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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 theĀ  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. Tracie,
    The night thing happens to me! It is awful! I eat too much sugar close to bedtime, blood-glucose spikes, fall asleep AMAZINGLY fast, and awake in an hour or so when the blood levels plummet. I eat another sugary or carb snack and fall right back to sleep. This cycle happens twice on a good night, four or five times on a bad night. If I try to resist, I just lay awake and cannot fall back to sleep. Oddly, obstaining from sugar prior to bedtime or throughout the entire day does NOT help. If anything, depriving myself during the day makes me eat much more during the night.

  2. Tracie,
    Yes I’m like you too! Many people can’t sleep well on a fu stomach, but I’m just the opposite. Its the ‘crash’ after eating a lot of calories that allows me to sleep like a baby. As a result of often times needing to eat before bed, my routine for the past many years is “wake up, brush my teeth, go for a jog”. I’m not hungry (obviously) when I wake and the exercise maintains my weight. Problem is, I would like ro LOSE 10 lbs+ so I’m experiencing a similar dilemma. I, too, will not take ambien, but I’ve considered it as a means to troubleshoot my problem.
    I badly want to lose those ‘vanity pounds’, but when I polish odd 1000 cal of Chex Mix tight before bed, I justify it simply because “I can”. Ugh.
    Today I’ve been good, as I ALWAYS am during the day. It’s 9pm onward that’s the killer…. Help for me and Tracie? Lol

  3. I just wanted to update that I have been 1 week almost sugar free (I went out to a few parties and ate a bit — but not nearly as much as I would have at home!).

    One thing that has helped is eating large amounts of fruits, breads, rice, and healthy foods (for instance, last night I made chicken soup with LOTS of chicken chunks and large chunks of carrots and onions). I have been eating to the point of stomach aches at times, but my cravings for sugar are lessening.

    A few days ago I went to a BBQ and someone brought these large eclair-like desserts for everyone. Only one month ago we had another BBQ and someone had brought the same exact dessert. I loved it last time, but this time I didn’t like it — actually, I ended up throwing out half of it — something I would never have done before!

    I am saving money and my skin is clearing up incredibly (despite an extreme amount of sugar-unrelated stress right now). Instead of spending 4 dollars on sweets yesterday, I bought 16 oranges — and they are going to last more than one day unlike the sweets! I did a lot of grocery shopping yesterday, and avoiding sweets, I was forced to eat healthily. For the first time in my life, I felt really proud of my choices — the food in my cart looked so healthy…and surprisingly more delicious than the usual 50-50 sweets to real food ratio.

    It is still a struggle, because I am so used to snacking on candies throughout the day, but I feel really proud and happy. If I can do it, you can too!

    Good luck again everyone!

  4. Hi Everyone- Its been nearly 9 weeks since I dropped sugar, flour, processed carbs, and caffeine from my diet. I feel absolutely great!
    It took some time getting used to planning my meals with all the measuring and timing. By timing I mean eating at proscribed times throughout the day to avoid binge opportunities. That is really important.
    The sweet cravings have not come back. My mood is great. Sleep is wonderful. I exercise 5-6 days a week. Aerobic exercise which I’ve never really enjoyed is now enjoyable. I can a heart rate well with in or even above my target for my age, 54. Let’s just say my wife is happy…….
    Today I’m wearing clothes I have not worn in quite some time. While weight lost has plateaued at around 20lbs, my body feels very different. First, my muscles are coming back. Next my skin and hair look better. Needless to say, my self-confidence and attitude has improved. Any signs of depression have vanished as well. This is not a fad diet, but a change in diet that I anticipate will require life-long vigilance. My goal is to get my weight under 200lbs, a mark I have not hit in 25 years.
    What was the trigger? I guess I was just tired of feeling like crap, or in AA we say,” when you are sick and tired of feeling sick and tired”, you will do something.
    Apparently I was not ready until New Year’s Eve, 2011. Last sweets, 8 Hersheys Kisses. I try not to forget.

    Purchased a few new suits for a cruise we are taking in May. While there is very little in life we can control, what you put in your mouth and corresponding attitudes are about it. I’m really glad I made the choice to stop slowly killing myself with food, sugar and starches in particular.

    San Francisco Bay Area

    • Hi Jack,

      Thanks for your post — good to see one success story amongst all of these self-loathing and desperation-filled comments!

      I see you are from the San francisco bay area and would love to meet up and talk about how you got over this . Either in person or over email.

  5. Jack, Congrats on such an accomplishment!
    I am right behind you with 7 weeks sugar, white flour, diet soda, processed foods free! I feel wonderful with so much more energy. I have only lost 6 pounds but my weight feels different – for the better. I have dropped a pants size and have a better out look on life. My husband has been following with me since I prepare all the meals, but he has also joined me for 2 mile brisk walks every evening. He lost 10 pounds. I have looked into the different rates of weight loss, and apparently if I don’t want excess skin or flab I need to be careful not to lose muscle and lean body fat by not limiting my food intake below the natural calorie burning of my body at rest but also BURN some calories with cardio exercise. So where we lose fat, it should be replaced with muscle therefore a healthy loss might be a little slow, but in the end very fulfilling. I have had only 2 slip ups with my no sugar, and they really didn’t taste as good as I expected.
    To Tracie and Nan, buddy system is great support. I have been posting what I eat in a food diary over at dietdiaries.com. Some of the women are on a weight loss venture while others are just trying to maintain a healthy weight – all doing different methods, but it is great when you journal what you eat on a daily basis so you can see and track your progress. If it’s not about weight loss, just about healthy eating you can share recipes or get ideas about what to eat from reading each others diaries and it is totally anonymous.
    To i love vinegar: I ate TONS of sugar and candy and white flour all of my life with no weight issues. At 18 I weighed 108 pounds at 5’8″ but as I got older, my metabolism began to change and I couldn’t understand why I was gaining a little weight other than I was getting older, having kids etc… I never realized it was the sugar messing with my system. Long story short, at 50 and now 164 pounds, I feel the best I ever did and I don’t even crave the candy and ice cream like I used to. I still miss my breads and are trying multi grain options.
    Good Luck to all and this site was the beginning of my inspiration!

  6. Although I don’t drink sugary beverages and I don’t eat sugar all day, I love desserts and have tremendous difficulty stopping at one dessert – Routinely I’ll have two helpings, sometimes three. This wouldn’t be so much of a problem except that I have an autoimmune disease that is exacerabated by sugar consumption. I’m trying to figure out how to consume sugar in moderation but after reading this article and these comments I’m dubious of that being possible. Anyone had any luck with a diet involving moderate sugar consumption? Like an occasional dessert? I can’t just seem to stop at one.

    • That moderation idea sure didn’t work for me. I don’t know of anyone who recommends it, except for people who really don’t have any problem with sugar and can’t imagine why anybody would. Since sugar has no nutritional benefits, there’s no reason to keep eating it at all, and going cold turkey is so much easier in the long run. That’s my opinion, any way.

  7. Ahhhh… I had a hard weekend but I’m back on track. I KNOW what do do but my cravings are controlling me. I have found if I start my day with protein then I don’t crave sugar in the a.m. I just made a protein drink: dash of milk, dash of low sugar orange juice, low sugar Greek yogurt, a whole bananna, handful of frozen berries and a scoop of no sugar protein powder. It’s yummy and nutritious. It snowed all last night and that depresses me. Tracie, hopefully you live in Southern Utah where the sun is shining? :).
    Reading back through the recent posts…. I can’t have even a little piece of candy or I blow my whole day. And I want more. I wish I was one of the fortunate ones who could have a little chocolate and be satisfied. I just can’t. I have two trips coming up and I’m worried. I’m taking two of my boys on a three day cruise and Im dreading the 24 hour food, everywhere! I have to focuse on the fresh fruit and all the fish I want right?? Has anyone gone on a cruise and not gained weight? It’s impossible for me!
    To Emily: way to go!!! Seven weeks is quite an accomplishment. How did you get through your first week? That is always the hardest week for me. We truly are detoxing.
    Jack: 9 weeks, congrats!! You people are my inspiration!

    Tracie, how is my buddy doing? Are you sleeping? Do you watch your husband conk out the second his head hits the pillow? I would give anything to go to bed, close my eyes and sleep! I lay there and it’s like there is a movie playing in my head. My brain just won’t shut off. It helps if I wear an eye mask and ear plugs ( to drown out hubby snoring)
    As moms, we tend to take the problems of the world and our families on our shoulders. It’s just our nature. I dread night time. I know I will read my book all night and wonder where the sand man is.
    Day two here and doing good. I’ll grab protein all day to keep the devil away. I love this site. Tracie, how are you doing today?

  8. Nan, way to get back on the HORSE! That is the true meaning of success. Getting back on after a slight fall is SO MUCH better than letting the horse drag you along on the ground, hanging on the reigns for a few miles:) Heaven knows that I have done that a few times. That said, I am on day 5, and still going strong. I slept about 2 hours total last night, so that struggle is getting worse, not better. But I expected as much. I am at my wits end, and this sleeping issue has to stop. I am 33, and I feel twice that in age. If my sugar has anything to do with it, I will gladly end that obsession to quench that pain. My poor sleep came before my sugar bingeing, as far back as I can remember. But I think the chronic sleeplessness has caused my diet to go to crap. My resolution to stay firm and fixed is almost nil on no sleep. But. Not. This. TIME! I am going to the doc today, to once again describe all my symptoms, and hope and pray I can find a solution. My faith in getting better is still there, and that’s all that counts. But I will stay firm in the sugar, because it can only help to rid my body of a substance it has absolutely no need of. I have gone from thinking of my sugar sensitivities as a strength rather than a weakness, because in the end, I can only feel that much healthier. That said, I have a weird question for everyone. Dried fruit, apples mainly(Bare Fruit)….no added sugar. It’s yummers. Do we think this to affect out blood sugar? If so, I will silently weap. What about pieces of coconut, with 1 gram of sugar per 4o grams from Costco? And dried prunes…These are my treats, and I don’t want to give them up. But will do anything to feel better. Keep on keepin on. you guys inspire me!

    • Tracie, are you still around? I wanted to check up on you. Havent read this site for a while. I thought I had everything under control. How wrong I am! Every day I start over. How are doing Tracie? I hope you’re feeling stronger !! ~Nan~

      Also, I found the dried coconut at Costco. My new treat!! 1 gram of sugar in 12 pieced. Has lots,of fiber too. Our Costco in Lehi don’t have anymore. So I went to the Sandy store. Didn’t have it. They said the Costco in west valley had some so I drove out and bought 50 bags!!! Well, they were discontinuing my favorite low cal snack, what’s a girl to do!! Keep going on this journey !! Nan

  9. Jonni,
    I 100% agree with you on the whole opinion of nutritionists. They always recommend a balanced approach to a food plan but you are right…they do NOT understand the sugar addiction and the havoc it raises in your body. I am speaking from the perspective and advice of my doctor friend, too. He is a well-known local vascular surgeon and he has been completely 100% off all refined sugar, wheat and dairy for 10 yrs now. He was the one who challenged me to try the same thing on 8/1/10. I am excited to now report that I am down 50 lbs and everyone says I look 10 yrs younger and can’t believe that I just look so different. And I feel completely different. We only eat veggies, fruit, chicken, fish, brown rice, quinoa and gluten free pasta. Sometimes meat (I love BBQing ribs in the summer!) but mostly just those things I mentioned. I am blogging about my experience with this. My husband is on board, too. He has lost 30 lbs. but the main thing is not only the weight loss but the difference we have made by not eating refined sugar. My blood tests prove it, the reversal of my periodontal disease proves it. It is all about what you eat. Thank you! http://healthyhappygirl94901.blogspot.com/ My Blog for those who want to check it out.

  10. Day 6, sleep is getting a little better. Went from 2 hours two nights ago, to 4-5 last night. That is huge for me.

    GREAT NEWS: I feel 180% better during the day. Seriously, life changing. I am having so much fun researching about the body and what we ingest, and learn that my mind has become a SPONGE in the last week! My ability to retain information has increased 100 fold from but 5 days ago! I was in SUCH a FOG!

    I think the degree to which I was ill, will make it somewhat easy to not turn back this time. When I look at a fiber one bar or healthy choice bar or hershey kisses or werther’s originals (some of my usual treats), and I attribute feelings of hopelessness, fatigue, lethargy, and downright meanness to them, they become so toxic to me.

    During the day, I believe I am through most of my withdrawals. The night continues to be a struggle, but I have to believe this could only help my struggle with chronic insomnia.

    I am so proud of myself. So funny, since getting off of sugar, my weight is no longer a priority, but only a natural biproduct.


    • That is such a great testimony Tracie. Keep going!!! It is good you are sleeping better that will help you with mending your body of all the toxins.

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