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 theย  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.

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

  1. Hello! Didn’t any of you sugar addicts see my post dated February 5, 2012. This had nothing to do with a decision to give up sugar or will power. Read it again if you haven’t already. The vegan diet has less protein, not more.

  2. The longest i have gone without candies is 4 days…Those 4 days were around 3 months ago. I really want to kick this lifelong habit. Surprisingly, I am thin and supposedly healthy, but I eat around 2 “pastries,” 1 chocolate bar, and maybe 5 ice cream cones per day ๐Ÿ™ And that’s a good day…I usually eat my ice cream cones at night time, and am already feeling the withdrawal again. ๐Ÿ™ It’s painful…I do not feel full nor hungry very easily, but enjoy eating…I would love to learn self-control!!! I even have to block my own internet :'(

    Good luck to everyone!!!

    • I’m so glad you brought up the self-control problem, because I read an article yesterday about a new book about the science of willpower. It’s on my wishlist so I haven’t had a chance to read it yet, but evidently, willpower requires a certain amount of energy, and that energy comes from the brain using glucose. We all know that eating sugar causes the body to react by pumping out excess amounts of insulin, which overshoots and actually scours too much glucose out of the blood. Then we feel shaky and antsy, and head to the cupboard for more sugar.

      So, if we have a sugar crash we also don’t have the fuel our brain needs to say “no.” I’m quite happy about this finding, because I’ve suggested so often that if you want to stop eating sugar, you should substitute healthy carbs to cut down on symptoms and cravings. It looks like I was right.

      And maybe it’s the sugar that’s keeping you from turning off the computer, too…

      • Hi Jonni,

        Thank you for your response! I think that is some very interesting information. Maybe eating so much sugar is what gives us willpower. I’ve noticed that I perform better when I have food — especially sweets.

        By the way, I have been *almost* off sugar for 1 week, and have been eating more healthy carbs — you are right.

        I’ve been at the computer a lot recently for essays/research and watching television/movies, but I think you have a great point. I have been simply using my computer more as a learning aid (the tv/movies is for language), rather than browsing nonstop — going from website to website. I am hoping that next month I can better track whether there is true correlation between sugar and internet addiction.

        I just wanted to respond that you make some great points and what you said applied to me very well! Thank you

  3. Hello all! I find this site to be SO inspiring and uplifting. I am a mom of three boys. I love life, love working out, and LOVE sugar. I come from a family of addicts, but because we abstain from alcohol and smoking and the like, we turn our noses to food. I maintain a thin shape after three boys, but only because I have to KILL myself doing so. I said I love working out, but I have come to hate it as of late. It seems like I am always compensating for my lack of willpower with sugar. What once was a binge 5-10 years ago, is now the new normal (ahhh, the problems of the lonely housewife:) I still workout every day, but do it in fear of becoming obese like my mother, who has been a literal slave to Coca Cola her whole life. I silently criticize her lack of willpower. but seem to ignore the fact that I am really my mother in a skinny body. But I am slowly gaining weight, and I can’t see keeping this up forever. I have been on vicious cycles of bingeing and purging for almost 2 decades, my choice of purging exercise. I am so tired of being contolled by this substance. and would do almost ANYTHING to rid myself of what I consider an emotional and physiological disease. I wish I could be one of those people who ingested sugar, and forgot about it. But I can’t seem to partake, without planning my next treat. It CONSUMES me. That in and of itself tells me that I am not living life to its fullest, when I plan my moment to moment around a substance. I feel awful, I feel like I am starting to look awful. And I need the motivation to see this through. Tomorrow is day 1. If anyone would like to buddy up with me, I would love a friend on this journey. If not here, does anyone know of any sugar abstinent support boards I could reference? I think once I get past week one, things will be much easier. I had a “Last Sugar Supper” tonight, enough to make myself sick. I am journaling about the feelings I feel, those I have felt so many times before, of guilt, of sadness, of despair, and basically of being physically ill with sugar intoxication, that I might refer to them in the future when I feel the inclination to indulge. I hope to be able to get to a point wherein I CAN indulge once a week after a Sunday dinner after a long while, but if that also puts me into a tailspin…then I will give that up too….As a side note, I was wondering if anyone experiences terrible insomnia and/or ravenous hunger when they first got off sugar? I have done this once before, and those two symptoms were almost more than I could bear. But I know they’re coming, and that’s half the battle for me. Thanks all! Good luck battling the BEAST!

  4. Hi Tracie – well you do have it bad alright – so I would say that willpower will help but it won’t be enough . You need to replace the cravings with fat and protein. Only allow yourself beef jerkey, cheese, hard boiled eggs, sausages etc that you can grab when you want to eat sugar. Also, stop eating after 6pm no matter how hungry you get. The hunger eases up as the days go by. But at the beginning, if you just can’t resist sweets after 6, then eat any of the above. I know that some say to eat healthy carbs, but even bread, crackers, pasta etc make me hungry so I have to eat lots of what I mentioned. I even have pre cooked hamburger in a bag frozen, and will melt cheese on top of some – that helps.
    I also dried very thin sausage rounds in a food dryer, freeze in baggies, and they are like yummy chips.
    Just some things that have helped me….

  5. Tracie, I think I just met my long lost twin sister! I am also the mother of 3 boys. Sugar consumes my every thought all day. I am thin, but obesity runs in my family. I have to work so hard to keep at my current weight. I have such a hard time getting motivated to exercise, but when I do I feel so good. The longest I’ve gone without sugar is 3 weeks. My body didn’t hurt and the headaches went away so why did I just binge on brachs malted milk Easter eggs??? Because I want my favorite taste instead of feeling great? It doesn’t make any sense. I would love to buddy up with you. How do we exchange emails without posting? Everything you said sounded like Me. Pigging out after a wonderful Sunday dinner, eating tons of sugar and planning my next binge. I sit in bed late at night and write down my “no sugar” plan only to eat ice cream for breakfast. Looking forward to hearing from you and others just like us!

    • Nan….So good to have a friend! Don’t you find it so much harder to control yourself, when you have children? And yet, I don’t want to deny them of sugar, and make it something they want even more. So not having it in the house completely, is not an option. So I have things that do not tempt me whatsoever, while still trying to make it “healthy sugar?” (Is that an oxymoron?lol) SO funny how you talked about planning every night what to eat the next day. I do that EVERY NIGHT. And I usually don’t make it past 11 AM on my resolve. But I am determined to make today different. I feel wonderful this morning, but I am pretty sure that is only because I still have gross amounts of sugar in my system from my Last Meal. Once that goes by by, if I know my body well, I should start to feel like SHIZ. So day one for me, isn’t going to be so hard. Day 2 will be hell. I actually have 3 half pills of Ambien I plan on taking for the first three nights. Which should help my battle during the day. But I will have to battle the blood sugar drops/severe insomnia eventually. Just maybe not at first. I would love to be your friend in this battle!

  6. Tracie… My boys are teenagers now., 16, 17, and 19 so it isn’t as hard as when they were younger. They are pretty independent. If they want sweets, they buy their own. I am my worst enemy. Do you know anyone who puts brown sugar on Hawaiian pizza? My husband just shakes his head. I showed him this site and I think I’ve convinced him that this is a real problem and there are others like me. I cracked up when you mentioned the ambien halves. I do too!! Otherwise I am awake all night with a sugar hangover headache. Today I’ve been really good. I’ve noticed if I have protein first thing in the morning, then I don’t crave sweets as much. Today I’ve had string cheese, cashews, 1/2 an avocado and a tomatoe. My purse is full of Easter candy (my favorite) and I haven’t touched it today. I love to read in bed all hours of the night and nibble on candy. And I wonder why I feel awful the next day?? I Think part of my problem is the weather in Utah. It’s so cold and I need to get outside and walk but I just stay inside waiting for the sun to come out. Way to go on your no sugar day. How is it going so far? It’s 2:15 p.m here and I’m doing great…..so far!

  7. Nan….your comment about Hawaiian pizza made me laugh out loud. That is SO something I would do. As long as you get it in your system, ya know?:) I am also from Utah:) We have more in common! I have not given in to the cravings here at 4:16 PM, which I think at this point are more mental that physical, but only because I still have so much in my system from yesterday. That said, the mental cravings are pretty overwhelming. Which is PATHETIC, and all the more reason to succeed. I am tired of allowing a substance to control my life, and yet compassionate towards myself, because I have very addictive tendencies which I think are in my DNA. Whatever I do, I tend to do it 150%, which can be very good, and of course, very bad. That said, this is precisely WHY I think sugar is the most difficult of all drugs to give up. Society deems it proper and right to consume it regularly, and puts it in our faces all the time, whether that be in grocery stores, or on plates lovingly left on our doorsteps from our neighbors. Either way, we eventually tell ourselves, well a “little won’t hurt.” WRONG. That lie has done me in so many times, I can’t even count anymore. I know there are blessed people out there, wherien “a little won’t hurt.” I ain’t one of them. Perhaps I should consider this a gift, rather than a weakness. Because if I choose to use my oversensitivity to a substance that has no need to be in my body, I can only be that much more healthy! But if I am in the same dreaded enchained state in ten years, writing the same email, I would absolutely DREAD the next ten years. I do not want to endure life, as I am in my present state, going from one high to a low to a high to a low. I want to savor its flavor! And sugar is taking all the flavor out of life. I want to enjoy the goodness to whole foods, as did our ancestors, who I am pretty sure did not fixate on where they would get their next “fix,” but ate to live, and live WELL. Good luck Nan! This is day 1 of 30 for me. My wheelbarrow is heavy….but every day another boulder drops out. I commend everyone who had the bravery and ambition to even come to this wonderful site. And to Jonni, you are an inspiration! Nan, keep in touch my fellow sugar-free Utahan!

  8. THE DIET CURE, by Julia Ross is an exceptional book and educates about supplementation (l-Glutamine and chromium picolinate for sugar cravings, amino acids etc). It’s been VERY helpful for me, but ironically, I’ve fallen off my eating plan (protein and fat) lately. I need more carbs because I’m active and work a crazy schedule.
    I just want everyone to know how very helpful this Forum is for me… I want and need to hear all the success stories and the ‘slip’ days. These challenges and ‘failures’ validate us as HUMAN BEINGS. We are not perfect and fnding the type and amount of food that works for EACH of us as individuals is a process. We will have good days and bad days, but I do know eating high protein and fat works beat for me.
    Everyday is a new day for making better choices and it can start now. I am so very thankful to everyone’s post. I am not alone and nor are You!
    Hugs,
    JS

  9. Day 2…kablamo. Felt so weak today. Ate tons…but NO sugar. So proud of myself, and real food is already tasting so much better. Don’t really need to lose a lot of weight, but lost 4 pounds in two days. Feels like my body is flushing out toxins. Incredibly tired and weak, with a bit of a headache….but I will never go back to where I was but a week ago. Sure, I will have slipups here and there down the road, but nothing that will be stronger than my desire to be whole both physically and mentally. I am letting go of the sugar, letting go of the guilt, and finding life. Good luck to all you heroes!

  10. Day 3…11:42 AM, and still going strong. When I feel weak, I exercise. It seems to help tremendously. For a few hours. That said, I wonder if the exercise may in fact be contributing to the low blood sugar at night? I have terrible insomnia on most nights, last night no exception. It seems to be much worse when I go off of sugar. I have had this problem for YEARS, and think that it is one of the reasons I use sugar as a drug. A lot of people say that if they eat too much sugar, they are up for hours at night. That completely befuddles me. Certainly not me. If I eat a ton of sugar, I actually look forward to bedtime, because it KNOCKS ME OUT. I wake up feeling awful mentally, and AMAZING physically, like a man who just got water in the desert. Anyways, I have been on this awful cycle for YEARS. I think it is the biggest reason I have not been able to beat this for good. I will go a few days eating great nutritious food without hardly any sugar, nights not excluded, and my sleep will be HELL. I actually fear going to bed. That said, after 2 or 3 days of ridiculous and insufficient ZZZZZZ’s, I will give in, and eat TONS of sugar, also noting the fact that my appetite is redonkulous when I sleep poorly (we’re talking like a 300 pound sumo wrestler.) After my sugar binge, I look forward to zonking out. Please tell me there is someone out there like me?????? I used to be obsessed with my weight, as my mom is very unhappy and obese. She has been my primary role model in so many ways. But I am not fat by any means. 5’5,a nd 128 pounds. But you do not need to be fat to be miserable. And I AM miserable. I have realized that I have an immense amount of willpower, and that beating myself up all these years has been for naught. Not very many people could endure the nights I have endured, and not do anything in their power to get more sleep. My question is: 1) how do I do this? If I sleep better, sugar would pretty much cease to exist in my mind. It is the key to my success. I refuse to take drugs like Ambien on a regular basis, only because it masks the problem, doesn’t work half the time, and I plan on getting pregnant again, and don’t want that affecting the fetus.

    The good news is, my physiological appetite is probably half what is was three days ago. My mental appetite is still HUGE, but I am confident that will change in time. I need to be in a place for a while, wherein I do not feel denied of the foods that bring flavor and zest to life, and place wherein I feel full when I eat and not wanting for more. And then I believe I will kiss those mental sugar urges bye bye. Day 3, and I am already feeling a modicum of success. This will be the best decision I ever make. If mama’s happy everyone’s happy. I am not eating things like agave nectar and the like, but I still want sugar to be “normalized” to my children. Not denied, but not given without hesitation at every whim. I was denied as a child, and it screwed. me. up. Anyways, I made whole wheat, natural peanut butter cookies, with agave nectar last night for my boys, and they loved it. When mama’s happy, everyone’s happy. When mama’s healthy, everyone’s healthy. How’s that for motivation. Hope my thoughts aren’t bombarding everyone:) THANKS for letting me ramble! I plan continuing, unless someone tells me off:)

    • PS…..I do not want to be one of those people who exercises to much and eats too little. At one time, I had dreams of becoming an endurance athlete. But those dreams went out the window with my poor sleep. The days I described, wherein I was eating well, exercising for an hour, but sleeping poorly….I was pulling in at least 2000 calories. I am wondering if there is a light at the end of the tunnel? Meaning, if I get off sugar for a while, so I have a chance of breaking this vicious cycle? Also, is there food that someone recommends before bedtime, in order to eat better? And lastly, I absolutely LOATHE eating in the middle of the night. But if I have to do it to maintain good sleep, are there any snacks that someone recommends? IE: last night I was up for 3 hours, and finally gave in and went to the fridge and grabbed two pieces of whole wheat bread and some water, gobbled them down, and then went back to bed and fell asleep in like 5 minutes. Any other suggestions on 1) how to avoid this and 2) if not avoid it, what kind of foods to eat? Any advice would be so welcomed, I am at my wits end, but DETERMINED to find a solution.

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