Sugar hardly contributes to food dependence
Recent results of a study conducted by researchers at Maastricht University provided no scientific evidence to support the general assumption that sugar is addictive and leads to weight gain. Instead, the researchers found that weight gain is more likely when food dependence is combined with a high-calorie diet, meaning that sugar is not the main culprit. The Maastricht researchers presented their findings last week in the scientific journal Appetite.
Quite a few members of society seem to be convinced that food is addictive. This applies in particular to sugar. While there is certainly a link between the consumption of palatable products like sugar and dopamine production in the brain, that link has no bearing on addiction. Various scientific studies on obesity as a societal problem have thus far focused on diet. Given the common assumption that food – and sugar in particular – can be addictive, neuropsychologist and Professor Rob Markus was interested in studying the phenomenon of food dependence. In doing so, he expanded the standard international measurement tool for food addiction – the Yale Food Addiction Scale (YFAS) – by adding four product categories. He then administered his adapted survey to 1,500 healthy young adults and invited them to his lab for weight measurements. Professor Markus wanted to answer two questions in particular: which product category is most likely to trigger food dependence and which type of product dependence is most strongly correlated with weight gain?
Professor Markus divided his product categories as follows: low-calorie foods (rice crackers, crackers, vegetables), sugary foods (sweets, soft drinks, dried fruits), a combination of high-fat and sugary foods (pastries, cakes) and finally, a combination of high-fat, protein-rich foods (cheese, fried foods, sausage). Of the people who indicated that they sometimes struggle to avoid certain foods, nearly 30% had a tendency to consume the combination of high-calorie, high-fat protein-rich foods. For sugary foods, that figure was 5%. The relationship between food dependence and weight gain was only evident in relation to combined foods. The study also found that overweight participants struggled more with combined foods (high-calorie, sugary foods and high-calorie protein-rich foods) compared to sugary foods.
The scientific community has taken the addictive nature of food, and of sugar in particular, with a grain of salt for some time now. Addiction, such as to drugs and alcohol, triggers a very different brain response than sugar. It was also found that sugar does not contribute to more weight gain than other energy sources derived from food. 'The problem with weight gain is that we tend to consume more than we expend. What we eat doesn't really matter,' says Professor Markus. 'Perhaps we need to change the term "food addiction" into "eating dependence". This term does more justice to the unique and individual experience of eating food than ascribing addictive qualities to products like sugar.'