Sugar Addiction: When A Sweet Tooth Turns Sinister

If you’ve ever dreamt about warm donuts, bought two pints of ice cream because you couldn’t choose one, or keep a drawer full of sugary sweets at the office… this is for you.

Last autumn, a friend of mine declined an offer of sweet apple pie after Thanksgiving dinner.

Who says no to pie??? I thought. Well, I may have actually said that out loud. In fact, I’m pretty sure I did.

My friend very calmly informed me that she didn’t eat sweets because she had a sugar addiction. She’d been off the good stuff for years and wouldn’t risk her hard work for a taste of my superior after-dinner treat.

The American Society of Addiction Medicine defines an addiction as “a primary, chronic disease of brain reward, motivation, memory and related circuitry.” While you might immediately associate this term with alcohol, cigarettes, or narcotic dependence, addiction can take a variety of different forms. It’s about a reward, a click in your head, that you get from a certain behavior. That reward—a resulting feeling of release, contentment, or pleasure—then motivates you to repeat the behavior compulsively.

Could that cycle of addiction apply to sweet, sweet sugar?

Later that Thanksgiving, as I indulged in my second piece of warm apple crumb pie, complete with golden vanilla ice cream and a soft, buttery drizzle of caramel topping, I pondered that question: How anyone could be addicted to sugar?


So, What Is a Sugar Addiction?

Dr. Dave Hamilton, a naturopathic physician at Of the Earth Wellness in Charlotte, North Carolina, sat down to shell out some real answers. “Sugar lights up almost the same centers in the brain as cocaine does, which is probably where the addiction concept stemmed from,” he says. “It affects the dopaminergic system—think dopamine—or the pleasure center of the brain. When you stimulate that system, you have the feeling of Oh, yeah! I want to do that again! Which is why drugs are so successful… and that’s why addicting substances are so hard to come off of: because they stimulate us.”

Dr. Hamilton broke this down a little further, explaining that the difference between naturally occurring sugars and manufactured sugars comes down to concentration. “It’s like the difference between bourbon and beer,” he says. “There’s the same alcohol content in a shot of bourbon as there is in a beer, but the difference is how quick we drink. Most people slam a shot back and it’s in your system immediately. On the other hand, you sip a beer over the course of an hour or so and you get little bits of alcohol at a time. It’s all about concentration.”

Naturally occurring sugars, like the ones you find in fruit, come with other nutrients attached—fiber, for instance. “That fiber slows down the digestion process,” Dr. Hamilton explains. “It takes a while to be absorbed. If you eat a tablespoon of sugar, it goes right into the system—much like the shot of bourbon. The end result is a sugar rush that lasts for maybe an hour. Our bodies process different sugars the same way…the difference is in the time needed to process the item.”

Recognizing the Problem

So we’ve established that sugar addiction exists. But how do you know if you’re dealing with a totally normal sweet tooth or an unhealthy, uncontrollable relationship to sugar?

Dr. Hamilton starts by asking people to keep a food diary. He has them log not only sugar but everything they consume, which lets him get a sense of how they stand nutritionally and why they’re consuming certain items. The next challenge is getting people to acknowledge when their sugar consumption needs to be taken seriously.

“Most people don’t recognize sugar as a problem,” says Dr. Hamilton. “It’s not an illegal drug! Individuals are more likely to say they have an alcohol addiction instead of a sugar addition. However, folks will admit to having a food addiction easily enough. I think that’s because there may be a social stigma attached to it as well as the fact that the public just isn’t aware of sugar addictions.”

And, quite frankly, what adult is willing to come out and say they’re addicted to sweets? Isn’t that something you expect from a six-year-old? However, it is a very real and growing issue for adults, and deserves to be taken seriously by our society and addressed with real strategies for recovery.

The Process of Healing

Dr. Hamilton reminds us that we’re all human and success looks different for everyone. “Just like any addiction, the first week of elimination can be difficult,” he says. “Some people pick it up real quick, and some need guidance along the way. You might need to try some places with prepared foods so you can understand what correct portions and good, healthy meals should taste like. However, it’s important to note, when people are craving sugar, there’s often something else their body is missing. There may be something a body isn’t creating enough of, so their system is trying to illicit that response through sugar.”

Recovery for one person may mean simply learning to eat differently. For the next patient, it could require a more complex process, involving the assistance of a nutritionist, naturopathic physician, or dietician who can help with food and supplement recommendations. But regardless of what the path looks like for you, what’s important to understand is that improvement and renewal are possible. You aren’t doomed to a lifetime of resisting sweets all day and binging on candy bars after dinner every night.

“The body has an innate ability to heal itself,” Dr. Hamilton says, smiling with a nod of certainty. “You just have to provide it with the tools to do that.”

Make it WayBetter

As you wean yourself off sugar, take note of the benefits you notice: is your energy more stable? Do you experience fewer cravings? Focusing on the ways in which less sugar makes you feel better will make it a much easier process.