’t contribute to our physical well-being in any way. In fact, they may be detrimental to our health by taking up the space needed for real food, thus leading to nutrient deficiencies, or, even worse contain chemicals which are toxic and need to be eliminated by our liver and kidneys. These toxins wreak havoc as well. More and more research is coming out linking a diet of highly processed food to mood and behavioral disturbances, as well as physical issues such as cancer, morbid obesity and diabetes. But, as I pointed out above, many food companies consciously create fake food combinations to be addictive in and of themselves. This means that once someone starts eating them, processes in the brain are turned on that lead to craving more and more and…….

So where does this leave us? First, I would encourage marketing agents for treatment programs to be sensitive to the needs of people in recovery from sugar addiction. I can’t tell you the number of people who have stopped by my table at these conferences and devoutly thanked me for having real food at my table. They report how hard it is for them to walk past table after table of candy and not help themselves! We don’t offer alcohol or edibles at addiction conferences! Why are we offering sugar? Finally, not all food is created equal. Yes, avoiding the extremes of food restriction in the name of health is crucial. But going to the other extreme of encouraging the intake of body-and-mood damaging “fake food”, or offering sugar to offset an alcohol craving rather than the more useful protein, is not useful in the long-run either.

Let’s make nutrition a true part of the mental health and addiction treatment conversation!

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