Home Q&A Wednesday Q&A Wednesday: Sugar, Food Addiction and Backsliding

Q&A Wednesday: Sugar, Food Addiction and Backsliding

by Erika Nicole Kendall

On yesterday’s post, the following exchange happened:

I think this article makes good points and lays out a good plan. Although Presenting it as a 4-week plan is a little unrealistic to me. Identifying sugar-foods and replacing them with healthy foods need to go hand in hand. For example, if I get rid of all my sugar cereal in week 1, but haven’t found a good recipe for the steel cut oats sitting in my pantry, then I am hitting McD’s!

Personally, I approached the change one meal at a time and we started with dinner. We were eating healthy, home cooked, clean dinners for almost a year before I was ready to tackle breakfast.

I am not even sure what “emotional” eating means for me anymore. I don’t think I eat 4 bowls of cereal in a row right after lunch because I need a pick-me-up (yes, I did that this week when my DH indulged in a Kellogg’s sale). I think it is addiction pure and simple. I love clean eating and I am pretty happy in life right now. But the taste of processed sugar makes me lose control.

I think our society is glossing over the pure addictive properties of processed sugars. Like you pointed out, even this article gives it’s stamp of approval to “moderation”. What other addict is told after they kick the habit to go ahead and indulge in moderation?


Then I said:

See, that’s exactly what I said – I don’t like that it’s condensed down into four weeks, but I can appreciate the fact that the steps are outlined in this fashion. So while it might not take your merely four weeks, you at least know what stage you’re in and how far along you have yet to go.

To me, emotional eating is about 99% of eating that has nothing to do with hunger. That’s a really blunt way to put it, but that’s what it is to me. In my mind, they go hand in hand – people are addicted to food, in a lot of ways, because of the way it makes them feel. So while you might not’ve sought out to eat 4 bowls of cereal for a “high,” you sought it out for SOME reason. If it was “bored eating,” that’s a tricky area, but was that what I’d call four bowls? I’own know, y’know?

Then Kaycee, who is not an old lady, followed up with:


I’m confused, so bear with the old lady for a minute. Are you saying once someone conquers their sugar addiction, they are never to have it again? I guess I’m missing what’s wrong with moderation. Why is that a bad word? Is it because an addict can’t be trusted not to backslide? lol


And my answer, obviously, only speaks for myself… but no, there is no such thing as your old habit in moderation.

It depends on whether or not you truly see emotional eating as an addiction. And, while that’s a post for another day, I genuinely believe that you have to approach recovery – and life after rehabilitation – like an addiction.

I’ve campaigned, for a very long time, for the fact that sugar addiction parallels drug addiction and alcohol addiction simply because all three serve in the same fashion: all three create euphoric feelings in the brain, all three can be consumed privately for pleasure’s sake, all three provide escapes from reality, all three create withdrawal symptoms during recovery and all three manage to prevent the sufferer from giving up their addiction even in the face of dire circumstances. All three serve as coping mechanisms.

An alcoholic who becomes an alcoholic because of some traumatic, life-changing event – like the typical TV trope, the job from hell or even losing that job from hell, sitting at a bar top nose-first in a pitcher of beer – may not realize what his addiction is doing to himself or his family, and if he’s fallen far enough down the rabbit hole, he may not care or be emotionally equipped to handle what his life or health has become.

Compare that, if you will, to the following:

A sugarholic who becomes a sugarholic because of some traumatic, life-changing event – like the typical TV trope, the relationship from hell or even losing that relationship from hell, sitting on the couch nose-first in a pint of ice cream – may not realize what her addiction is doing to herself or her family, and if she’s fallen fall enough down the rabbit hole, she may not care or be emotionally equipped to handle what her life or health has become.

To me, they are the exact same.

To quote another comment from yesterday’s post (y’all were really in there, yesterday!), bridgetarlene said:

I thought I didn’t have a sugar problem. I never ate processed foods or any kind of sweet. Then I learned that my binging material of choice, breads and pastas, while they didn’t have added sugar, were still giving my body a sugar high. All that starch gets converted and led to an inevitable “crash” that I had unconsciously been considering as that “bliss” feeling you’ve talked about with emotional eating.

So even though I don’t have a sweet tooth, my body was still addicted to something else that mimics the high. I ultimately had to learn that I could never eat white rice, white pasta, or white bread…which sounds like “duh” for clean eating but I really was stuck for a while on that “I can eat it in moderation” ish until I finally admitted that I can’t.

I know myself. It has been years since I’ve first decided to give this stuff up. And quite frankly, the one time I tried to act like “sugar in moderation” was a successful idea – giving in to what everyone told me about myself (“you can handle it!”), it was a miserable failure. I mean, it was fail city over here. I’m not playing that game anymore.

Is it all sweets? Nope. You know how I know? Because there’s nothing worse than buying your favorite sweet, made the way it’s supposed to be made, and being able to enjoy it without devouring it whole. There’s nothing worse, for an emotional eater, than to be able to eat something – made properly – and not acquire a rush from it. Like… pasta. Like… properly made sourdough bread. Like… wild rices. Like, a cupcake sweetened with sorghum, vanilla and cinnamon with mascarpone topping instead of the other crap.

When I had that moment and backslid, I didn’t rush to a twinkie. I rushed to some greek yogurt with a teaspoon of maple syrup. And no, it did not “work.” As soon as I ate the first bite, I was annoyed, I then laughed at myself, then grabbed a bottle of water and sat my behind down somewhere. It was literally the equivalent of an alcoholic reaching for water to get drunk. My own principles of what I bring into my house protected me – I wasn’t even thinking straight. I grabbed the first sweet thing I saw in the fridge and tried to act up.

I don’t think you ever “unlearn” what it feels like to successfully acquire a “food high.” I don’t think you ever forget that feeling, or the habituation that comes with it. I don’t think you ever unlearn the process of seeking out, obtaining, devouring, getting high off of and crashing from your sugar high. And, because of those, I don’t think you can ever moderately enjoy the foods that were a part of that process ever again. I know what it was like to binge on pasta. That being said, when I go to a cookout and the mister lets me taste the macaroni and cheese he put on his plate? The minute I can taste in the texture that it’s the cheap pasta, I put my hand up and let him know I’m not interested in anymore. Not only because it’s disgusting, but because I don’t want to be bothered with sliding back down into the rabbit hole.

This is why I think “moderation” is a load of crap. To believe in “anything in moderation” is to tacitly dismiss the possibility of food addiction even existing, and is also to dismiss my experiences as an emotional eater. I can swear on my puppies that if I hadn’t overcome my issues as an emotional eater, I wouldn’t be the woman I am now. It’s that simple.

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Lisa September 7, 2011 - 11:01 AM

I never thought of it like this before. Sugar addiction is real. Since I have been paying more attention to how my body reacts to diffent foods, I can relate to what you said about not falling for the moderation bit. It’s like setting yourself up to fail. And don’t get me started on all the effort you put in exercising, your body just does not respond.

Kaycee September 7, 2011 - 5:48 PM

Ok, I think I get it. It’s the processed foods that happen to be sweet that is considered “backsliding”. lol But doesn’t the cleaner version of the cupcake with sorghum (a gluten free fav) do the same thing as the processed one? Is the idea then that because very few people can deny themselves something forever, then at least they eat a better version of it?

Is that it? Cause I swear my g/f cupcakes are as good, if not better than non-g/f ones! :O)

Erika Nicole Kendall September 7, 2011 - 7:09 PM

It’s not always simply the processed foods that happen to be sweet, as you put it – it’s things that promote the “high,” and that is [more often than not] those processed foods. For me, the sorghum cupcake doesn’t do the same thing a twinkie does, but anyone out there who can’t say the same would need to spend some time determining if they, too, should avoid it as well. It’s one thing to disconnect the emotional connection from the food, it’s another entirely to revert back to it accidentally because you “got the feeling again.”

And I can assure you your g/f cupcakes are better simply because the quality of g/f ingredients out there are so much better. Mine are better simply because my ingredients, choice of flavors and decoration skills are on pooooooooooint. ROFL

eclectikchic September 7, 2011 - 9:01 PM

this is very interesting because I was thinking “am I really suppose to give up everything and be okay and workout and not be an emotional eater?”. I wanted to know what planet you all were on because I couldn’t grasp giving up juices and sweets and starches all at the same time. LOL! Like the person said at the beginning of the post, I am a cereal eater. I rack my brain thinking of different breakfast ideas that doesn’t include processed foods. I am still a work in progress. Great blog.

Lethal Astronaut January 27, 2012 - 11:44 PM

Thanks for this post. I’m only starting to work out my issues as an emotional eater of the last two years gone. I couldn’t figure out why carbs as well as sweet stuff were my binge foods, but you’ve just nailed it for me – of course, they’re sugar in disguise. Duh! How come I couldn’t figure that out? So yeah, I think I need to go on the clean eating thing too.

Thembi February 1, 2012 - 2:21 PM

I haven’t had pasta in months and never want it anymore…because I haven’t had it in months lol. What was such a staple for me doesn’t even really register as a *taste* memory anymore, just a feeling; if I could pop a pill that would give me that feeling, I’d be tempted, but I know I’d be right back down the rabbit hole and also experience the same tinge of sadness I used to get after bingeing on the stuff because its not about the taste or about being stuffed full of pasta…that sad feeling is part of the euphoria, too, yet our minds seem to ignore that part when we think about the high.

Deanna April 4, 2012 - 4:10 PM

I’ve discovered (the hard way) that I can’t moderate. After losing 100lbs, i guess I got cocky and started adding back in my favorites, my weakness… sugar (cookies, candy, chocolate).

…. and gained 15lbs.

I thought I had gotten over my emotional eating, but I didn’t. I just didn’t indulge it because there was nothing in my house to indulge it with! I also had no idea about the starches! Wow, it sure explains a lot!

Tracey April 18, 2012 - 10:13 AM

Don’t even get me started on sugar. It’s the hardest thing for me to kick. I try to eat sweets only on the weekend, but in an office with free food (pasta, muffins, desserts…) several days a week, it takes some serious willpower.

My friend is a baker. She has mastered cutting out sweets except for the occasional celebratory event. Even then, she only has a few bites. Wondering if I’ll ever be able to do the same…

stephanie September 11, 2012 - 6:45 PM

erika I can not have past and bread but I gotta have a fiber one bar or a cookie sumthin sweet besides fruit what can I do? ive.lost alot of weight but now im at a plateau and I no its because im binge eating pretzels and pickin back up the junk

Lurdys April 3, 2013 - 2:29 AM

It’s ironic that this post was refreshed today as I was thinking about this very thing earlier in the day. I’ve been sugar-free for two months now and while fighting a temptation for chocolate cake (I won), I came to the realization that I was a sugar addict who will always have the occasional craving for sugar but that I don’t have to give in to it and then I realized that to be successful over the long term, I would have to handle future sugar cravings in the same way that an addict handles their drug/alcohol addiction….

Elle November 7, 2013 - 3:01 PM

Another wonderful post.

“I don’t think you ever “unlearn” what it feels like to successfully acquire a “food high.” ”

I agree wholeheartedly with this idea. You really can’t unlearn how it feels. I myself use to really love white bread, white rice, white pasta.. I could eat so much of it. I would indulge until I was literally unable to move. I stopped eating that stuff a couple years ago, and I started to gain a “sweet tooth”. I lost weight, lots of weight.. but that didn’t mean I didn’t sometimes indulge in a cookie 3 times a week. I realize now that my body was still trying to get a sugar high in some form so I’ve had to step back from traditional sweets now. I use to not even want them, but without the white breads, now my body was saying “eat cake”. If it’s not one sugar high, it’s another.

That doesn’t mean I don’t eat sugar. I just try to avoid it as much as possible. My birthday was a month ago, didn’t have a cake. My friends offered me pie yesterday (Apple, my favorite), just had to step back. I had half a cookie a couple days ago and man, it was amazing, but I know I can’t do that every week. It’s just too easy to fall of the sugar-wagon. Eating fruit helps a lot though and I suggest that to anyone when they feel like they need white bread or cake or cookies.

Nea November 8, 2013 - 7:40 PM

I have no doubt that I am addicted to sugar and it is ruining my life. Ugh! There should be a rehab program or something. The cravings are ridiculous and I feel completely out of control. How on Earth do I even start to conquer this demonic problem?

Cassie March 5, 2014 - 10:41 AM

I definitely have a binging problem, but it’s weirdly intermittent and never sparked by stressful situations. It goes along with the gray area of eating out of boredom. Lately, my classes have been much less demanding because I’m studying abroad, and even though I do try to fill my time with activities, Paris is expensive, so there are always stretches where I’m at home, bored. Even when I’m occupying myself by reading or writing, unless I’m exercising (yoga, going for a run, jumping jacks in the living room), I’m thinking about food. The binging will happen once a day or every other day for a week or two until I finally get disgusted with myself and turn things around, but then after several weeks of staying on track, the dark chocolate-coated cookies call me again (mostly dark chocolate, baguettes, and plain Special K whole grain cereal with almond milk, that are the culprits).
I’ve realized (in a huge DUH moment) that my body craves a lot of physical activity. I think being sedentary on cold days when there isn’t much to do has sort of confused my body. Going to the gym in Paris is incredibly expensive (the cheapest I’ve found for a place with more than just 2 treadmills and an elliptical is 30 euro a month with 100 euro for the first month…that’s even more in dollars; impossible on a student budget in an already expensive city), so now I walk everywhere, and force myself to go on runs in the morning, or at the very least jump rope and do yoga in my apartment when it’s too cold.
But I can’t be running around all the time, so I’ve been working on other strategies to combat the issue head on. Drinking water (something I got from this blog) has helped a lot. But also, even more than that, doing something that involves a lot of thought and attention. Mental exercises. For me, that’s been writing. I’m working a series of essays as well as writing reviews for a literary blog. Putting energy into that makes it difficult to think about buying a sleeve of digestives at the bodega. It’s difficult to binge and type/write at the same time. If I have writer’s block, I do a writing exercise or work on my Spanish verb conjugations. DOING THE MOST.

Erika Nicole Kendall March 5, 2014 - 11:59 AM

I LOVE this comment so much. (Partly because OMG, Paris was my high school dream!)

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