Disordered Eating and Sugar: A Controversial Topic

Contributor: Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC. President @ Eating Disorder Hope

I have witnessed many passionate, and often spirited debates between eating disorder experts about the role of sugar in disordered eating.

Researchers have built a compelling case that sugar is an addictive drug. Numerous studies support the idea that our brain chemistry can play an important role in the desire to consume excessive sugar.{1}

Dopamine receptors

Our brain reward system, particularly dopamine receptors, seem to be activated by sugar in much the same way as heroine and morphine affect the brain.

It may be to a lesser extent, but indeed the dopamine rush that comes from ingesting sugar is highly pleasurable, and for some more than others, highly addictive.{2}

I personally appreciate this research and have seen sugar addiction exemplified in my own history of eating disorder struggles. For example, almost all of my binge foods were highly palatable, high fat and high sugar items.

I found extreme comfort and pleasure in eating large amounts of these types of foods, in the short term. But, afterward, I would feel absolutely miserable, physically and emotionally. I would become depressed, exhausted, foggy thinking, sick, bloated and nauseous.

Guilt and Fear

Then the guilt and fear of weight gain would kick in and I would succumb to bulimic behaviors to try to rid my body of all the excess calories and feel “in control” once again. I would engage in this cycle over and over again, and would have intense cravings for these same sugary foods that I had just binged on within a week, and the cycle would repeat.

Young girl alone in park, face close up. So, it would seem that sugar is the enemy, right?

Well, to some, but to others holding a different perspective, sugar is not the enemy. This theory holds that sugar can be ingested in moderation, as part of a normal diet that is acclimated toward a society that offers a wide variety of pleasurable food experiences.

The premise of this stance is that there are no good foods or bad foods, but all can be enjoyed in moderation.

There is a deep appreciation of the body’s wisdom and a belief that if we will just listen attentively to our hunger and fullness cues, we can eat all foods, stop when we are full and refrain from overeating because we are listening to our bodies.

Relishing vs. Restricting

Food and eating are enjoyable human experiences and we should relish this experience, not restrict this experience.

This group often theorizes that abstaining from sugar is counterproductive, as it simply sets up the individual to develop mounting cravings for sugar, and inevitably break their commitment and indulge in the longed for sweet treats.

Then, the theory goes, the individual has felt so restricted, for so long, that once the damn breaks and they are allowing themselves to eat sugar again, they go a bit crazy and overeat or even binge on sugary foods, to make up for the long sense of deprivation. They often go in and out of this cycle and may develop a significant obsessive-compulsive eating pattern with sugar that in many cases, lasts a lifetime.

I can also relate to the wisdom of this theory, and see how effective this can be for many who are enslaved in an ongoing restrictive eating / binge eating cycle. I have colleagues who absolutely adhere to this perspective and have many clients who have found freedom from their disordered eating from embracing this concept.

Abstaining From “Trigger” Foods

Alternatively, I have colleagues who have been successful in overcoming their disordered eating by abstaining from “trigger” foods such as sugar, highly refined carbohydrates and junk foods. They state that they feel more clear headed, healthy and far less compulsive by absolutely avoiding these foods – particularly sugar.

happy smiling woman arms raised with flying air balloonIn conclusion, eating disorders across the spectrum, from anorexia to binge eating disorder or compulsive overeating, are complex.

Each individual must carefully consider their unique physical and emotional makeup. They may need to try out various theories in regard to sugar consumption and evaluate its effectiveness for themselves.

As a therapist and eating disorder specialist, I believe that wisdom is inherent in the individual and through seeking professional help, a commitment to finding individualized solutions and tenacity, the sugar question can be resolved by each individual according to their own observations of what works best for themselves and their bodies.

It is simply not a black and white answer for all, but dependent upon the physiology and needs of each unique individual.


  1. Edward H. Nieh, Gillian A. Matthews, Stephen A. Allsop, Kara N. Presbrey, Christopher A. Leppla, Romy Wichmann, Rachael Neve, Craig P. Wildes, Kay M. Tye. Decoding Neural Circuits that Control Compulsive Sucrose Seeking. Cell, 2015; 160 (3): 528 DOI:10.1016/j.cell.2015.01.003
  2. Dovey, D. (2014, July 25). Retrieved May 25, 2015 from http://www.medicaldaily.com/how-does-sugar-affect-your-brain-turns-out-very-similar-way-drugs-and-alcohol-295034

Last Updated & Reviewed By: Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC on May 28th, 2015
Published on EatingDisorderHope.com

About Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC

Jacquelyn Ekern founded Eating Disorder Hope in 2005, driven by a profound desire to help those struggling with anorexia, bulimia and binge-eating disorder. This passion resulted from her battle with, and recovery from, an eating disorder. As president, Jacquelyn manages Ekern Enterprises, Inc. and the Eating Disorder Hope website.