There’s a lot of talk about addictive behavior in health and fitness. The most popular myth is that “sugar is as addictive as cocaine.” While that’s a compelling statement, it plays to the ignorance surrounding the entire topic of addiction.

Coaches and trainers in the health and fitness industry are not talking about addiction correctly. Even popular “eating psychology coaches” are misunderstanding the root cause of the challenge you’re facing.

And this is a challenge. A major challenge. It’s the driving factor behind our obesity and preventable disease epidemic. But because of the way addiction is talked about in the health and fitness industry, people are unable to change their mindset or behavior in any meaningful way.

Here’s a typical media segment about food addiction:

Here are some of the key highlights and messaging:

  • We have [a lot of epidemics] and “sugar is largely at fault.
  • People don’t realize how much sugar they’re eating. People who eat a lot of sugar are sugar addicts.
  • Sugar is very addictive. “Sugar would be illegal if it were introduced today. It’s just a few chemical molecules different than cocaine.
  • “What qualifies something as addictive? Having just a little bit creates a desire for more; and suddenly taking it away causes withdrawal symptoms.”
  • Headaches, mood changes, etc. after going cold turkey are signs that you were eating an addictive food.
  • Healing sugar addiction is as easy as avoiding sugar and making simple swaps to natural sweeteners and sugar alternatives.
  • Getting cravings means you’re an addict.

This type of messaging is extremely common. It’s also dangerously misguided. Here’s the scoop…

  1. There are no addictive foods.
  2. There are foods that are well-suited to feed addiction.

This is not semantics. It’s a critical distinction that determines whether you will continue to struggle or become empowered to change.

First, let’s get a simpler issue out of the way: Addicts are often dependent, but dependency is not addiction.

Wikipedia does a great job of defining substance dependence: An adaptive state that develops from repeated drug administration, and which results in withdrawal upon cessation of drug use.

Because of the way our culture talks about addiction, you may have been led to believe that addiction and dependency are the same thing. They’re not. Dependency relies on a substance. Addiction does not depend on a substance. This is why gambling addiction can exist. There is no “physiological withdrawal” when a gambling addict is prevented from gambling, but gambling addicts are clearly displaying addictive behavior.

Caffeine is a good flip-side example. If you drink two cups of coffee every day for 30 days and then stop, you’re likely to experience withdrawal symptoms such as headaches, tiredness, and irritability. Those are physiological manifestations of a chemical dependence on the drug caffeine. That doesn’t mean you’re a caffeine addict. If you have the ability to stop caffeine cold turkey, deal with the withdrawal period, and move on with your life, you were never addicted to caffeine. You had a dependence, not an addiction.

Both of these examples allude to the major point: substances and behaviors are not the source of addiction. 

If sugar was addictive, everyone (or at least a large percentage) who consumed sugar would become a sugar addict. If gambling was addictive, everyone who gambled would become a gambling addict. If heroin was addictive, everyone who used heroin would become a heroin addict. And this is not the case. Not even close. The vast majority of people who engage in these behaviors and consume these substances never become addicts. Over 50% of the U.S. population drink alcohol on a regular basis. The percentage who report binge drinking or heavy drinking don’t even come close to that. Only 7% of adults have an “Alcohol Use Disorder.”†

Addictive Behavior is defined as: A behavior which is both rewarding and reinforcing. It may involve any activity, substance, object, or behavior that becomes the major focus of a person’s life resulting in a physical, mental, and/or social withdrawal from their normal day to day obligations.

Substances and behaviors do not create addicts. Log that deep in your psyche. Substances and behaviors do not create addicts.

So what does? Trauma. Trauma creates addicts.

We’ve seen the horrific consequences of believing that substances and behaviors create addicts. We elect human beings to ban other human beings from freely engaging in certain activities or from using certain substances. We take people who are struggling with addiction and lock them in cages or find other ways to reject them from participating in society. We moralize and then demonize the behaviors or substances.

Who is this helping? It’s not helping anyone. It’s not even a response based on an accurate assessment of the challenge.

If you tell a sugar or alcohol addict that these substances are the root cause of their addiction, that doesn’t empower them to heal. This strategy disempowers the addict by placing the problem and solution outside of them and outside of their sphere of influence. Naturally, abstinence becomes the only solution. But abstinence doesn’t heal addiction, it only antagonizes the addict for the rest of their life by banning them from the treatment of their pain.

That’s right. It bans them from the treatment of their pain. Alcohol is not the addict’s problem, it’s their solution to the problem. Their problem is pain. Alcohol is their attempt at solving the pain. And it does the job quite well, which is why they’re addicts.

Sugar or certain “comfort foods” are no different. These foods do light up the reward pathways in the brain much like drugs. But that doesn’t make them the problem, that just makes them an effective solution, albeit temporary, to your problem.

Do you see what this understanding does for you? It allows you to stop pointing fingers at external factors. It allows you to start investing time and energy on addressing the root cause of the eating challenges you face. Let’s go back and review the core messages from the video above, translated into reality…

  • We have [a lot of epidemics] and “sugar is largely at fault.” We have a lot of epidemics and using destructive coping mechanisms and medications is largely at fault.
  • People don’t realize how much sugar they’re eating. People who eat a lot of sugar are sugar addicts. Most people don’t realize how much sugar they’re eating. This doesn’t make them addicts. People who eat a lot of sugar may be using sugar to cope with pain. Or they may have developed a dependency that has nothing to do with addiction.
  • Sugar is very addictive. “Sugar would be illegal if it were introduced today. It’s just a few chemical molecules different than cocaine.” Unresolved trauma requires a coping mechanism and sugar fits the bill very well. Making sugar (or any drug) illegal is asinine. 
  • “What qualifies something as addictive? Having just a little bit creates a desire for more; and suddenly taking it away causes withdrawal symptoms.” Having a little bit of something and craving more has nothing to do with addiction. And substances that cause withdrawal symptoms are substances capable of dependency, which has nothing to do with causing addiction.
  • Headaches, mood changes, etc. after going cold turkey are signs that you were eating an addictive food. Headaches, mood changes, etc. after going cold turkey are signs that you were using a dependency-capable substance.
  • Healing sugar addiction is as easy as avoiding sugar and making simple swaps to natural sweeteners and sugar alternatives. Healing sugar addiction requires addressing the root cause of the addiction and has very little to do with the ingestion of sugar.
  • Getting cravings means you’re an addict. Cravings themselves, especially when it comes to food, are not necessarily a symptom of anything.

The current misunderstanding of addiction (in the health and fitness industry especially) amounts to nothing more than finger pointing and abstinence-based advice. When you start talking about food addiction, this abstinence model and the misunderstanding of addiction becomes very dangerous because human beings need food for survival. Cultivating a war with food or a war with certain types of food will not lead to men and women ever having a body and life they love.

While the health and fitness industry continues to create boogeymen, I’ll continue to shower men and women around the world with the light of truth. Which do you feel empowers you most?

For a full breakdown of this topic with expansion into the root causes of addiction and eating challenges, click here to listen to “Why You Don’t Binge On Broccoli: The Truth About Food Addiction.”

Comments

  • Ben says:

    I some what see what your saying but at sametime question underlying issue. Or the problem. Why cant the problem not be the sugar foods? I have heard some say there is underlying problems but i have asked my self what the problem would be? Last year when i stopped processed foods and sweets it was easy once past a certain point. One day i okayed my self to have a doughnut. Its bad ever sense. So i question what underlying proble could be. Tied with that my kids dont get pop and did not get much sweets. But i can see a differance in eating patterns when they are given carb foods instead of no processed natural foods. They want more and more, at 1 and 3 years old what underlying problem do they have? Just because sugar is not a problem for one does not mean its not potentially for another? Why cant some things be addictive to some people and made worse by underlying problems?

    • Kevin Geary says:

      Thanks for your thoughts, Ben. I’ll try to address them as best I can…

      Why cant the problem not be the sugar foods?

      For *some*, the problem is sugar. It’s possible to develop a physiological dependence on sugar that drives cravings and seeking-behavior.

      If this is the case, then avoiding all processed sugar for a period of 3-6 weeks will result in breaking the dependence.

      In my work with tens of thousands of people all over the world, I’d estimate that well over 80% of people struggle well beyond this, and that’s because their issues go much deeper than simple physiological dependence.

      If you break a dependence, and still seek the drug/behavior, you’re an addict, not a simple dependent. And, as I explained, addiction has nothing relevant to do with substances or behaviors in terms of cause.

      If you break a dependence, have a donut six months later, and immediately go back to craving/seeking behavior, that’s a symptom that you fit more into the addiction camp than the dependence camp. The reintroduction of a coping food/behavior let’s the brain know, “our coping mechanism is back in stock” so to speak, and so it immediately ramps up the seeking behavior. This *does not* happen in people who have a healthy relationship with that food/drug/behavior.

      But i can see a differance in eating patterns when they are given carb foods instead of no processed natural foods. They want more and more, at 1 and 3 years old what underlying problem do they have?

      Most of what children experience with regard to these foods is driven by their biological programming, namely “optimal foraging theory.” I talked about this here > https://rebootedbody.com/optimal-foraging-theory/

      Processed, hyperpalatable foods do light up the reward center of the brain. And children will be naturally drawn to them, as all human beings are. The only difference between adults and children is that children have no idea that these foods can be highly destructive. So, they have no reason to moderate the consumption of these foods. Adults, on the other hand, know the destructiveness of these foods and…still can’t stop eating them. *That* is where you identify a deeper issue. Because if the foods were *that* powerful to completely consume someone without any other underlying issue, then we would all be consumed by them.

      People say that heroin is a drug that consumes people. But it doesn’t. The majority of people who try heroin never become heroin addicts. People who carry a lot of pain and trauma are consumed by heroin because it presents as medication to them.

      The trauma/pain issue is far more widespread than people know. And as you mentioned, “what does a child have as a deeper issue?” Well, a lot, actually. The majority of children are spanked and shamed and conditionally loved. They’re stuffed in desks for 8 hours a day in an environment they didn’t choose to be in full of bullying and high expectations. A large percentage of boys are traumatized shortly after birth through circumcision. Some children are abandoned in their cribs to “learn how to sleep on their own.” Even things that adults have no control over, such as a stressful birth, can be a trauma to a newborn. The list goes on endlessly.

      Some kids are more resilient than others, just like some adults are more resilient than others, so many can handle these trauma’s without any outward symptoms while others cannot.

      This is a HIGHLY complex topic and I think that it’s a disservice for people to boil it down to, “it’s all sugar’s fault, just stay away from sugar for the rest of your life and everything will be okay.”

      Does that make sense?

  • Kate A says:

    Your claims are inconsistent with experts and don’t seem scientific at all. For example, you mention the Wikipedia definition of dependence, so here is something the addiction Wikipedia page has to say almost immediately to undermine your entire article. “Despite the involvement of a number of psychosocial factors, a biological process – one which is induced by repeated exposure to an addictive stimulus – is the core pathology that drives the development and maintenance of an addiction.” Statements such as these are consistently cited within the text, from trusted scientific sources.

    I didn’t see a single reference to real evidence or science in this article. It seems it’s just your opinion or maybe the opinion of people you work with and are exposed to, but that opinion doesn’t deserve to be presented as fact without being backed up.

    I’ve noticed this is a pattern in your articles and I’m extremely disappointed in the misinformation you spread.

    Some of what you said seemed reasonable and some seemed very off, and either way, it can’t be taken seriously.

    • Kevin Michael Geary says:

      Kate, what is your actual argument? Saying, “some people disagree with you” isn’t an argument.

      Your claims are inconsistent with experts

      What experts? All experts? Your experts? The experts you approve of? This isn’t an argument.

      …here is something the addiction Wikipedia page has to say almost immediately to undermine your entire article.

      I’m aware of what the Wikipedia page says.

      Do you disagree that “dependence” and “addiction” are separate things?

      Can you explain your disagreement?

  • Sue says:

    Hi Kevin
    I find a lot of truth in this and it just makes sense to me because much of what you say I have had personal experience with. I have learned much about my relationship with food and my ways of using food beyond the purpose of nutrition.
    The question asked here is helpful because I recognize that when I eat something that I view as a bad choice, it can trigger emotional eating. The question is why does that invoke that feeling on me? This is what needs to be addressed, because another day, I may not have the same experience with the same food. So it’s not about the food, it’s how I feel about eating the food and how that makes me feel etc….. that’s my work and I think speaks a bit to what you speak about. Ty for all you do in helping others(myself) feel better about my relationship with food but going deeper- about myself

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