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Nah-nah-na-na-nah my addiction is worse than yours…

Regular readers know that for a good few years I was into the world of Personal Development books and seminars and so on…I still am to a less feverish degree. I always remember something Tony Robbins talks about, he used to say how weird it is when people meet and the conversation goes something like this…

Person A: Hi, how are you?
Person B: Ah not too bad I suppose. You?
A: Well I could be better, I mean my boss is a pain in the ass and my doctor says I need to lose some weight, my blood pressure is high.
B: Yeah I know what you mean, my boss is a jerk, and the people I work with are just idiots, every day in that place drives me nuts. And I have this back pain, and I get this cough, and my doctor says it might be hereditary…
A: Yeah well my father died of a heart attack so the blood pressure thing is a big deal in my family, and all the men on my father’s side dies young, and my wife’s no help, she keeps doing this and doing that…and the kids wind me up…so I drink too much…and we’re in debt right now, cos of the car payment and the medical bills…

And so the conversation goes, it’s like “a race to the bottom” to see who has the most shit going on and who can be the most miserable! And we see this all the time, people post a status on Facebook about some injury they got “I went skiing, broke my arm” and underneath a bunch of folks are like “Oh that’s nothing, I went skiing and broke both my legs!” “Oh you guys are amateurs, I went skiing and broke my own head off!” It’s like we are all competing to have the worst crap going on in our lives out of every one we know!

I think people do this, subconsciously, to excuse their failings. I mean, if you believe that life is hard, getting rich is really difficult, finding the wonderful loving partner of your dreams is only for the lucky few, being in great shape and amazing good health requires sacrifice and dedication that few are prepared to give, success is difficult, happiness and fulfillment are hard to achieve – if we all buy into these ideas, then we have excuses for having rather mediocre, or downright crappy, results in our lives. If we convince ourselves it’s all hard, then we are more likely to settle for average.

My addiction is worse than yours

In a similar vein, I have recently seen (on Facebook) a discussion in a Health Group about ‘sugar addiction’ – and these folks were getting so insanely competitive, judgemental and insulting to each other it made me leave the Group. Someone was saying that it’s truly hard to beat this sugar addiction, and in this big Group (15,000 plus members) they were just torn apart – folks writing insults and saying “you know nothing about addiction, I was on heroine for 14 years, nearly died, you just like a cake, eff off what do you know” and then the next person to comment would feel the need to “compete for the bottom” and push further “I spent 22 years in puddles of my own vomit, selling my own sister for drug money, how dare you liken your desire for chocolate bar to the hell I went through” and then the next “I grew up in the sex trade, I was a child slave, I raped my own father, my life was a living hell for 50 years, I sold my soul to the devil himself…” and on and on and on.

Obviously I’m not quoting real people here, but honestly the thread was like that…hundreds of people, throwing insults, belittling each other, belittling that anyone’s addiction to food, or sugar, could possibly be a serious health challenge compared to the way other people’s lives have been wrecked by alcohol and narcotics. It was the ultimate race to the bottom, like we were all supposed to give some kind of kudos to the must messed up person in the Group. It was shameful to read, shameful to be in a Group with people with that mentality.

The voice of common sense

After that episode, a week or two ago, yesterday I saw a post from the frequently-brilliant and frequently-amusing Alex Viada. If you don’t know this man, he’s an outstanding athlete, author and coach at Complete Human Performance, I suggest you check him out and if you are interested in strength training, endurance sport, or both, buy his superb first book. (No, I am not on a commission, I am just recommending this excellent book!)

So to the point of this newsletter today – yesterday Alex wrote this (quote verbatim):

The sugar addiction debate is back, which reminds me of this field’s stunning inability to understand its own purpose.

The question of whether or not sugar is actually “addictive” is moot. Yes, the nonsense documentaries and poor understanding of science that shows dopamine release and pleasure centers lighting up after consuming sugar, and pointing to similarities in how the little bits light up after taking in heroin (this is serious science) are intentionally misleading. But the response completely misses the point.
Who cares that glucose does not and cannot create similar physiological and psychological addictions that many drugs can? The behaviors exhibited by many who struggle with food intake, especially high palatability, calorie dense foods, mirror the behaviors of drug addicts in that understanding the latter gives us an effective model for treating the former.

Because that is what we do. We are not neurologists. We are not psychologists, or addiction counselors, or therapists. We are trainers, coaches, and dieticians (or, let’s be honest, in many cases, not even the latter). Our role is to create effective models for management of client needs, and in this case, understanding that sugary foods can act as triggers, that intermittent access can lead to bingeing behavior, that addict behaviors (like hiding food, having secret stashes, altering lifestyle to hide or enable binges, etc) are all realities helps us better manage our clients.

Sure, “sugar is not addictive” articles and posts gives the industry a collective, reflection induced erection as we pat ourselves on the back for being super sciency, while simultaneously ignoring the reason we’re here – helping out our clients. No. It’s not addictive. Calling it addictive may, in some sense, minimize actual addiction, and truthfully many of the most strident proponents of the “sugar is addictive” concept need to be slapped and sterilized. But as someone who’s been both an addict (to drugs), and felt himself a prisoner to food, I can state that the despair and lack of control experienced in both cases is very real.

So, is sugar addictive?

Who cares. Wrong question. “Do treating sugar and high palatability foods as though they are addictive help us better manage our clients”? That is the question.

And to that, I say: Yes.

Thank you Alex! Hoorah, let common sense prevail!

Sure, there are a lot of people massively exaggerating the facts behind the science that says ‘sugar lights up pleasure centres in the brain like cocaine or having an orgasm’ – sugar is not “as addictive” as heroin, but so what!? Heroin isn’t for sale in every corner shop, motorway service station, post office and University across the country. Parents don’t feed their kids heroin-covered breakfast cereals every morning, and the government ‘food plate’ doesn’t recommend 5% of your daily intake coming from heroin!

Sugar may be less chemically addictive, but it’s far more widely available, far more widely acceptable, and far more widely promoted, and as Alex points out, to the people consuming too much of the stuff every day, their struggle to shift away from it is very real. And if high intake of calorie-dense, processed, hyperpalatable foods is a major driving factor in the obesity epidemic, which it is, then we have to admit that, highly addictive or not, sugar consumption is likely a bigger urgent public health issue, and ultimately a more costly public health issue, than heroine use in our society.

So folks, two things today. Number one, life isn’t a race to the bottom, let’s all stop moaning and competing over how shitty are lives are, and smile and be grateful for the good stuff. And number two, food addiction is, for all intents and purposes, a real thing, or at least it’s something that we should treat like a real thing, and let’s acknowledge that it affects an enormous number of people, who need support, education and encouragement to help break that negative cycle.

Until next time, to your good health!

Karl

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