The irrational behaviour around sugar and other "junk" foods
Are you an all-or-nothing type when it comes to junk food? Can’t understand how your mate can eat just one biscuit when the entire packet doesn’t stand a chance with you? Well, you’re not alone.
There’s a lot of talk in the media about eating all foods in moderation and there’s a backlash against the growing trend where people choose to omit some foods from their diet. There are concerns that such extreme dietary behaviour could lead to an imbalanced and obsessive approach (termed orthorexia).
Though there may be a very small subsection of the population at risk of developing this disorder, there is good reason to defend some people’s decision not to go near junk-type foods given they have (in their words) no willpower when it comes to sugar, fat and sweets.
Should these people “try harder’’, exert “more willpower’’ and be "more controlled"?
Some would argue, yes.
In fact, from a dietary perspective, there are clear behaviours that can help people who have no willpower control their intake of these triggers — and I talk of them often: eat a good breakfast, snack on protein-based foods, ensure a good volume of food at each meal. All these help regulate appetite and (for most people) send appropriate signals to the brain telling you “you’re done’’.
However, there are others who, even when they practise these behaviours, still have an issue with stopping at just one biscuit.
There is good research to show manufacturers create food products with the exact amount of sugar, fat and salt to hit a “bliss point” — a concept created by psychophysicist Howard Moskwitz to optimise palatability. This sends signals to the brain that feeds into what is called the “reward cycle’’.
Our brain releases endorphins (a feel-good neurotransmitter) which causes us to seek out the food again in order to recreate that pleasant sensation (thanks to the release of another neurotransmitter, dopamine). Though the foods that have been created with the synergistic effect of two or three of these nutrients in mind, for some people, the effect of just one (and sugar in particular) can trigger the same chemical reaction. In fact, sugar has been shown to feed into the same chemical pathways and area of the brain as both alcohol and drugs.
Sugar has been described as a “super stimuli”
It can (in some people) cause the brain to release a lot more dopamine than it would if that person was consuming, say, an apple. I know that the idea that “sugar is addictive” is not popular among some health professionals — however the number of people I have seen who swear they cannot go near sugar as they can’t control their irrational behaviour around it (their words) leaves me in no doubt that it is a real phenomenon.
Interestingly, many who have struggled with alcohol and other drugs often report that giving up sugar is one of the toughest battles they have fought, and it makes sense that this challenge would be harder for them, given what we know about the brain physiology mentioned above.
However, just because you know you can’t have chocolate in the house doesn’t mean your brain is hard-wired towards these addictive pathways.
There are behavioural models that suggest some people will struggle to control their intake around certain foods outside the chemical effects of food. Gretchen Rubin, author of The Happiness Project and (more recently) Better Than Before describes these people as abstainers.
Abstainers are all-or-nothing.
It’s easy for them to give up something completely, but if they get even just a little bit then there is no stopping them. On the other hand, moderators can have a square of chocolate, just one biscuit, or a handful of potato chips and they are done. For abstainers it is a LOT easier to have none, which is a concept moderators have difficulty understanding. To say “no I don’t eat that” is actually far easier and makes far more sense. All of the background noise goes away. For these people, avoiding the trigger foods entirely is not extreme. It’s sensible.
So which one are you? A moderator or an abstainer?
Perhaps you assume you are a moderator but actually you are better at abstaining. The only way to figure that out is to step back and question whether or not your dietary strategy is working for you. If you allow yourself a couple of pieces of chocolate in the evening, but you end up consuming the entire block, then perhaps try abstaining to see if you would be more successful. Just because moderation is supposedly sensible, doesn’t necessarily make it a sensible option for you.
Here is a recipe for coconut almond square - it is sugar-free, but you still have to practice moderation!
Through her subscription service of meal plans and nutritional support, nutritionist Mikki Williden helps people manage their diets in an interesting way, at a low cost. To find out more and to sign up, visit mikkiwilliden.co.nz