Home Food 101 What Is Sugar Addiction?

What Is Sugar Addiction?

by Erika Nicole Kendall

Whenever I have conversations with people about food – either in my day to day experiences with people, or on the Internet via twitter, facebook or the like – I’m always listening to the things people say, and the words they choose to use. Everyone’s heard my anti-processed foods and anti-sugar rants (even though you will find sweet recipes on this site), but the responses to my rants are always intriguing to me.

“What the hell? I can’t give up sugar! I can’t ever put these [insert item] down! I don’t understand! It’s okay, I’ll only have a little.”

For me, when it comes to food… if the food in my hand is of pure origins, I can put it down. I can control that. I value that level of control that I have over myself. Can I use those foods to make dishes so delicious that I can barely think straight? Of course I can… however – and this is a big however – they require the most work and effort, especially since I’m making them from scratch, by my own hand. I have to work hard to cook it and since I’m usually not willing to put forth that kind of work, I tend to give up in the middle of it.

Having said all of that, I cringe a little on the inside when people talk about how they “can’t give up” or “can’t live without” or justify use of a certain food… because that is addiction talk. I know… it’s not cocaine, it’s not alcohol, it’s not heroin. I get it. But I’m not certain that it’s that different. In fact, science has long said that the reaction that sugar causes in the brain is equal to that of heroin or cocaine, and causes us to crave it for the high… crash when it’s low. Wash, rinse, repeat. It’s a vicious cycle… and every time I give in it, it makes it that much more difficult to say “no” the next time I encounter the opportunity to give in.

It’s even more strange when people acknowledge that they go through “withdrawals” when they don’t get their “daily fix,” but don’t acknowledge that cycle as an addiction. That is particularly strange. Perhaps that’s because so much of society is addicted to sugar and exhibits the same behaviors, that it seems so common. That’s the only reason I can guess.

That’s a big part of why emotional eating exists – because sugar (in proper conjunction with fat and/or salt) provides a high that is comparable to that of any other narcotic. And because we become used to the high, it causes us to eventually crave more and more… and more… and before we’ve even noticed it we’re gaining weight and suffering from illnesses we’ve never dealt with before.

I know I’ve talked a lot about sugar and even more about that “I can’t put this down” feeling… but today, I’d like to scratch the surface of what is called sugar addiction.

Firstly, it does make sense. When sugar is ingested, it immediately hits the blood stream and once the brain registers the sugar in the system, it releases the same opioids as it would if you were snorting something. Opioids are chemicals in the brain that cause us to be more tolerant of pain or even decrease our awareness of pain as well as increases feelings of pleasure and euphoria. The pleasureful feelings are the high we all experience. This, in my mind, is the cornerstone of emotional eating. The high relieves us from the pain we’re feeling and allows us to experience euphoria – a safe haven from our daily stresses. It also explains the withdrawal feelings:

“Recent behavioral tests in rats further back the idea of an overlap between sweets and drugs. Drug addiction often includes three steps. A person will increase his intake of the drug, experience withdrawal symptoms when access to the drug is cut off and then face an urge to relapse back into drug use. Rats on sugar have similar experiences. Researchers withheld food for 12 hours and then gave rats food plus sugar water. This created a cycle of binging where the animals increased their daily sugar intake until it doubled. When researchers either stopped the diet or administered an opioid blocker the rats showed signs common to drug withdrawal, such as teeth-chattering and the shakes. Early findings also indicate signs of relapse. Rats weaned off sugar repeatedly pressed a lever that previously dispensed the sweet solution.” [source]

Now, I used to always say, “Oh, I’m not a sweets person. I just have my instant oatmeal, my buttery crackers, my white bread, the occasional ice cream, orange juice and maybe some [insert sugary cereal here]. That’s it for me.” All of those, mind you, are processed foods. The problem here is that they all contain so much sugar, that – even if you’re consuming them in accordance to their recommended serving sizes (which are usually quite small) – you’re well beyond 150 grams of sugar. Remember – 1 teaspoon of sugar is 4 grams, so 150 grams is approximately 37 grams of sugar.. more than one cup of sugar each day. At 4 calories per gram (for each gram of carbs we take in, we have to burn 4 calories), that’s 600 unnecessary calories. You can’t say that it doesn’t add up. It does.

Next, I often wonder if this plays a role in the development of depression and its prevalence in Black women… if we’re operating on a sugar high, we don’t know how to cope when we crash… since we coped with the problem using a sugar high to begin with. And because so few of us are inclined to visit a therapist, I wonder if it creates a cycle that many of us are never able to escape… possibly explaining a large chunk of that “60% of Black women are overweight” issue. I’m not saying that this isn’t the same for all Americans, but I just happen to be personally aware of how my culture shuns those who seek out mental help… or sound, solid medical advice.

One of the huge reasons I’m so anti-processed foods is because even foods that don’t taste sweet at first are loaded with sugars just so that you’ll still get that “mmm… opioids!” feeling from them. It’s a brain function that food manufacturers are very familiar with, and they use it to their advantage to convince us to eat more of (and, eventually, buy more of) their products. I mean, yeah.. it’s great that you’re creating products that we can love, but…. I can’t help but feel like it’s lazy to use sugar to give an “mmm” feeling to food instead of good flavor. And, really – it’s not like they don’t care about the public… they just care about their profits much more.

I wish you could see the look on my face right now.

I think this also ties into two posts I’ve written recently – “The Myth of Will Power” and “Is There Ever A Reason To Destroy Your Food?” – because both deal with the inability to control oneself when it comes to certain foods, and learning the point where it’s safe to say “I need to remove this food from my presence.”

I think it’s also important to note that it’s not just “sugar,” but the entire “sweet without fiber” family. If sugar is the poison, fiber is the antidote. Fiber keeps us from over-indulging, keeps us full enough to not have to dig back into some more sweet-flavored food minutes later and cleans out our insides all at the same time. So any sweets that don’t come naturally with fiber are problematic. In other words, yes – fruits are okay.

The reality is that sugar addiction is a very real thing, and it requires vigilance to start to cut down. Like I said in my post in favor of calorie counting (instead of intuitive eating), I was learning about what to expect within certain products, and I was always reading the labels to understand how much sugar was in something. If it had more than a certain amount of sugar, it had to go. Is it time for something in your kitchen to go? Let’s talk about it!

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ChellBellz October 21, 2010 - 10:38 AM

i use to think i couldn’t give up Orange juice until i became diabetic and looked deeply into how much sugar is in it. I didn’t think i could give up Sweet tea either…but i’ve alwayse been one of those people to top eating something once i did the reasearch after wondering why i craved it. I’ve done it with Mountain Dew, Sodas in General, Sweet Teas, and Juices even the *Natural* ones. Once i started using that LiveStrong Website that will tell you how much sugar, Carbs and fats you took in during the day I became seriously aware of how much sugar I was really consuming, and that was my wake up call

Tamara October 21, 2010 - 10:49 AM

Thank you for this! I’m struggling with this as we speak. I’m supposed to be doing the “Fat Smash” diet by Dr. Ian, which has a strong emphasis on fiber and fresh fruits/veggies, but I keep finding myself going to my co-worker’s desk to get candy!

Jaci October 21, 2010 - 12:26 PM

Your post today is very timely. Thank YOU! It reiterates all that I know and believe but have a hard time with. I’m like that rat that’s been weened off of sugar that still goes to the source to find some more!

A few weeks back, I realized that I was in a sugar binge. I-COULD-NOT-STOP the viscious cycle. I felt horrible, my body ached, I was completely depressed, and I seriously did not know how to go on. I knew that it was the processed foods and the sugar that was doing this to me. And I knew that I had to make an overhaul and get it into control. I found this article very helpful:

Now, I’ve been saying NO! when I want to snack on “toddler” food. And when I stand in front of the cupboard looking for that before bedtime snack, I tell myself to eat a carrot. Sweet, crunchy, and full of good stuff.

Within a two weeks of saying no, eating mainly homecooked meals, little to no sugar, my energy is awesome, my outlook on life isn’t so bad, and I’ve lost a few pounds.

Thank you the time and energy you put in this site. YOU ROCK!

Nikita October 21, 2010 - 1:45 PM

I ask folks to consider what I do myself when I hear this kind of talk – try Overeaters Anonymous which helps folks who have compulsive eating issues and addictive food issues. If you are eating certain foods to excess KNOWING that it will hurt you – harm you and you cannot seem to stop, get help. If you are following this pattern for any food addiction then get help, join up with others to get it together. Do so online, or report to the building, but do something to get you back to healthy and help make you aware of where you are struggling. Will power is ok, and yes, I do exercise this, but help and community is good too. There is absolutely nothing wrong with getting help. I am.

lesismore October 22, 2010 - 8:33 PM

“Next, I often wonder if this plays a role in the development of depression and its prevalence in Black women…”

The point in this paragraph is such a phenomenal (and like Jaci said) timely connection to make. I feel like (our) media has covered the surface of it before but never got into it or either I can’t recall some in-depth and specific coverage on the connection. Meanwhile we still grapple with the issues of black women, obesity, and mental health for (all) african-americans in general. Especially down to the children and their nutrition affecting their mental health, therefore affecting their stats in school for special ed enrollment, testing & placements, etc. I was just in a forum where that was discussed last evening.

Trevor Philbrook October 24, 2010 - 1:24 PM

This is a huge post but it is full of totally valid and important things to consider.

Sugar and simple carbs are the worst for us,and foodies who are addicted do have a difficult time to get off the habit of sugar, candy, pop, sweets, donuts, bonbons, etc.

I personally find it a challenge to give up the sugar, but after a while, the cravings can fade.

Love the blog. Check out my blog if you’re interested. Love to have another follower 🙂

Miriam Ondina December 20, 2011 - 8:16 PM

In some studies sugar has been found to cause the dead of brain cells, which are essential for learning. If we look at a regular breakfast is loaded with sugar. The natural sugar in fruits is the best one to comsume, as well as Beet,Date sugar are better accepted by the body without doing the damage of white sugar or corn syrup.

Erika Nicole Kendall December 20, 2011 - 8:33 PM

Careful, though – lots of the sugar in the US IS, in fact, beet sugar.

I’d looove to see that study, though, if you’ve got it.

Brie Hoffman March 1, 2012 - 4:12 PM

I gave up refined sugar and almost all processed foods 7 months ago and have never looked back. I had a severe sugar addiction. Once I started eating any sugar I could not stop. However, once I stopped eating all refined sugar I had no more cravings at ALL! NONE. I’ve lost 26 pounds easily.

Stephanie December 18, 2012 - 3:44 PM

I am fascinated and obsessed. Thank you for your blog, for this post, and for saying things that I say all the time and that no one seems to believe! Thank you thank you!

Janine February 18, 2013 - 6:06 PM

I have a question, Erika- I will usually eat a fruit smoothie each morning. If one puts fruit in a blender, does that ‘processing’ break down the fiber before it even gets in your mouth, and reduce the benefits of the fruit?

Erika Nicole Kendall February 19, 2013 - 10:43 AM

That’s exactly what your blending does! It breaks down the fiber. 🙁

Michele June 6, 2013 - 9:45 AM

I came across this most excellent article while doing some searching for help with my own sugar addiction. I like what you said about fiber being the antidote. What are your thoughts on sweet potatoes? I’ve been forcing myself not to eat any processed sugars, but sweet potatoes have quickly become a staple in my diet.

Erika Nicole Kendall June 8, 2013 - 4:41 PM

I’m definitely a sweet potato eater.

Marie April 9, 2014 - 11:14 AM

Hi Erika , one question I wanted to ask you: since you started eating healthy, did you notice a change in the quality of your skin? I read that a healthy diet has a positive affect on skin.

Erika Nicole Kendall April 10, 2014 - 2:18 PM

Definitely. It definitely does.

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