As we make our way into the fall season, it is inevitable that the topic of sweets at Halloween starts coming up with our patients. Many of our patients have a love/hate relationship with Halloween, starting when they were kids. Most remember being restricted around candy by their parents and have vivid memories of having limited access to their haul or sometimes no access at all. One recalls when her parents actually paid her $50 in exchange for her giving up all of the candy she had gathered. Another remembers sneaking her candy bag into her bedroom and eating chocolate in her closet so her mom wouldn’t see. Most of these individuals grew up feeling like they were addicted to sugar or food in general and that they could not be trusted to be around these foods.
Diet culture would have us believe that sugar/food addiction is a real phenomenon and that it is the reason for our “obesity epidemic.” Countless diet gurus and programs are dedicated to helping their clients “break the sugar habit” and cure themselves of their addiction to food. The food addiction model claims that certain foods light up the pleasure centers of the brain, which means that these foods elicit a pleasure response similar to that of drugs and alcohol. Other things that light up the pleasure centers of our brain: hugging a loved one, laughing at a funny joke, breastfeeding and/or holding your baby, listening to music you enjoy, and falling in love.
The only reason the food addiction model has been posited is because of fatphobia. Are we concerned with laughing addiction or hugging addiction? No. It’s only because people who feel that they are addicted to food are likely engaging in a lot of physical and/or mental restriction to try and control their weight. If being or becoming fat was not vilified like it is in our diet culture, people would not be restricting themselves and thereby would not feel out of control with these foods. Restriction begets bingeing.
Most studies that have been done on food addiction have been performed on mice. Interestingly, most of these studies found that the mice that were restricted from the highly palatable rewards foods and were presented these rewards at intermittent intervals were much more likely to overeat at these times. Similarly, other studies have shown that when humans are deprived of certain highly palatable foods (foods high in sugar, salt and fat), they have a heightened brain response to those foods when they see them. This means that those “forbidden” foods become much more appealing and attractive to the restrained eater than the non-restrained eater. None of the food addiction research currently controls for deprivation, meaning that they don’t measure if the subjects are currently dieting or have dieted in the past before conducting their studies.
The abstinence model of substance addiction is considered the gold standard right now. But unlike drugs and alcohol, one cannot simply abstain from food. There is a biological reason why food lights up the reward pathways in our brain – survival instinct! This causes us to seek out food when our bodies need it, which is necessary in order for our species to survive. On the other hand, we could live our lives without consuming any recreational drugs or alcohol and survive just fine.
All of this is to say that many people feel like they are addicted to food. What I would argue is that the behavior of eating might feel like an addictive or compulsive one, but that food in and of itself is not an addictive substance. So what should we do about kids and candy? My advice is to make candy (and other highly palatable foods) available on a regular basis in your home – add them to meals (i.e., have them be part of the actual meal), let them be the afternoon snack here and there. And don’t refer to these foods as “treats” or “junk” as this immediately makes them that much more appealing and also much more likely that your kids will sneak and overeat these foods when they are available. By including these foods regularly, they will lose their “shine,” and when holidays like Halloween or Christmas or Easter roll around, the magnetic pull to these foods will be markedly diminished.