Sugar given Carte Blanche to cause panic

When you (by which I mean, the average person) thinks about something as being “addictive”, I think we mean that the substance or activity in question is particularly likely to cause you to develop some combination of dependence, tolerance, cravings and withdrawal symptoms.

You’d also, if addicted, go to significant lengths to obtain the thing that you are addicted to. On a trivial end of this spectrum, people who smoke cigarettes might walk out into a cold and rainy evening to go and purchase cigarettes, instead of staying under the duvet like any sensible (i.e., non-addicted) person would.

When you think of addiction, in other words, I’d guess that you typically don’t mean that you know this fellow, George, who has become so obsessed with playing Minecraft that you describe Minecraft as addictive, as opposed to acknowledging that people can become “addicted” to Minecraft.

sugarThe distinction is important, and points to one of the significant problems in discourse around sugar “addiction”, as recently portrayed on the South African current affairs show, Carte Blanche. It’s important because the things we like are rewarding at the level of the brain, in that they result in dopamine release – but this does not necessarily mean that they are addictive in the stronger sense that we tend to reserve for things that you can’t help but find rewarding.

In other words, there’s almost zero chance of my becoming addicted to running, because I don’t like doing it, and tend not to do it. But there’s a significant chance – and a similar chance to your chance – of my becoming addicted to heroin, if either of us were to try it.

We’re using the word “addictive” in a very broad sense when we describe the Internet, exercise, and sugar as addictive. In fact, the sense in which it’s being used is broad enough as to mostly lose its meaning, by contrast to the strong sense in which certain substances are very likely to result in the sorts of reactions mentioned above, for many people.

Most of us exercise, use sugar or the Internet, and have sex quite unproblematically (in terms of addiction, Beavis). More of us use things like heroin or cocaine unproblematically than the standard sorts of addiction panics claim also, but that’s a story for another day. The point I’m making here is quite simply that any claim that sugar is “addictive” is using the word “addictive” in a misleading and hyperbolic way.

Long-term addiction is the exception, not the rule – we suffer from a confirmation bias here in the sense that we don’t get to hear about the people who live with addictions that are largely under control and remitting (in other words, most of them). We hear about the horror-stories, of people struggling with a demon, and (sometimes) heroically fighting it off.

And, as the cases and science detailed in Johann Hari’s Chasing the Scream persuasively suggest, the primary vehicle we have for escaping addiction is to give ourselves a sense of purpose and above all, agency – and agency is last thing that panics around things like sugar addiction have time for. Instead, the narrative is all about you being a victim of conspiracy.

You can watch the Carte Blanche insert yourself, in which you’ll be told that “sugar may be as addictive as nicotine and hard drugs”, that sugar can “hijack the brain” and so forth. But what you’ll mostly see is three self-described (and apparently self-diagnosed) sugar addicts telling you how addictive it is.

Their primary scientific resource, Prof. Nicole Avena, doesn’t even herself support the strong addiction claim, saying “a little bit of sugar won’t hurt you. It’s not a bad thing in general, it’s just the way we are consuming it is a bad thing”. The “we” is perhaps too broad there, in the sense that many of us who aren’t on LCHF-type diets have been restricting added sugars for our entire lives already, given that warnings about refined sugars have been a staple of dietary advice for quite some time now.

Nevertheless, I’d agree that people are eating too much sugar. And, people who are prone to compulsive behaviour might well find themselves becoming “addicted” to sugar – and you wouldn’t be surprised to find (as you do in one of the three cases presented in the show) that these people can become “addicted” or even addicted to a range of things over the course of their lives.

The problem, in short, might be with their lives and their circumstances – at least in large part – rather than in the substances or activities. We should not be surprised that our brains find food rewarding, and that we seek it out. We’d be surprised if it was any other way. But if we can (typically, as with most consumers of sugar) control the impulse to eat too much of it, then addicts need to shoulder a large portion of the responsibility themselves, and not hand it over to sugar.

But, say some (and as presented at 2m21s in the video, with an unfortunate reference to quack-central Natural News), studies prove that sugar is more addictive than cocaine. Unfortunately, studies prove what you want them to, depending on which studies you read, and which you ignore.

Plus, of course, how attentively you read them can be an issue – as I’ve noted before, Avena and others are far more circumspect and tentative than they are presented to be by the media and vested interests. Her own oft-cited paper is full of scare-quotes for the word “addiction”, and stresses that “whether or not it is a good idea to call this a “food addiction” in people is both a scientific and societal question that has yet to be answered.”

The hyperbole in blogs and online news sources, never mind repositories of the worst sorts of pseudoscience like Natural News, don’t help resolve these issues. Neither do personal anecdotes, regardless of our compassion for people who struggle with compulsive behaviour of various sorts. Movies like Fed Up are of little use also, in that they simply populate the scaremongering filter-bubble with cherry-picked and misrepresented data.

If you want to read about why the Lenoir et. al. study quoted in Natural News doesn’t resolve my doubts about sugar addiction, not to mention comparing rat data to human experience – especially given the fact that psychological rather than physiological factors seem most relevant to addiction – I’d recommend reading this Scicurious post closely.

That post points out that there’s perhaps a vast difference between the self-administration of drugs in humans compared with rats, who can’t reason about their choices like we can. It also notes that the study doesn’t measure a progressive ratio – in other words, it doesn’t tell us what the rat prefers when it really has to work to get its reward. When things get tough, will it prefer sugar, or will it quit trying?

We don’t yet have good human data for sugar addiction. What we do seem to have is limited evidence for “eating addiction“, but as I’ve stressed above, an addictive behaviour is not the same thing as an addictive substance. People who are addicted to eating might well find foods – including sugar – deeply rewarding, but it’s premature to blame the sugar itself.

To conclude: there’s no problem with saying we find sugar rewarding. Of course we do, as we would exercise and so forth. To say it’s addictive makes a far stronger claim, and that claim is the suggestion that it’s a sinister substance that’s out to get you, rather than something you’re free to enjoy in moderation, just as you can alcohol or any other drug, depending on the legislation where you live, and your own personal risk-tolerance.

One thing I’m quite concerned about, though, and have noted before, is that it seems quite likely to me that your risk-tolerance can only be compromised through being treated like a perpetual victim – and that believing your food is out to kill you seems a wholehearted embracing of that victimhood.

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