“If I start eating candy, I can’t stop. I swear, I’ll eat the whole bag. Having a big bowl of candy in the house sounds like a nightmare waiting to happen. I can’t control myself around candy.”
Definitive studies have shown that humans are born with taste receptors that prefer the taste of sweet (Maller & Dosor, 1973; Beauchamp et al., 1982). So how does an innate taste preference turn into, what feels like, a full-blown addiction? The vast majority of our clients feel like they can’t control themselves around candy.
You’re not addicted to candy, you just like something you think you can’t have.
Wanting sugar is normal. What feels addictive is when we eat something we enjoy while at the same time telling ourselves to stop eating it. Many people live in a state of internal food insecurity. One part of you desperately wants the Twix bar and another part of you is saying, “No! Don’t eat that Twix bar!” The part that wants the Twix bar typically wins, adding arsenal to your personal candy police force. More self-inflicted rules ensue, and the cycle continues. And this is why, for most people, the harder you try to control your eating, the more out of control it gets. Logically, you might reason, you’re addicted to sugar because you just can’t control yourself around candy. But this is missing the point. You’re not lacking self-control.
When preferred food is forbidden, we want it more. This is basic human psychology. All this fear and hype around sugar has an opposite effect. We find ourselves binging on candy with every opportunity (e.g., Halloween night). It’s like a dam that breaks; restriction leads to binging (which feels like an addiction). And, it’s easy to binge on food we’re anxious about. The fear beliefs we have around sugar light up the limbic center of our brain, our fear-residence center. Our limbic system tells the rest of our body to “numb-out” in response to a fear trigger (e.g., a Twix bar). That out-of-control feeling you have while eating candy is actually limbic-driven disconnection. Many clients describe it like being in another zone. It’s hard to feel our body in this state. We can’t connect to our hunger and fullness cues, which explains how you can binge on candy without feeling full. Normalizing and legalizing sugar prevents this biological effect from happening.
You weren’t born fearing candy. Where did you learn that candy was responsible for every health problem known to man? Childhood? Talk shows? Diet culture proliferates the message that sugar is evil (it isn’t at all evil, actually, see the blog post on the The (real) Truth about Sugar here). Google “sugar” and any innocent consumer would think twice before eating a Twix bar (again, don’t listen to diet culture).
But it’s not just fear and restriction that make candy feel addictive. You may also be emotionally driven to eat sweets. Food is great at distracting us from how we’re feeling inside. All you can think about when you're eating candy is probably just candy. If you have feelings or a need, such as fatigue, you can’t identify (or don’t know what to do with), you are going to seek distraction. And candy fits the bill. A psychological pull develops. Sugar becomes associated with problem solving and even self-medication. Feeling your feelings and figuring out your needs is paramount to feeling calm and normal around candy.
And lastly, eating sugary foods lights up the pleasure centers of our brain. We get a boost of the feel-good neurochemical dopamine. This happens with other food as well, it’s not just with sugar (any sensory experience raises brain dopamine). Instead of trying to convince yourself that you can't have sweets, try convincing yourself that you can.
Here’s a vision of what it’s like to eat candy without hang-ups and fears:
· Candy is just food. You know and believe this truth.
· You choose candy that you like.
· You taste candy fully, noticing the sweet taste notes and sensations.
· You also notice what's happening in your body. Feeling full? Feeling satisfied? Wanting more?
· You self-regulate. You take another piece if you're not feeling satisfied. If you're feeling done for the moment you pause and come back to it in the future, which could be in a few minutes, hours, or days.
If candy has been a binge food for you in the past, you'll need to take baby steps. Going from “I can't control myself around candy” to “I can have candy all around me and eat as much as I want” won't be a smooth road. Expect bumps. Take baby steps. Learning to eat intuitively takes a long time. If you need help, work with a non-diet dietitian. I've been in private practice for 16 years and have witnessed hundreds of clients learn to eat sweets peacefully.
But back to Halloween… I hope you get some good candy. Me, I’ll be looking for Twix in my kids’ candy stash. Happy Halloween!