Before anyone else says it, yes, I know the title over-promises. Snappy comebacks aren’t exactly my thing, because they are typically simple-minded and reductionist responses to issues that are, to borrow Dr. Ben Goldacre’s line, “more complicated than that”.
When you (by which I mean, the average person) thinks about something as being “addictive”, I think we mean that the substance or activity in question is particularly likely to cause you to develop some combination of dependence, tolerance, cravings and withdrawal symptoms.
You’d also, if addicted, go to significant lengths to obtain the thing that you are addicted to. On a trivial end of this spectrum, people who smoke cigarettes might walk out into a cold and rainy evening to go and purchase cigarettes, instead of staying under the duvet like any sensible (i.e., non-addicted) person would.
When you think of addiction, in other words, I’d guess that you typically don’t mean that you know this fellow, George, who has become so obsessed with playing Minecraft that you describe Minecraft as addictive, as opposed to acknowledging that people can become “addicted” to Minecraft.
The distinction is important, and points to one of the significant problems in discourse around sugar “addiction”, as recently portrayed on the South African current affairs show, Carte Blanche. It’s important because the things we like are rewarding at the level of the brain, in that they result in dopamine release – but this does not necessarily mean that they are addictive in the stronger sense that we tend to reserve for things that you can’t help but find rewarding.
In other words, there’s almost zero chance of my becoming addicted to running, because I don’t like doing it, and tend not to do it. But there’s a significant chance – and a similar chance to your chance – of my becoming addicted to heroin, if either of us were to try it.
We’re using the word “addictive” in a very broad sense when we describe the Internet, exercise, and sugar as addictive. In fact, the sense in which it’s being used is broad enough as to mostly lose its meaning, by contrast to the strong sense in which certain substances are very likely to result in the sorts of reactions mentioned above, for many people.
Most of us exercise, use sugar or the Internet, and have sex quite unproblematically (in terms of addiction, Beavis). More of us use things like heroin or cocaine unproblematically than the standard sorts of addiction panics claim also, but that’s a story for another day. The point I’m making here is quite simply that any claim that sugar is “addictive” is using the word “addictive” in a misleading and hyperbolic way.
Long-term addiction is the exception, not the rule – we suffer from a confirmation bias here in the sense that we don’t get to hear about the people who live with addictions that are largely under control and remitting (in other words, most of them). We hear about the horror-stories, of people struggling with a demon, and (sometimes) heroically fighting it off.
And, as the cases and science detailed in Johann Hari’s Chasing the Scream persuasively suggest, the primary vehicle we have for escaping addiction is to give ourselves a sense of purpose and above all, agency – and agency is last thing that panics around things like sugar addiction have time for. Instead, the narrative is all about you being a victim of conspiracy.
You can watch the Carte Blanche insert yourself, in which you’ll be told that “sugar may be as addictive as nicotine and hard drugs”, that sugar can “hijack the brain” and so forth. But what you’ll mostly see is three self-described (and apparently self-diagnosed) sugar addicts telling you how addictive it is.
Their primary scientific resource, Prof. Nicole Avena, doesn’t even herself support the strong addiction claim, saying “a little bit of sugar won’t hurt you. It’s not a bad thing in general, it’s just the way we are consuming it is a bad thing”. The “we” is perhaps too broad there, in the sense that many of us who aren’t on LCHF-type diets have been restricting added sugars for our entire lives already, given that warnings about refined sugars have been a staple of dietary advice for quite some time now.
Nevertheless, I’d agree that people are eating too much sugar. And, people who are prone to compulsive behaviour might well find themselves becoming “addicted” to sugar – and you wouldn’t be surprised to find (as you do in one of the three cases presented in the show) that these people can become “addicted” or even addicted to a range of things over the course of their lives.
The problem, in short, might be with their lives and their circumstances – at least in large part – rather than in the substances or activities. We should not be surprised that our brains find food rewarding, and that we seek it out. We’d be surprised if it was any other way. But if we can (typically, as with most consumers of sugar) control the impulse to eat too much of it, then addicts need to shoulder a large portion of the responsibility themselves, and not hand it over to sugar.
But, say some (and as presented at 2m21s in the video, with an unfortunate reference to quack-central Natural News), studies prove that sugar is more addictive than cocaine. Unfortunately, studies prove what you want them to, depending on which studies you read, and which you ignore.
Plus, of course, how attentively you read them can be an issue – as I’ve noted before, Avena and others are far more circumspect and tentative than they are presented to be by the media and vested interests. Her own oft-cited paper is full of scare-quotes for the word “addiction”, and stresses that “whether or not it is a good idea to call this a “food addiction” in people is both a scientific and societal question that has yet to be answered.”
The hyperbole in blogs and online news sources, never mind repositories of the worst sorts of pseudoscience like Natural News, don’t help resolve these issues. Neither do personal anecdotes, regardless of our compassion for people who struggle with compulsive behaviour of various sorts. Movies like Fed Up are of little use also, in that they simply populate the scaremongering filter-bubble with cherry-picked and misrepresented data.
If you want to read about why the Lenoir et. al. study quoted in Natural News doesn’t resolve my doubts about sugar addiction, not to mention comparing rat data to human experience – especially given the fact that psychological rather than physiological factors seem most relevant to addiction – I’d recommend reading this Scicurious post closely.
That post points out that there’s perhaps a vast difference between the self-administration of drugs in humans compared with rats, who can’t reason about their choices like we can. It also notes that the study doesn’t measure a progressive ratio – in other words, it doesn’t tell us what the rat prefers when it really has to work to get its reward. When things get tough, will it prefer sugar, or will it quit trying?
We don’t yet have good human data for sugar addiction. What we do seem to have is limited evidence for “eating addiction“, but as I’ve stressed above, an addictive behaviour is not the same thing as an addictive substance. People who are addicted to eating might well find foods – including sugar – deeply rewarding, but it’s premature to blame the sugar itself.
To conclude: there’s no problem with saying we find sugar rewarding. Of course we do, as we would exercise and so forth. To say it’s addictive makes a far stronger claim, and that claim is the suggestion that it’s a sinister substance that’s out to get you, rather than something you’re free to enjoy in moderation, just as you can alcohol or any other drug, depending on the legislation where you live, and your own personal risk-tolerance.
One thing I’m quite concerned about, though, and have noted before, is that it seems quite likely to me that your risk-tolerance can only be compromised through being treated like a perpetual victim – and that believing your food is out to kill you seems a wholehearted embracing of that victimhood.
In news that came as a surprise to some us who are here, myself included (thanks to the generosity of the organiser, Karen Thomson), critics of Noakes and the low carbohydrate, high fat diet are apparently “boycotting” the Old Mutual Health Convention, that wraps up today.
The convention took place over 4 days – the first 3 operating as a professional event, with healthcare practitioners earning continuing professional development (CPD) points for attending, and the last day defined as a public event.
Earlier this year, Owen Frisby (the chairperson of SAAFoST) invited me to give a presentation at the 25th Congress of the Nutrition Society of South Africa. While the majority of speakers at the congress were dieticians and others working in medical science, my focus – as in previous posts and columns – was on poor critical reasoning and hyperbole in science writing, and the negative consequences this might have for public understanding of science. If you care to, you can read the text of my presentation below.
And that problem is stigma. Addiction is a biological mechanism, where the desire for a certain stimulus is reinforced through (among other mechanisms) a dopamine “hit” in the nucleus accumbens. It’s a chronic brain “disease” of sorts, influencing your reward system and your motivations. Despite this, many folk continue to think and talk about it primarily as a moral failing, or – on another end of the spectrum of unhelpful interventions – dilute the significance of addiction by using the term to refer to the fact that we enjoy certain foods as evidence of “sugar addiction” or “carbohydrate addiction”.
As Salon puts it in a piece on why addiction carries such a stigma, “the idea that those with addictive disorders are weak, deserving of their fate and less worthy of care is so inextricably tied to our zeitgeist that it’s impossible to separate addiction from shame and guilt”. And that shame and guilt, in turn can sometimes stop people from seeking out treatment while there’s still time to do so.
In Cape Town, we have a significant drug problem – from tik and its association with poverty and gangsterism, to the alcohol abuse that helps to fuel road death statistics. Besides taking responsibility for your own substance-use and (perhaps) abuse, there is one other simple thing we can all consider doing to contribute to alleviating Cape Town’s drug problem. Even if each individual contribution is slight, the collective contribution could be significant.
That contribution is in helping to end the stigma, thereby encouraging people to seek treatment and support. A wider public understanding of what addiction is can remind us to not be unnecessarily judgmental, nor to be overly simplistic about it in referring to social media or sugar addictions as if they are in the same league as a tik addiction. We can also inform ourselves about what the Government is doing (which includes a rapidly-expanding outpatient programme for opiate detox, an emergency helpline, and a significant annual spend on treatment and rehab.
This post was part of a City of Cape Town substance abuse awareness campaign.
If you’d like to add your voice to the Cape Town community and help deal with the substance abuse problem that affects the city, you are invited to share your own story. Post your story of how drug abuse affected your life in The City of Cape Town, and share it on Twitter by using the hashtag #ihaveadrugproblem. If you or someone you know needs help with substance abuse, phone the free 24hr helpline on 0800 435 748.
Some of you might have noticed that recent blog posts here have earned me some antagonism from defenders of the low-carb, high fat (LCHF) diet. In their defence, they of course think that I’m being needlessly antagonistic, especially towards someone (Prof. Tim Noakes) who they think of as doing pioneering – and very important – work in nutrition.
I’d like to try and approach the topic from a slightly different angle here, in the hopes of illustrating what I mean when I say that my criticisms are premised on a concern for exaggerating the quality and consequences of data, in a context of great uncertainty. In the same way as my language and arguments around religion have tempered significantly over the past 3 or so years, in science I’m equally concerned with the example we set as to how to think, where the claims we make should be proportional to the quality and amount of evidence we have.
A comment on one of my previous posts led me to this blog post by Prof. Grant Schofield, in which he responds to a press release from health professionals in New Zealand, decrying low-carb high-fat advocacy. Schofield’s post seems happy to embrace nuance and to acknowledge the limitations in what we can know right now about the long-term effects of LCHF diets, and is to me a great example of how to argue for an outlier position in a way that lures people into serious consideration of your case, rather than giving the impression that you’re being asked to join a religious cult.
As I wrote earlier in the week, the language of science should embrace uncertainty. We should not offer people dogma, both because it dumbs down the process of scientific reasoning, and second (an extension of the first, though) because it encourages people to think in terms of false dichotomies or other poorly defined and crude categories. What’s right is often about nuance, and doesn’t fit in a tweet or headline – and those of us who know better should not encourage a simplistic “X is right/wrong/healthy/good/bad”, especially when we know that’s what the market wants to hear.
The Doctor just tweeted a link to a great piece about “food fearmongering” that makes this point via examples of diet advice and promotions for books and movies about diet that are almost comical in their hyperbole. Food, basically, is trying to kill you – and unfortunately, you’re also addicted to it.
Until fairly recently, I was involved with a multi-disciplinary research team working in the field of pathological gambling, and as a result got to spend five years working with leading international addiction scholars, neuropsychologists, clinicians in the field of addiction, and so forth. In national prevalence studies and other research, I also got to spend a fair bit of time with people who describe themselves as addicts.
The simple takeaway, if I were to distill five years into one sentence, is that addiction is complex, and not a word to be used glibly. Today, anything we happen to like is often described as addictive, and people will talk about “brain scans show that area X lights up” when you eat a Snickers bar, while not thinking that perhaps area X happens to light up when you do stuff you enjoy. Or, that people who are inclined to addiction will find things to get addicted to, but that this doesn’t always mean that the thing in question is intrinsically addictive.
Today, people are variously addicted to sex, love, the Internet, cocaine, carbohydrates, sugar, crystal meth and so forth. But using the same word to describe all these things is profoundly misleading, and is also potentially insulting to people who suffer from the sort of unambiguous addiction that costs you your savings, your family, your health and so forth. To put a mild lack of self-control alongside heroin seems somewhat glib.
Cocaine, for example, often has no physical withdrawal effects. Psychotherapist Marty Klein says that, in 31 years of practice in the field, he’s never seen “sex addiction”, and describes it as a myth. Internet addiction was invented as a hoax in 1995, when Dr Ivan Goldberg took the diagnostic criteria for pathological gambling and adapted them to the Internet.
Internet addiction wasn’t included in the 2013 revision of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) – not even in the “Conditions for Further Study” chapter, that highlights things thought worthy of continued attention. “Internet gaming disorder” can be found in “Conditions for Further Study”, and “gambling disorder” does appear, in a new category for “behavioral addictions”. As I say, it’s complex.
Then, as I’ve written in the past, we might even want to be wary of treating the DSM as authoritative, perhaps especially with regard to the class of behavioural addictions, accused of making a “mental disorder of everything we like to do a lot”. My point is simply that this one word, “addiction”, is being made to do a lot of work – and a term that broad can sometimes appear rather meaningless in consequence.
It’s of course not meaningless for people who do suffer with an addiction of their own. The question I’m asking here: if we start speaking of anything that people struggle with as an “addiction”, what are the consequences of that? I fear that we’re not only encouraging shoddy thinking about addiction (and science, in general), but we’re also encouraging victimhood in that my lack of self-control can now simply be ascribed to the fact that I’ve been snared by the evil Internet, or the seductive candy bar.
And finally, there’s the danger of insensitivity – almost insult – to people who struggle with addictions that destroy lives. While being badgered by a LCHF devotee on Twitter, I was asked “do you have ANY experience with addiction that is not related to some scientific study? So much more to it than that.” In other words, I was being asked if I was an addict.
Now, this was Twitter, so you might say that this sort of thing comes with the territory. But what if I was an addict, really struggling with something, perhaps have just lost a job, or a spouse, or somesuch? Might one not think the question rude, crude, inappropriate – even indefensible? (Regardless, of course, of whether it was relevant or not, in that I was being asked “never mind the data, but do you have an anecdote?”)
I’d certainly think it inappropriate, perhaps even “triggering“, in the contemporary language of social justice. When it comes from someone who works at an addiction clinic, of all places, I’d be even more convinced.
And in this case, that’s exactly where it came from – a person offering treatment for “sugar and carbohydrate addiction”. The field of addiction – and addicts themselves – could do with us being a little more careful about the language we employ, and the categories we use to describe the things we enjoy.