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Listening to your cravings, including for sugary foods, can help you build a trusting relationship with your body’s hunger cues. (Photo by Rachel Wei)

Intuitive Eating with Mimi: Sugar and the Role it Plays for the Intuitive Eater

Does sugar have any functional role in our lives?

(Photo courtesy Mimi Cole)

Have you ever desired a warm Rand cookie or a sweet, sugary treat? Have you ever thought that the solution to this craving was to run in the opposite direction? What if I told you that sugar addiction, the idea that individuals will become dependent upon sugar and experience withdrawal symptoms in the absence of it, is not really something to be afraid of?

According to a comprehensive review in 2016 of current studies, there was a lack of evidence for the idea that humans can become addicted to sugar. Such symptoms of addiction, they noted, are only prominent in the presence of restricted access to sugar. As mentioned in my previous article, restriction of certain foods leads to binging, and becomes a cycle of deprivation and out-of-control eating patterns. The solution then is to allow ourselves to learn how to honor our cravings again, and over time, they will decrease because our bodies will come to know that it will get what it needs. 

The second principle of intuitive eating is to honor your hunger cues. My first year at Vanderbilt, I diagnosed myself as sugar intolerant. I limited my carbohydrate intake in the name of health and avoided sugary foods like the plague. For me, there were no “cheat days” or flexible rules. This lack of flexibility robbed me of warm cookies at Rand and experiencing the joy of Jeni’s ice cream on a hot August day. There were countless food experiences I missed out on because food brings people together in a unique way. The problem with this approach of complete avoidance of sugar is multifold. 

First, there is the common belief  that sugar has no nutritional purpose and is therefore not necessary. To that point, I offer this: Does avoidance of sugary foods keep you from laughter and connection with others? If so, then I argue that it is serving a very important emotional function in our lives. Our emotional health can have a huge impact on our physical health. Furthermore, there is the argument that sugar lights up the same brain regions as cocaine and other addictive drugs, and for that reason must be bad. At first glance, it may seem that sugar would also be an addictive substance that has negative effects on the brain, but this is not the case. This, it turns out, is only true with restricted access to sugar. According to registered dietitian and family nurse practitioner, Robyn Nohling, who came to speak at Vanderbilt in the spring, the complete elimination of sugar makes our brain’s reward system more desirous of sugar and feel more out of control around it resembling what some refer to as sugar addiction. It is simply our brains and bodies wanting more of what it feels it cannot have.

Thirdly, studies can misconstrue and take findings out of context, extrapolating ideas that aren’t true. One of the main problems with many “food addiction” studies is their tendency to compare consumption of sugar in large amounts to complete deprivation of sugar, which doesn’t account for a diet that is high in variety incorporating foods from all of the different groups.

The next time you find yourself craving a warm Rand cookie or a Jeni’s ice cream, I hope that you will give yourself permission to eat that. Not only will you help build a more trusting relationship with your body’s hunger cues, but it can also enhance your emotional well-being, which is just as, if not more important, than your physical well-being.

I can tell you from personal experience that those cravings, though they may seem very present at first (i.e. me eating Jeni’s countless times per week), will eventually decrease (i.e. me wanting Jeni’s a lot less frequently) when we give ourselves unconditional permission to eat the foods our body is craving. And remember, it is more than okay to eat dessert every single day, or more than one; I sure do! My motto is to add, not subtract, other nutrients to your plate and incorporate gentle nutrition, where you consider what might make you feel good when deciding what to eat. I’ll delve deeper into that concept later. There’s definitely a whole lot of information here, but don’t worry, we will continue to walk through these principles together.