Oh sugar sugar!
“Open your mouth and taste, open your eyes and see – how good God is. Blessed are you who run to him.” Psalm 34:8
As a substance abuse counselor, I’ve heard it all. I’ve heard every excuse and defense under the sun in defense of an addictive behavior or that someone is not addicted to something, or someone. What I have learned in my career so far, and in my own journey of recovery, is that people find something that helps them feel good or better, and whether it is healthy or not, they will use it repeatedly and will be reluctant to ever admit that they may be addicted to it.
I recently attended the Iowa Board of Certification’s Annual C.A.R.E Conference for substance abuse and addiction professionals, where a speaker, Dr. Don Gilbert (who also happens to be my supervisor) educated us regarding how addiction affects relationships. The questions of caffeine and sugar use were posed and there were many hands that were raised when asked if we used either. Threaded throughout his talk to us, he challenged a room full of substance abuse and addiction counselors to look at their own addictive behaviors. It was quite enlightening to see how many professionals who help others overcome their addictive behaviors are addicted themselves.
Emotional and psychological dependence on sugary foods and drinks, also known as sugar addiction, is a very real cause for concerns among health officials and addiction professionals in America. A recent study suggests American’s eat far too much sugar. To be specific, approximately 75% of Americans eat excess amounts of sugar – many of whom could be classified as having a sugar addiction. Healthy Food America states that “more than half of Americans exceed the Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommendation to limit added sugar intake to less than 10% of total calories. They are eating, on average, over 25 teaspoons of sugar a day, or nearly 20% of their total calories.”
How do people develop a sugar addiction? Sugar consumption can create a short-term high and spark of energy in the body. Some studies have suggested that sugar is as addictive as cocaine. People enjoy the dopamine release that sugar brings, but because of the addictive nature of sugar, long-term health effects like obesity and diabetes are a risk of sugar overindulgence. Those who already have a risk for low moods like anxiety and stress are prone to compulsions and behavioral addictions, and sugar is a risk. People who suffer from constant tiredness may reach for carb-rich sugary foods for a boost and find momentary relief because sugar releases endorphins in the body and combines with other chemicals in the body, resulting in a surge of energy. When we realize mentally that sugar helps provide energy, we become dependent on it, usually inadvertently. The chemical makeup of sugar contains fructose.
Fructose actively interferes with our brain function and enables our addiction to sweet flavors. Every time we activate our brain’s pleasure center with a sugary treat, we desensitize it a little bit more so that eventually we must consume more sugar to achieve the same level of dopamine release and the feeling of happiness it triggers.
It is true that people with addiction issues can become addicted to any number of different substances or behaviors, sugar is found in so many of our daily foods that it probably affects even those with borderline addictive personalities, people who have never used illegal substances but who have similar symptoms of withdrawal from a good such as ice cream that addicts have when they stop using opioids. However, sugar addiction may be even more difficult to cure because foods that contain it are cheap and readily available. Sugar alters your mood, and it can cause wild mood swings, as stated earlier, increases your risk for developing diabetes, and as any dentist would tell you, damages our teeth. It is interesting to note that the idea that an occasional sugary treat can be an innocent part of our diet changes now that we understand more about how sugar consumption mimics the substance abuse of opiates. As an addiction counselor at a Medication Assisted Treatment Center, I learned that when individuals come off heroin or other opiates, their sugar cravings skyrocket. I also learned as someone who suffered from an alcohol addiction, once I stopped drinking, my own sugar cravings went out of the roof.
So, what can you do? Sugar detox diets do not work. You can beat your sugar addiction but one that urges you to avoid all sweets such as all fruit, dairy, and refined grains are typically too drastic to keep up. Changes that you can do only for a short term mean that you will fall back to your old habits.
What we need to do is retrain our tastebuds. Try cutting out different sweet foods from your diet each week. For example, pass on dessert after dinner. Start putting less sugar in your coffee or cereal. Over time, you will lose your need for that sugary taste. Start to replace or even add things just like fresh berries or pureed fruit on oatmeal instead of brown sugar. Explore fruit that’s dried, frozen, or canned (without added sugar). Kick the habit in baby steps. Small, simple changes to your diet make it easier to keep it up. Start eating more fruits and vegetables, drink more water, check food labels, and pick those that don’t have a lot of sugar. Eating protein is an easy way to curb sugar cravings. High-protein foods digest more slowly, keeping you feeling full longer and protein doesn’t make your blood sugar spike the way refined carbs and sugars do. Pick lean chicken, low-fat yogurt, eggs, nuts, or beans. Fill up on fiber. Get outside.
Exercise can help wipe out those sugar cravings and change the way you feel and eat in general. If you do want to try a fast, and eliminate sugar completely, I suggest a book by Wendy Speake, the 40- Day Sugar Fast. The idea of replacement is a good one to me because I know that when trying to kick a habit, we must replace the substance or behavior with a healthier one if we plan to succeed. This book can help you run to a different source for your comfort and reward.
If you are struggling with a sugar addiction and want help from a professional to overcome this habit, please reach out and schedule an appointment with myself, and consider making an appointment with Linda Wilcox, our licensed dietitian who can help you find a balanced approach to health and wellness, focusing on nutrition.
Jessica holds a Master of Arts degree in Christian Counseling of Substance Abuse and Addictive Disorders as well as a Master of Arts degree in Clinical Mental Health Counseling. She is also a certified alcohol and drug counselor. Jessica is currently accepting new patients; please use the contact form if you would like to schedule a session with her.
Jessica is passionate about working through codependency issues, guilt and shame, and spiritual issues and allows God and Scripture to empower clients to see their potential and to find their identity in Christ. Jessica is authentic and builds rapport quickly with her clients by being personable, compassionate, and Christ-centered. She has a passion to help people develop a deeper relationship with God as they pursue wholeness in all areas of their lives.