Sugar addiction is physically very similar to an addiction to heroin, alcohol, nicotine or cocaine. However, most Americans get hooked on sugar at a much earlier age, and most people who are addicted to sugar don’t realize where their sugar cravings are coming from. In that way, sugar addiction is a hidden illness. Most people either don’t believe you can become truly addicted to sugar, or they think people with a “sweet tooth” don’t have enough will-power to eat right.
Almost all addictions have these components:
- You eat, drink or use something that feels good, or tastes good – or both.
- You continue eating, drinking or using that substance because it feels good when you do it, and it feels bad when you don’t.
- You continue to do it even when after the dangers to your health, lifestyle or relationships have become obvious, because the cravings are making your decisions for you.
(I discussed the physical reasons why this happens outside our conscious control in my first post on sugar cravings.)
This can happen even with over-the-counter medications, if you experience unpleasant withdrawal symptoms when you stop taking the pills. For instance, over-the-counter headache medication can cause painful withdrawal symptoms when you give them up. When people who chronically use these medications begin to feel their withdrawal headache, (which can be tortuously severe), they reach for the medicine bottle because those little pills make the headache go away, without realizing that the pills themselves are causing their headache.
For exactly the same reason, most people don’t know they’re addicted to sugar and refined carbohydrates. These “foods” are so common in our society that they appear at almost every meal, and they show up at every pot-luck, celebration, and wake. The snack machine is full of it; the prepared foods at the supermarket are full of it. Even the “healthy” bran muffins at Starbucks are full of it. Most of us began our addiction to sugar when we were small children, so we no longer remember what life was like without sugar in our diets, but we do recognize that a “hit” of sugar will give us a mid-morning boost to relieve the sagging energy we feel a few hours after that morning Starbucks muffin.
What many of us don’t know is that the mid-morning doldrums are, in fact, a withdrawal symptom caused by a few hours without sugar. Eating sugar to make those symptoms go away is the same as a person taking pain medication for a headache that was caused by the pain medication – it becomes a never-ending cycle until the true cause of the discomfort is understood.
If you’re physically addicted to sugar or refined flour, you will go into uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms if you go without these chemicals for even a few hours, although, for most people, the discomfort is mild.
Sugar withdrawal symptoms are nowhere near as harsh as the pain that nicotine addicts go through when they stop smoking. And they aren’t as dangerous as the withdrawal symptoms that alcoholics experience. But sugar withdrawal symptoms, if you give up all refined carbohydrates, can be uncomfortable for a while.
But that doesn’t mean you can’t give up your habit. In fact, compared to many addictions, giving up sugar and other refined carbs like white flour is easy. It’s staying “clean” afterwards is the hard part, because we’re surrounded by sugar.