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Sugar Addiction – Why Sugar Addiction Matters, and What You Can Do to Stop Sugar Cravings

Sugar Addiction – Yes, It’s Real

The theories surrounding the issue of sugar addiction are still being debated by scientists, but there is a growing pile of evidence convincing nutritionists and doctors that sugar addiction is real. The most famous researcher in this field is probably Kathleen DesMaisons, Ph.D., author of a number of bestselling books on the subject, including Potatoes Not Prozac, Little Sugar Addicts: End the Mood Swings, Meltdowns, Tantrums, and Low Self-Esteem in Your Child Today, and Your Last Diet!: The Sugar Addict’s Weight-Loss Plan.

Simply by reading the titles of her books, you can see that over-consumption of sugar can affect both your weight and your state of mind. It was this last symptom of sugar addiction – it’s connection to chronic depression – that first alerted me to the dangers of sugar and other highly-refined carbohydrates.

I think the first book I ever read on the subject was called Sugar Blues, by William Dufty. Research continues to be done, and sugar has now been found to contribute to tooth decay, gum disease, type 2 diabetes, osteoporosis, heart disease, and some auto-immune diseases. How can something as innocent-looking as sugar, something we’ve eaten since we were toddlers, do so much damage to the human body? And how can a common food substance become addictive?

If you have the time, be sure to watch this 89 minute video that explains some vitally important things about sugar and the American diet. I think this video is so important that I’m fitting it into the middle of this post – even though I know you may watch the video and never read the rest of my article.

But that’s OK, because what Dr. Lustig has to say if far more important – if you feel you’re addicted to sugar, if you have kids, if you’re worried about being overweight or getting diabetes, or if anyone in the family has heart disease, you need to watch this video. I admit that it isn’t a short YouTube entertainment flick, but it’s worth every minute of your attention, I promise. He explains, among other things:

  • Why sugar is the primary cause of obesity in both children and adults, and where we get most of the sugar in our diets.
  • The connection between sugar and high blood pressure, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, liver disease, insulin resistance, and more.
  • Why some calories make us fat, while other calories don’t – which also means that everything we’ve been told about dieting and losing weight is wrong.

The video is by Robert H. Lustig, MD, Professor of Pediatrics in the Division of Endocrinology and Director of the Weight Assessment for Teen and Child Health (WATCH) Program at UCSF.

Sugar: The Bitter Truth

And now, to the rest of my article. Be sure to chime in with your comments down below, and join the conversation.

A Short History of Sugar

Sugar has been around for a very long time, but it remained a luxury of the very rich for most of human history. Extracting the simple sugars from beets or other plants was a painstaking task, so only the nobility could afford it.

Then, several events happened at around the same time – the Industrialization of Europe began, which required lots of cheap labor; explorers discovered islands in the Caribbean that were ideally suited for growing sugar cane, a form of tropical grass; and the slave trade made the growing of sugar cane cheap.

In addition, machinery was invented that could take the syrup and refine it into the white powder we now all know as cane sugar. This new substance packed a powerful punch of calories in a very small package, and it was soon discovered that men, women and children working in factories could be kept working at their machines if they were occasionally given bread and jam and heavily sweetened tea, which they could eat right at their work stations.

The beginning of sugar addiction, and its accompanying health problems, began with the need for cheap labor in European factories. Almost as soon as sugar became a cheap commodity in the eighteenth century, doctors started to notice its ill effects on the human body. Current research is simply reinforcing the opinions of doctors who warned against sugar 200 years ago.

Why Sugar is Addictive

Sugar is a highly refined substance that does not appear alone in nature. It looks a lot like cocaine, and sugar acts a lot like heroin when it hits the brain. Although the idea that sugar was addictive was controversial among scientists for years, they began to take note when the paper titled Sugar and Fat Bingeing Have Notable Differences in Addictive-Like Behavior was published in the Journal of Nutrition in 2009.

The study showed that sugar affects the brain chemistry and thus might be expected to cause addictive behavior. In the study, written by Nicole Avena and others, it was shown that sugar bingeing can cause withdrawal symptoms and cravings.

The behavioral effects are similar to the  neurochemical changes in the brain that also occur with addictive drugs. One finding of that study is seldom discussed — both sugar and the taste of sweet activate beta endorphin receptor sites in the brain, the same receptor sites that are activated by heroin and morphine.

The implications of this finding are that sugar substitutes, which have become a major industry in the United States and other nations, may not be the answer for people who want to lick their sugar addiction. Children who are given sweet candies and drinks made with sugar substitutes may still become sugar addicts when they grow up, and will find it just as difficult as the rest of us when it comes to giving up the sugar and other refined carbohydrates in their diet.

The bottom line – sugar is addictive, and it’s dangerous to one’s health. Because of its addictive qualities, it is very difficult to give up sugar, but the benefits in improved physical and emotional health make it worth the work.


575 thoughts on “Sugar Addiction – Yes, It’s Real”

  1. Fantastic and well thought out article. I believe that refined sugar is addictive because I’m a recovering addict of sugar myself. Thank you for the history and background information.

      • I used a simple meditation technique to improve my awareness of the choices I made. I know other people have used the same basic idea, and it does seem to help. When sugar is an immediate threat to one’s health, as it is for diabetics, it’s best to get some advice from a doctor. I’ve heard that a clinical hypnotherapist can do wonders.

        • When you attend a 12 step meeting, you should not mention what you hear and see there. Anonymity is the foundation of the program’s success. Don’t jepoardize that!

      • I have been eating a lot of chocolate and have tried many times to quit it. My most successful attempt was when I wanted a new cameralens to my Nikon. I had to sell the idea to my wife and did it by saying that I could buy the lens and afterwards save my chocolate money. Needless to say, she didn´t buy it. Instead she had the nerve to suggest to me that if I first saved my chocolate money, I could get me the lens. Well, I got a challenge and I took it. The sugarcraving was gone, just like that. Next day I had no need for chocolate, I was counting money, and after about three months I could buy me the lens. Unfortunately when the goal was achieved I didn´t manage to stay away from the goodies.

        • I was having the same problem but then I found the Grapefruit diet. All it is is a 12 day body cleanse from carbs and sugar. I have found it wonderful, I used to think the only way I could lose weight was from eating fat free and sugar free foods. I found out I was not giving my body enough healthy fats. The grapefruit diet has helped me cut the craving for Sugars by having me eat a piece of citrus fruit with every meal, so now I am eating the healthy sugar rather than the refined sugars. I have to have me grapefruit, orange or pineapple with every meal now, or I feel like I need sugar.

        • Chocolate has far less sugar than anything of equivalent foods that is vanilla flavored or strawberry or any other flavor. In fact chocolate is high in anti-oxidants. Have you ever had 100% chocolate? No. I thought so.
          It is bitter and dry as hell. You might as well use 100% chocolate for coffee. People blame chocolate far too much for their own over indulgence when fruit juices and other flavors like strawberry/vanilla have far more sugar than the ones ADDED to chocolate. In fact chocolate itself is good for your teeth. It’s the sugar they pour into chocolate desserts that’s not. I’ve had mint flavored ice creams. Does that make mint the enemy now? NO. It is the sugar added to it.
          Eat everything in moderation.
          In fact a good diet is one you don’t think-is also one where you eat FATS. Fat curbs hunger and is essential to ABSORBING nutrients in vegetables (because really our bodies can’t do it themselves). If you can’t absorb essential nutrients your body is going to call out for more food WITH those essential nutrients because it still hasn’t gotten them even though you ate more than enough calories.
          In fact they did a study on people who drank whole milk as opposed to 2% and no fat. The no fat were the least healthy and the majority were overweight. same goes with 2%. But the whole milk were healthy, vital, and good weight.
          There’s types of fats too. Saturated and Unsaturated (poly and mono). Saturated fats are the bad kind of fats and Unsaturated are the good kinds of fats.
          You need fat. You need sugar. You need everything in moderation.
          My mother eats quite a lot of meat, but she’s anemic STILL. Did you know that in order to absorb a certain mineral you need a certain amount of a type of vitamin to absorb it (and vice versa). Just because the box says blah blah grams of iron and vitamin D doesn’t mean if you eat that much you get that much. If you don’t eat the other necessary fat and vitamin/mineral to absorb it, your body will still hunger for more and this is where the overconsumption comes in.
          By the way ALL carbohydrates are sugar. Complex or simple: in the end it is still broken down to sugar in your body. You need carbs-loads of it. You cannot avoid eating sugar because just about everything has carbs and if it doesn’t then it’s probably an unhealthy food/drink.
          By the way energy drinks that say it has 0 calories are lies. Calories=Energy.
          Even people who mostly consume salads (crazy anal retards) there’s a big difference in who is healthier. The ones who ate the fatty dressings were the healthier of the bunch.
          Blaming chocolate when in fact real 100% is as sugarless as coffee beans is a terrible way to think. Having chocolate once in a while is FINE. Having chocolate candies laden with heavy sugar everyday four times a day IS NOT.
          I drink a ton of milk-and I mean a lot, but I barely get any calcium from it.
          Hahaha-yes I know. It’s mostly because of the tea I drink a lot. Both tea and chocolate have oxalic acid which decreases the absorption of calcium. Makes you think twice about chocolate milk.
          Here’s something to surprise you:
          Phytic acid, found in whole grains, nuts, and legumes, can bind to calcium to form and insoluble complex, thereby decreasing the absorption of calcium.
          Oxalic acid, found in spinach, beets, celery, pecans, peanuts, tea and cocoa, can bind to calcium and form an insoluble complex that is excreted in the feces also decreasing the absorption.
          So even those REALLY HEALTHY foods can hinder you. Everything in moderation. If you eat little of this, then you’re fine. If you eat a lot of any one of these or a lot of many of them. You’re in trouble.

          Sugar is not the enemy. It’s how much you eat of one food that is. If you have varying and MANY foods throughout the day, then you will be much better for it.
          I did take Nutrition Science so there’s a lot more about this article that it’s keeping from you.

          • Juwei,
            You’re missing the whole point. You might know a lot about nutrition (since you took nutrition science and all), but that’s not what this thread is about. It’s about ADDICTION, which is something you obviously know nothing about. The absence of “moderation” is the very nature of what is being discussed here, so, don’t be preaching about “moderation” on a thread about “addiction.”

          • Hey Guys

            I found this site by accident, I am truly addicted to sugar and can so relate to all your comments. This site is amazing!! Love it…fantastic information and so much so it made me give up sugar yet again today:-) Splitting headache but have upped my protein and water which always helps these first few days. I retain water easily and know that by giving up sugar & bad carbs the weight(fluid) will drop off and i will be motivated again with healthy foods. I have to eat every few hours-protein, veg, fruit etc to keep my blood sugar level then i dont binge.

            Such huge inspiration is apparent as you kinda feel you are alone with this, unfortunately i loose some weight and am either all or nothing then just have to binge on anything and everything sweet and carbs, which makes me feel tired, moody, fat and unhealthy. I know that once i get through these first few days again with some willpower that i can do this and you guys are inspriring me.
            Thank you:-)

          • On your comment,
            “By the way ALL carbohydrates are sugar. Complex or simple: in the end it is still broken down to sugar in your body. You need carbs-loads of it. You cannot avoid eating sugar because just about everything has carbs and if it doesn’t then it’s probably an unhealthy food/drink.”

            Yes. If you are referring to “sugar” as glucose, yes. With everything we eat, our body likes glucose and attempts to break down everything else as glucose,

            except FRUCTOSE. Fructose is the problem with table sugar, honey, maple syrup, agave nectar etc. A portion of fructose cannot be broken down and becomes triglycerides in the body, along the insides of blood vessels- i.e. the cause of heart attacks. Fruit also contains fructose, but it can be considered a dessert in moderation when it is eaten whole, since there are other nutrients you can have from it. Beyond fruit, all fructose can be avoided.

      • Kathleen DeMaison’s website http://www.radiantrecovery.com has a wonderful step by step solution to sugar addiction. Her research and online community has personally helped me a lot in finding recovery and hope that sugar addiction can be recovered from. Hope you find some help there too : )

    • Carey, you said that you were a recovering addict. Can you give me some helpful hints that got you through the time you were trying to cut out sugar. Thanks

    • Carey, how did you do it? My dad says I’m like a drug addict but with sugar. I love sugar. I feel that I can’t stop my cravings and I don’t know how to not give in. One trick that has helped me cut down a bit though, is sometimes when I have a craving, I pour myself a glass of milk and the craving usually goes away. Or I chew or eat something minty. Although annoying, I have heard brushing your teeth or rinsin your mouth with mouthwash helps defer the craving, if not completely evaporate it for a few hours. Any other suggestions?? Please help I’m sort of young and I need to stop soon. I don’t need to completely stop having sugar, but its bad for my health and face because doesn’t excessive sugar cause more pimples than normal?

      • If I can add my own two-cent’s worth here, I think that “cutting down” on sugar is almost impossible. The only way I know of to give up any addictive substance is to give it up entirely. Sugar causes all sorts of havoc with the body. Cravings don’t go away automatically, but it really helps if you eat something else that’s healthy whenever you get the urge to eat sugar. Some sugar cravings are caused by low blood sugar, and people who eat a lot of sugar have wide swings in blood sugar. To help your body get back in balance, eat something healthy, like a bowl of oatmeal (no sugar, of course), a piece of whole wheat bread or a whole grain cracker, a potato – anything that has healthy carbs but no sugar. Some people also have success by eating something with protein in it, or drinking a glass of milk.

        You’ll go through withdrawal symptoms, but they’re temporary. In a few weeks you’ll feel better. I can’t guarantee the acne will go away, but I wouldn’t be surprised. Good luck!

        • I agree with Jonni. In my experience, addiction to sugar is addiction. There is no inbetween. I hate when I hear people talk about moderation in eating sugar, because for me, one M&M will send me into a state of craving. When I was in highschool, it was easier to say no to a second cookie. I had enough rational wisdom to even ask my mother that we cut out all sugar BEFORE it became a problem. Now that I’m in college and I have control over my immediate food environment in an apartment, it is much harder. As a college student, I also have many more chances that I will run into sugar-supporting situations. I consider myself “straight-edge” in drinking- that is zero alcohol- so perhaps I will have to apply the same attitude towards sugar. My attitude and reasons towards not drinking is included in the following:

          -Avoid drinking situations- they only encourage you to act stupidly and base your fun off of a chemically-induced state, rather than your own self. What kind of fun is it when it is not actually you?

          -In general, be aware of friends who drink a lot and decide not to hang out with them when they drink.
          (You may lose those friends,.. I didn’t care because ultimately I felt a better sense of self worth once I stopped hanging out with them! People who treat themselves badly probably treat you badly as well..)

          -Be aware that drinking makes you look stupid, and probably puts you in dangerous situations.
          (i.e., rape, going in cars with other drunk people, walking out alone in the night, etc.)

          -Be aware of how you change when you drink, and imagine what could potentially happen if you kept losing control in that way. Realize you don’t want this to happen.
          (For me, I become overly flirtacious and passive, i.e. sexually vulnerable to be raped or have sex with anyone that I probably wouldn’t want to have sex with if I was sober.>> PROBLEM. Every person has a different “drinking” personality, so we all could have different negative end results to think about.)

          So, applying this to sugar addiction…:

          -Avoid “sugaring” situations
          ( Notice how I made it into a connotated activity, rather than something you can eat; it is not food; also, the verb allows an understanding that something happens TO YOU when you eat sugar, you do not remain your same self. This attitude is what ultimately made me realize I didn’t like drinking… the idea of not knowing who I was anymore.)

          – Sugaring situations only encourage you to act stupidly and base your fun off of a chemically-induced state, rather than your own self. What kind of fun is it when it is not actually you?

          -In general, be aware of friends who “sugar” a lot and decide not to hang out with them when they “sugar”.
          (This could include so many people… however.. if someone is not willing to respect your need to cut out all sugar, they don’t understand enough to properly care, and you need to do what’s best for you. Beyond the fact that they may not pressure you (“..It’s just ONE cookie,.. c’mon??…” “Hey, they’re going to go to waste..” “Grandma MADE those for you. Don’t you appreciate what she does for you?”), being around sugar is like an alcoholic in a bar. It is unlikely that he/she will avoid drinking, and it is unlikely that he/she will just have ONE drink without going downhill.

          -Be aware that sugaring makes you look stupid, and probably puts you in dangerous situations.
          (Even though people can typically see that sugar will mess you up in academic or work situations, people do not realize that sugar can make you look and feel overly gittery, unsure of yourself, insecure, overly-excited, or depressed in social situations. Aka- sugar makes you look stupid around your friends.)

          -Be aware of how you change when you sugar, and imagine what could potentially happen if you kept losing control in that way. Realize you don’t want this to happen.
          (For me, I get overly gittery, secretive, and impulsive. Honestly, I think my sugar addiction has contributed to other dopamine addictions in my life. I think I have even had risky sex under the influence of sugar. This is nuts how accepted sugar addiction and sugar in general is accepted in our society*.)

  2. I am in the middle of a detox diet and sugar is the main element I am reducing plus looking at reducing high GI foods with low GI foods.
    I am having somewhat of an education in how food really is fuel, something I have always known but as weird as this may sound my sugar intake which had really got way out of control I think was blurring my thinking processes.
    I am half way through my detox and already can feel the difference with less sugar and low GI foods as the replacement.

    • I am wondering how things are going with you….i woke up today wondering if I will have the courage to break up with my sugar baby….actually, perhaps , it is not appropriate as it is Valentine’s Day….My husband bought me a very large box toffee….what to do? I am afraid to stop as it usually causes me to have a 3 day banger of a headache…HELP

  3. Yes, I cut sugar out a week ago, I can feel the difference. But it is challenging when there’s sugar in almost every thing. Now I am going thru the caving stage. I see &feel i was an sugar addict,

  4. I have been off sugar for 4 days now, and still feel really tired. What are some of the negative symptoms I might feel before I get to the good feeling?? And how long will it take!!??

    • Ali, are you eating super-nutritious food to help your body get back to health? That can help reduce the symptoms. I also suggest that everyone check with their doctor if they think the withdrawal symptoms are too severe or last too long.

  5. I am glad that people start talking about this problem – sugar addiction. I am a sugar addict. Three years ago I managed to escape this addiction for a while, but then I just went on low-calorie, high-protein diet plan and I had to let the sugar go. It was hard, but after I lost all weight I wanted, I was back to sugar. What I have noticed about myself – I can not eat refined carbs in moderation. I can eat a little bit, but then I will need more in a little bit and it is a vicious cycle. So I am back now to combat this addiction. So far: two days in. I already feel the difference. Yes, withdrawal, tiredness, but I know from the experience that one has to stand one week and these symptoms will go away. I do eat carbs in a shape of rye-bread toast with my unsweetened coffee in the morning. I do not eat bread after that until the next morning. Lunch: steamed fish, poultry, beef, tomato, cucumber, lettuce, dill, broccoli. Dinner: the same or steamed vegetables, or cooked in olive oil. Out of all drinks available: water. Coffee (only natural from beans) only in the morning. No alcohol. No salt. Yes, I do feel tired and sometimes cold in the evenings now, but at the same time I already notice that my mood is more stable and I have a very positive outlook. This worth the battle!

    • Sarah, I’m glad you mentioned how easy it is to fall back into eating sugar, even after giving it up for several years. This is something that all addicts have to watch out for – and it pretty much proves that sugar is truly addictive.

      Good luck – you have an excellent plan, and we all wish you the best.

    • Sarah I was searching these comments to find out if there is actually such a thing as sugar withdrawal. I am not a huge consumer of sugar in chocolate, sweets and such things, but I am alarmed at how many times I have to fill up my sugar jar holding 500grams. My use of it is mainly in my tea, which I drink a lot of using one full teaspoon for each mug.

      Wanting to cut out sugar, but needing some tea sweetener, I tried Xylitol which is a natural product from corn. After avoiding all sweeteners for years because of the nasty taste most of them have, I am delighted with this product. There is no strange taste and if I taste it off my finger, I find no difference to sugar.

      I know this is not a cure for removing the need for sweeteners, but after using a natural substitute for around one week now, I find I am feeling drained and also look tired and drawn. I have only just made the connection and am wondering if I am actually going through some kind of withdrawal symptoms and whether it will gradually improve. Or, perhaps, these symptoms are just a coincidence? You mention a feeling of tiredness Sarah and wonder if this medically acknowledged to be part of the effects of suddenly giving up sugar. If anyone else knows that this is medically documented, I’d really appreciate hearing about it.

  6. I am definitely a sugar addict! I’m am sitting here in my cubicle having eaten at McDonald’s. Now eating dessert, not one but two hot apple pies. It’s cheaper that way! I am not sure where to begin. I have been a WW member off and on for years and the thing I always notice is I feel better after when I’m eating healthy. It happens very quick for me, usually 24 to 48 and I can think straight again. My biggest problem is sticking with it for more than a couple of weeks. I love the idea of some sort of meditation that was mentioned earlier. Where can I find info for that? Any other encouragement/tips would be greatly appreciated! 😉

      • Meditation has been helpful for me too! Thaht Nich Hahn is a contemporary Buddhist with many books. I have his book, Walking Meditation, and it helps.

        Being outside really helps when it’s sunny out- serotonin boost makes you forget about what else you were craving!

  7. Johnny, thank you very much for the encouragement! It is the end of my forth day and I already feel great. Though the fact that I slowed down on sugar seriously the week before, I think, helped. Also, what I find helps: elimination of inner debate. I set my mind pretty firm – “No Sugar” and I do not debate with that. Yes, the stores are full of sugar in all shapes and forms and all I can eat is the steamed fish/meat and fresh vegetables. This is my reality and it is my own choice and not a punishment. I am not going to be seduced by the choices of others anymore.

    Immediate benefits: clear head, no unpredictable moods, immediately a nice body started emerging, MUCH better flexibility at my Bikram yoga class (it feels as if I spent a month of intensive stretching workouts, when the only thing I did – I removed sugar from my diet), for women – I did not notice my PMS this time, though I used to be bloated, gain 5-10 pounds of water weight, my skin would break-out, my moods were all over the place and I would lose my flexibility completely so the yoga class would become a sheer torture. Now I DID NOT NOTICE PMS. It is fantastic for me! I sleep much better. On sugar I used to wake up 2-5 times at night to go to the fridge and get something to eat (I needed carbs). I used to think that I have some weird disorder and was very sensitive about it. Now I decided to hang on and not to eat at nights. I was able to do it, because for the first time I considered that it was not a disorder but another side of a sugar addiction. The first night was difficult, then it was easier and easier. I wake up an hour earlier and I wake up energized! I am glowing through the day.

    It is scary to think how we medicate ourselves into sickness and misery with this sugar!

    I wish everyone the best on this journey.

    • Dear Sarah,

      I just read your comments about getting off sugar. I really like the part about ending the inner debate and just saying NO SUGAR. I used to be able to do just that with myself. I was sugarfree for many years but with great life/job stress and needing antidepressants (they cause overwhelming cravings), I have become addicted to sugar again. My weight is a problem and I can think of nothing else it seems. I would very much like to share a dialogue with you and perhaps glean some coaching or encouragement from you. If you are interested, my email is sebennis@yahoo.com. Thank you sincerely. I look forward to hearing from you. Susan

  8. Hi all,
    my name is Rebecka and I am a sugar addict….Help!
    I have such a hard time. I do well for a while but, the minute I get a taste of sugar then I go on a binge. I can’t stop. it is making me miserable. I copied the diet Sarah is on it sounds good. I need to lose weight. thanks! pray for me everyone….


    • Hi,
      I am exactly the same way as Angel. I thought there was something wrong with me but now I know I AM A SUGAR ADDICT. I thought sugar must be addicting. I am a recovering alcoholic and I have the same cravings with sugar as I had with alcohol. I couldn’t stop at only one.

      I hope to recover this addiction and respond with everyone.


    • Dear Angel cake, I can relate to where you are coming from. I feel the same way and sugar and carbs have their hold of me also. I look in the mirror and do not like what I see. My will power is “0”. Let me know if you find the thing that works for you.

  9. Thousands of people have kicked their sugar addiction in Overeaters Anonymous. It’s free, and a wonderful organization. I lost 15 pounds in two months just by recognizing and treating the sugar addiction. Highly recommended!

  10. suzie,
    i joined OA HOW friday and my husband came with me. I have abstand from sugar for 3 days!!! it is amazing how much better i am starting to feel!

    anyone out there suffering? OA HOW!!! it is really the answer

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