As I’ve been traveling around for the past month, talking about The Eating Instinct with different audiences, one question keeps coming up: But what about sugar?
I’m encouraged by how many people get that dieting doesn’t work. They get that eating intuitively is a kinder, gentler approach to health and they want to listen to their bodies and trust their hunger and fullness cues. But… what about sugar? Who can possibly trust their body around the white stuff? Doesn’t it override your fullness signals and reprogram your brain to crave more, more, more, until you find yourself huffing powdered Munchkins by the dumpster of your local Dunkin’ Donuts?
I know. You eat a brownie and find it impossible to stop at just one. When you decide to have a no-sugar day (or month), you obsess about it constantly. Yet it feels somehow easier to give it up altogether than to try to master “moderation.” But that’s not biological addiction, says Lisa DuBreuil, LICSW, a clinical social worker who treats people with co-occurring substance use disorders and eating disorders in the Department of Psychiatry at Massachusetts General Hospital. “That’s restriction at work. You crave sugar precisely because you’ve been told so continuously that you shouldn’t want it.”
I interviewed Lisa about this for the book (see chapter 6!) and we’ll be having her on Comfort Food Podcast in January to get into way more detail about the so-called sugar addiction. From her perspective as a clinician, one of the biggest risks is how restricting sugar increases your risk for disordered eating patterns overall. And while we know that surviving a substance use disorder requires abstinence (the alcoholic needs sobriety; the addict can’t use), eating disorder recovery is only possible once you learn to co-exist with food. (Yes, even for folks prone to bingeing — because that happens in response to restriction.)
I bring all of this up because we’re in the thick of the holiday season now and sugar is likely coming at you fast and furious… along with all of the shame and mournful anticipation of what you should do come January. We have a giant bag of Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups in our house right now, acquired in order to fill our daughter’s Advent Calendar, but the bag contained about 200 extra. When they first showed up, I immediately ate a couple, because hooray, peanut butter cups! Then I put the bag in our pantry and forgot about it. Last night, while watching TV, I remembered it and ate three more. But just three. They were perfectly satisfying, and I stopped while they still tasted good, before my tongue got that fuzzy candy coating where I stop being able to taste just how good they are.
By the way, I’m using this example because peanut butter cups are exactly the kind of food so often held up as “bad” because a group of corporate food marketers sat around calculating exactly how much sugar, fat and salt they should contain to be irresistible to the human tongue. And another question I’m often asked is “aren’t food marketers using our eating instincts against us?” The answer is: Food marketers use our guilt and good/bad food beliefs against us. Think of how many food campaigns are built around messages of sinful indulgence, cheating, letting yourself be bad… Reese’s, Nestle, Ore Ida and friends are only too happy to remind you that you shouldn’t eat their products because they know that’s the secret to making you want to eat nothing else.
But back to me and how that didn’t happen. I’m hesitating to even write about this, because I’m worried it will be misinterpreted as a diet strategy. Lord knows, we’ve all heard the tired old chestnut about letting yourself enjoy precisely one square of dark chocolate every night to try to trick your brain into thinking you aren’t restricting all day long. (Result: Everybody’s brains screaming “why is that square so effing small?!”) This is not “look at me, I’m being so good!” No willpower was involved, because the victory was not that I ate only three peanut butter cups. I could have eaten five, or ten, or none. The victory was letting myself have the actual amount I wanted—because I wasn’t following an arbitrary limit, or hijacking my enjoyment with guilt. And so, that out of control feeling of “why am I still eating these?” never kicked in. Because here is the perfectly ironic truth about sugar (and really, all food): It is only possible to eat less if you have given yourself full and unequivocal permission to eat as much as you want. By which I mean, you actually can’t “eat less” and hope to be satisfied. But if you eat as much as you want, sometimes you’ll be surprised to learn you don’t want as much as you thought you would.
If this sounds sort of maddening and impossible, I hear you. I’ve been working on this permission thing for several years now and it’s only clicked in this particular way in maybe the past six months. And I still struggle when I’m eating with other people, because our anxieties about food are so contagious. Worrying that other people might have an opinion on how many brownies I eat at a party and knowing they definitely have opinions about their own brownie consumption makes it harder to stay focused on my own enjoyment of my very favorite baked good.
So let’s just all remember: Sugar is not addictive. We have full permission to eat it. (In fact, our glucose-fueled brains demand that we do.) And celebrating special times of the year with special foods is one of the loveliest things about being human. Happy/Merry Everything, Friends!
Need more on all of this? This US News & World Report piece is a great breakdown of sugar addiction research. And I find Ellyn Satter’s What Is Normal Eating? is a great thing to pull out this time of year. Maybe print it out to stick on your fridge or in your pocket for quick reference/reassurance at holiday parties?