Dr. Susan Peirce Thompson, founder of Bright Line Eating explains how we become addicted to sugar and flour.
If you’ve been writing your sugar cravings off as having a “sweet tooth” or referred to having a “sugar addiction” in jest, your relationship with sweets might actually be more complicated than you think.
Dr. Susan Peirce Thompson, New York Times best-selling author and founder of Bright Line Eating, says it’s entirely possible to become addicted to this refined substance. In fact, the way we become dependent on drugs is no different from the addiction we form with foods made from sugar and flour.
“What people need to understand is that sugar and flour are as addictive in the brain as heroin and cocaine,” Dr. Thompson explains. “If we look at brain scans, we see that sugar and flour impact the addictive centers of the brain just like drugs.”
How we become addicted
You may be familiar with how forming an addiction works—but probably never thought of your morning muffin as something you’d have trouble quitting. However, you may have noticed that over time, that muffin doesn’t have the same effect it used to on your overall mood.
“Sugar and flour activate dopamine, the feel-good hormone in our brain,” Dr. Thompson explains. “These powdery substances have all been refined and purified to hit the brain in a really powerful way.” Because that reaction is so intense, our brain tries to regulate the stimulation. “Those dopamine receptors downregulate and become less responsive to our sugar and flour intake. All of a sudden, you need more stimulation to get that effect. Over time, the user isn’t using to get high anymore. They’re using to get normal—just to get back to baseline.”
Why we become addicted
If sugar and flour are so addictive, why is it that some people are able to stop themselves after having just one cookie or piece of chocolate—without going overboard? “Not everyone is equally susceptible to addiction,” Dr. Thompson explains. “As a matter of fact, there’s a continuum.” To help people determine where they fall on the spectrum, Dr. Thompson created the Susceptibility Scale, which measures how addictable you are based on your relationship with food.
“If someone’s on the low end of the Susceptibility Scale, they’re not interested in food—they can take it or leave it,” Dr. Thompson explains. “They have to remind themselves to eat. In the mid-range are people who have some degree of addictive pull toward processed, refined foods. On the high end, people are going to experience feeling a lack of control over the foods they eat—promising themselves they’ll just have one and then having more.”
Based on research, Dr. Thompson says that the population is split into thirds, with 1/3 not susceptible, 1/3 moderately susceptible, and 1/3 profoundly susceptible to food addiction.
Who’s most at risk?
If your family members have a history of addictive behavior, Dr. Thompson says it’s more likely you too have the genetic trait that determines addiction. “Where you fall on the scale—whether you’re not addicted or profoundly addictable—has everything to do with your genetics,” she explains. “When we look at human beings we tend to see that addiction runs in families. Addictive parents tend to give birth to addictive kids.”
Another indicator that determines where you fall on the scale has to do with how you respond to food cues. “People who are more susceptible to addiction get more pulled in by the cues that predict the food reward,” Dr. Thompson explains. “Maybe they’re walking by the teacher’s lounge and catch the pink box out of the corner of their eye. They know there are doughnuts in there, so they swerve in. Whether it’s a sight, sound, or smell, these cues are going to pull them toward that food reward way more powerfully than someone who does not have an addicted brain.”
How to break free from food addiction
Just like quitting any drug, Dr. Thompson says the key to beating a sugar and flour addiction is to quit all together. “If you fall higher on the Susceptibility Scale, you need to understand that an approach of moderation isn’t going to work,” she explains. “People who aren’t susceptible to addiction can have one piece of pizza and stop at that. They can have a cookie and not two or three or four. But for those of us who have a brain that’s more addictable, that experiment never works. We promise ourselves we’re going to have one, and we end up having more.”
These findings are what led Dr. Thompson to create the Bright Line Eating Boot Camp, which sets dieters up for success by creating explicit boundaries. “A ‘Bright Line’ is a clear, unambiguous boundary that you just don’t cross,” Dr. Thompson explains. “Bright Line Eating is an approach that is tailor made for people who have brains that are more susceptible to food addiction. For us, not eating any of those addictive foods is far easier than trying to engage with them a little bit and think we’re going to be successful.”
Quitting anything cold turkey comes with its challenges—especially with flour and sugar tempting you at every office birthday party and drive-thru window. But the people who are doing the program are accomplishing what no other group has been scientifically documented to do: lose all their excess weight and keep it off long term. How? The Bright Line Eating program comes with a built-in support system to help dieters overcome these daily lures. “If you have a brain that’s more susceptible to food addiction, social support is key,” Dr. Thompson says. “In Bright Line Eating we have a buddy system, we have accountability calls—we have so many online and telephone support systems that help people stay connected with one another.”
In addition to tapping your support system, there are a few other tips for overcoming temptation in the moment. “Research shows that gratitude replenishes our willpower,” Dr. Thompson explains. “It can be as simple as excusing yourself to the bathroom to write a gratitude list on your phone or striking up a conversation about gratitude with people at the party.” If you know you’re entering a situation where there you’ll be tempted to eat off your plan, Dr. Thompson also recommends using a tool called “bookending.” “Let a buddy know that you’re going into a challenging experience, whether it’s a movie, grocery shopping, or a friend’s house,” she says. “Tell them you’ll update them on your success once you leave.”
Susan Peirce Thompson, Ph.D. is an Adjunct Associate Professor of Brain and Cognitive Sciences at the University of Rochester and author of the New York Times Best-Selling book, Bright Line Eating: The Science of Living Happy, Thin, and Free.
Members of the editorial and news staff of the USA Today Network were not involved in the creation of this content.
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