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. i have given up sugar for nearly a month now, I eat fruit, veggies, nuts, legumes, meat about twice a week, only butter olive oil or coconut oil for fats, but I am still craving sugar badly, it feels the same as when I gave up smoking 30 years ago. I don’t sleep well anymore even though I have no refined carbs sugar and hardly any alcohol, also I have started getting intense headaches, I don’t drink coffee and only one cup of tea a day, which I loved having every morning with one spoon of sugar, don’t really like it now but get bored just drinking water, can’t say I even feel better and have lost minimum weight, Help! what am I doing wrong&

    • It might help to exercise a little more and whenever you crave something sweet, eat a piece of fruit or some yogurt. Jonni is right increasing the healthy carbs will help too. You can do this!

      • Cathryn has a great point. Exercise basically cuts my desire for sugar wayyy down. It’s great that you have a well-balanced diet- a positive image for you. I would say try walking each day. It may help you sleep better and stop the cravings in their tracks… when you start making them ๐Ÿ™‚

  2. I have just found the most AMAZING sugar substitute I want to share. TV has recently been advertising a product called Natviya, so I went to the chemist to check it out. The assistant told me it had a bitter aftertaste, so I dismissed the idea of that product. She told me she used Xylitol (looks like white sugar) and that it was very good with no aftertaste. So I tried it and she was right.

    I have never used a substitute before, because all I had tried failed to match the taste of sugar. HOWEVER this one is amazing and I really can’t tell the difference. I drink a lot of tea and, with one spoon per cup, I was amazed at the amount of times I had to fill my sugar jar. This product has changed many things.

    For the first week after completely substituting sugar in my tea with Xylitol, I felt and looked lousy – although it took a little while to make the connection, because I really didn’t know you could suffer withdrawal from sugar symptons. This is how I first came to check it out and found this site.

    After that first week or so, I am back to feeling ‘normal’ and have been using it ever since. A few days ago, I ran out of my Xylitol, so reluctantly added a little sugar to my tea. I found that I now only need half a spoon! Although I didn’t eat much in the way of chocs, lollies etc, I enjoyed a little of something sweet after dinner. Now I don’t ‘fancy’ things like that at all and I also need to eat less. Any sugar I get is through fruit only. (I don’t eat cake, biscuits, the usual rubbish cereals etc.)

    I may sound like a paid advocate of this product, but I promise you I’m not! My main comfort drink is tea, so the sweetening of it was important (I couldn’t stand that taste most sweeteners have). This product is made from a corn derivitive and has NOTHING in it which is digestable. Nutrional information on the pack show NIL next to each of the usual ingredients protein, fat (and saturated)carbohydrate, sugar and sodium.

    For me this product satisfies any need I have for a sweet taste and can also be used in cooking, on cereals etc. On the cereal note, try the delicious new cereal made from the super grain (Woollies, Coles etc) which I have with sliced banana, a chopped,apple and flame grapes with, of course, semi skimmed milk – so yummy but healthy. I am continuing to notice the knock on benefits of this product. A bit pricey at $11 per 500grams (at Giant Chemists) but this is not a luxury, it’s a health necessity! As my need for sugar is obviously diminishing, judging by the fact I now only needed a half spoon of sugar when I ran out of Xylitol, I’m hoping, in time I won’t need ANY sweetener in my tea.

    • I know a lot of people swear by xylitol as a sugar substitute, and xylitol gum is supposed to help reduce cavities. The one reason why I would be cautious is because of something I was told by a teacher when I studied addiction therapy in community college. He said that “near beer” is not advised for people who are trying to give up alcohol, because people who do drink non-alcoholic beverages that taste (sort of) like the real thing are much less likely to stay sober. I don’t know exactly why that is, but it seems to have something to do with the way our brains work. It seems like the same thing would happen for us sugar addicts who use chemical substitutes for sugar.

      If someone really wants to kick the sugar habit totally, the best way seems to be to go “cold turkey.” But that may not be true for everyone. The xylitol does seem to be working for you.

  3. My sister is probably a sugar addict. When she has candy/sweets she starts to move around and dance. Is this normal?

  4. Hey everyone,

    I also found this sight by accident and love it. I am a huge closet sugar eater. Last August I was having some stomach issues and was told it was due to me being a HEAVY Coke drinker. The doc told me that if I gave it up the soda (which was easily a liter a day) that i would loose a pound a week. I went cold turkey and I lost 5lbs. When Thanksgiving came I started with the cakes and cookies and have not been able to stop. It is amazing how bad I feel but yet I have still continued. I don’t know how to get off the sugar! But maybe by airing my “DIRTY LAUNDRY” of sugar, it will help. Soda is no longer something I crave, now I hope to add sugar to that list.

    • Good Morning. I’m kind of a bottom line person. If you think you might have a problem with sugar, you probably do. The average person wouldn’t think about stopping, they would just simply stop.

      Talking about the problem is good, because you recognize their is a problem. The challenge is to stay stopped and address why you do what you do.

      As my wife always tells me, ” show me don’t tell me”.

      I’ve been on this site for almost 3 mos. I stopped sugar, flour, the cheap carbs, and feel wonderful. Lost 25 lbs. too. I simply made a decsision to stop.

      Many of us have tried counseling. Me, I’ve been in a 12 step for 22 years for alcohol, so I’m used to quitting things and staying with it, helped by a good time tested program.

      All these diet sugars and gimmicks won’t full your body or your mind in the long run.

      This is hard. It’s worth it, but it’s hard. I’m not passive about this when working with others. You are either doing it, or you’re not.
      A good program would be like teaching someone about American baseball. Its a great game, been around for over 100 years.
      But now we have people who wish to tweak it, to make it easier. They want to play softball, T-ball for beginners, kickball, all baseball like games, but not baseball. Now we have fantasy baseball ( those who think they are actually doing something, but are really living through the efforts of others) . All these non-baseball groups show up and act like they are playing baseball, but don’t really know the game. Of course, in the end they give up because they were trying to play the game with the wrong rules.
      Recovery is not easy, but don’t make it harder playing by a low-bar set of rules.

      Good luck to you on your journey. You will meet someone very special along the way, you…………

  5. Hi all- Saturday will be 3 mos no sugar, flour, cheap starches, etc……

    Have lost nearly 30lbs. Working out quite a bit. Clothes feel much different.

    My mood and attitude is vastly improved and I am more productive.

    Still sleep like a baby; wake-up and get up. Earlier riser.

    Truly, this is one of the best things I’ve ever done for myself.

    Stopping , staying stopped, and replacing poor habits and behaviors with better ones is the way to go. It’s better than when I quit drinking.

    54 feels more like 34..

    Jack

  6. Hi everyone
    sorry to be such a moaner but I have only lost 4lbs in weight and I don’t feel any better or worse, I felt OK before, my stomach problems are just the same despite the fact that I don’t eat wheat, dont’s eat sugar or drink any more, I have been doing this for 6 weeks now and getting despondent, I still crave sugar in my tea and I still want to eat sugary things, when does this stop if ever, it is harder than giving up smoking which I did 28 years ago.

    • Hi Jude. A little moaning is permissible – and you’re right. Giving up sugar is hard, so it would be nice to get some immediately obvious results. Sometimes that doesn’t happen, though. The good results are going on inside, though.

      I recently went on the forks over knives diet for my blood pressure, and I lost 30 pounds. That wasn’t why I went on it, but since I sit around at my computer desk all day, I had gained extra weight I didn’t need. The diet really helped, and it seems to help with sugar cravings too. They never go away completely, but it helps.

  7. I quit the sugar habit by joining a program called FA. In FA, you don’t eat sugar at all – no honey, syrup, brown sugar, molasses, white sugar, etc. You can find it on foodaddicts.org. I’m addicted to foods with sugar in, hence the name. I hope this helps for people who are seeking group support in this (oh, and it’s free).

  8. I am a sugar addict. It’s so sad reading these posts and hearing how many of us have been effected by sugar. It is great to see the sharing in this forum.

    I have used sugar as a “solution” to life’s problems but in the end sugar became my biggest life problem. How many times did I reach for sugar when I was angry or sad? Over the course of years I developed reactive hypoglycemia to sugary foods, my adrenal system stopped working and I developed physical depression. It’s a chain reaction. The adrenals produce chemicals which are precursors to making seretonin hence the physical depression.

    I found a wonderful GP who is also a nutruitionist. He is helping me through the physical side of recovery through diet, supplements (zinc, magnesium, compounded chemist scripts for hormones such as DHEA) as well as medical scripts. I have a wonderful psychologist who helps me see things as they really are and not use sugar as a solution to my problems.

    Slowly my body and mind are becoming well and I’m living a much more balanced life without the need of sugar. All the best to you all.

  9. I’m just looking at the number of people who are on here and realizing what a health epidemic this is. Yet, there has been no major sugar-free campaign I can think of in the United States (where I live). Abolition for drinking didn’t work politically. But, at a highschool and college level, there are campaigns against drinking and driving. Can anyone help me think of what is the most dangerous thing you can do while eating sugar? I would say having relationships ๐Ÿ™‚ haha

    • Actually, there is now a major push to regulate sugar. One of the people behind this movement is Dr. Lustig, who works with overweight kids. You can see his excellent video on the subject of sugar and health here.

      Their proposal has received international attention, but I don’t know how far it will go. The sugar lobby is very powerful, and people have a very strong attachment to sugar as a “reward.” It will be difficult for them to be heard by the people who actually have the power to make needed changes.

      • I think it is a good idea. I have been wishing there was a greater awareness in this area. I know I have been talking to people educating them on how detrimental sugar is to our bodies. I know that is the best thing for me to do and being a living example. First of all we need more people to be prime examples and with a website like this we can help educate and encourage people to be “those prime examples”. I think we need to cater to those types of businesses that support whole foods and put high value on proper nutrition. I just don’t think it is just “sugar” but also other types of food that is detrimental to our mind and body. If you have watched “Forks over Knives” you will understand what I mean.

        If you come up with any great ideas on getting the awareness out more about sugar let us know.

        • Valena,

          Yes, I agree there needs to be change on all types of foods. I have watched FOK, and since I watched it the first time in May 2011, I have been vegan. Growing up, we ate few animal products: red meat, icecream, whole milk, and butter were discouraged in my household. We did eat chicken and fish, but I never really wanted to finish my plate. Also, I never enjoyed eggs, so I would always find ways to eat other things for breakfast. In summary, my eating styles growing up helped an easy transition to vegetarian and then vegan eating. I have stayed vegan coming up on a year now- it is not hard for me. The hardest thing for me is turning away from sugar and towards more whole foods. I eat a lot of veggies, tofu, tempeh, fruit, soy/nut milks, but I can also eat a lot of dark chocolate, coconut icecream, and vegan treats. Seriously, the sugar is the killer for me, and I’m really glad there are other people out there who are searching for a whole foods diet.

          One thing I have noticed is that for people who do not eat sugar, we do not have a word for it. This is a mistake. When I became a vegan, I fully understood that I was cutting out meat, dairy, eggs, and honey out of my diet. Whenever someone asked me what I was doing, I would tell them what I didn’t eat. However, what really helped me stay the course and motivated me was the word ‘vegan’. Having a label for how I was eating helped me conceptualize the things that I really wanted to eat, and therefore I was more likely to eat them.

          As a psychology major, I’ve learned that what you focus on will become your destiny. This is why mothers who only pay attention to bad behavior of their children will have children with bad behavior. On the other hand, mothers who genuinely praise their children for good behavior will find that their children enjoy being good. Any kind of attention is welcomed by a child, so a child will act in the way that you give attention to. This also applies to our eating habits. The more we pay attention to our bad habits without praising the good ones, the more likely you will engage in the bad habits.

          I think there is another psychological answer to this problem of sugar addiction. As human beings, the majority of our actions are out of habit. If we focus daily on cutting out sugar and do not create a larger positive paradigm, there is not much room in our minds for new behavior, creativity is stifled as to what else we can eat, and we fall back into old habits. As a vegan, I may have found myself craving meat, dairy, or honey, however, I had a main goal of eating more vegetables. When I thought of ‘vegan’, I thought of vegetables, fruits, grains, beans, tofu, etc.! It was powerful that I had a larger positive image for myself rather than limiting myself to the narrow arguments in my head against my own cravings. However, I did not waste my time saying “no” to myself in my mind; that is a fruitless pursuit. By focusing on “no” without a positive alternative, you will become stressed.. and hungry! You cannot take out something without replacing it with something else, and I think the focus on cutting out sugar leaves us with a hole that we would just as well cover up with eating more sugar. With a clear, positive alternative- whole foods-, it is much easier to say no.

          Thank you for listening and allowing me to share my experiences. What an open group!
          Mara

          • I fully agree with the idea that “cutting out sugar” just isn’t enough. We also need to focus on something positive. That can be a new, totally different diet, whether it’s Mediteranean, FOK, Dr. Fuhrman’s, or whatever. Just something different than normal, and delicious. Or it could be that hobby that you’ve always wanted to try. Anything positive, that you can really focus on with some excitement.

            I had an odd experience this week when I had my yearly conversation with the nurse at my community health alliance (like health insurance, but community-run and affordable). I told her I was on the Esselstyn diet, the one that President Clinton is on, the one that has been proven to reverse heart disease. And she showed absolutely no interest in it. I lost 50 pounds since seeing her last, between the diet and getting rid of my car, but she doesn’t seem to want to know how. I think it may be because she’s also overweight, and has a strong belief in the idea of “moderation.” Moderation has never reversed heart disease, and it obviously isn’t helping her lose weight – but if she actually looked into the FPK diet, she might feel compelled to make a change in her own life. Which is kind of scary, since she talks to so many people every day who might actually benefit from learning about the diet.

            I think the best thing aboutit is simply that it’s so different from “normal” that it’s fairly easy to stay on track. Moderation is incredibly hard. Total change is, I think, much easier.

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