Frequently Asked Questions About Sugar Addiction
Q: Can people really be addicted to sugar?
A: Absolutely. People who simply enjoy sugar as a relatively harmless indulgence can easily give it up for weeks or months at a time without feeling cravings or pangs for it, but most of us who regularly consume sugar do so because we feel our bodies go into a slump or a withdrawal without it. Addiction is defined as the persistent, compulsive use of a substance known to be harmful in spite of desires to stop that use. Most of us who eat sugar regularly know that those fierce compulsions to eat processed sweet or starchy food, even when we’re trying to lose weight, differ from hunger for ordinary nourishment.
Research has found that physiologically, this addiction has many roots: in the brain’s neurotransmitter systems, the endocrine system, the gut, and internal organs. The precise mechanisms behind the compulsions likely vary person to person, depending on genetics and nutritional history, but no matter which chemical processes are at work (and we are learning more about them all the time), they manifest in a chronic craving cycle for foods that damage metabolisms and give rise to weight and health problems. Sugar Addiction may not be as manifestly obvious or as immediately devastating as street drug addiction, but it can be a ruthless biologically-based dependency nonetheless, with severe long-term consequences.
Q: But my doctor, knowing I’m overweight and prediabetic, never mentioned sugar addiction.
A: Though many physicians remain behind the curve, a growing number of outstanding doctors now understand and accept this disorder, and the foundational role it plays in today’s epidemics. Here’s just a small sampling of the more prominent ones: Michael Eades, MD, Mary Dan Eades, MD, Fred Pescatore, MD, Jacob Teitelbaum, MD, Robert Lustig, MD, Robert Su, MD, Dr. Sarah Myhill, Richard K. Bernstein, MD, James Carlson, DO, Mary Vernon, MD, Eric Westman, MD, Vera Tarman, MD, Neil Barnard, MD, Larry McCleary, MD, William Davis, MD, Dr. John Briffa, Dr. Andreas Eenfeldt. Even television’s Dr. Oz has embraced the idea of sugar addiction.
Q: Why call it an “addiction,” rather than something else?
A: At this time, the name Sugar Addiction is the most commonly used label for the biological phenomenon affecting people who suffer ongoing cravings for processed sugars and starches. However, some people may find alternative labels more useful, such as “carbohydrate compulsion syndrome,” “sugar toxicity syndrome,” “compulsive overeating,” or even something more metaphorical like “sugar allergy,” “sugar sensitivity,” or “carbohydrate intolerance.” The precise name used to label the syndrome appears to be of little importance so long as it’s helpful to people in their efforts to break the craving cycle and recover their health.
Q: But how could sugar be considered addictive if it is not a mind-altering substance like alcohol or street drugs?
A: First, sugar does have a subtle intoxicating effect. Addicts report seeking a “buzz,” a “subtle high,” an “escape,” or a “soothing effect” from eating their foods of choice. Moreover, a substance — like cigarettes — need not be overtly intoxicating to be considered addictive.
Q: But isn’t sugar natural?
A: Sugar, high fructose corn syrup (corn sugar) and other refined carbohydrates found in processed food are highly processed extracts bearing little similarity to the original plants from which they were derived. Many highly refined substances are natural — cocaine and heroin among them — but being natural hardly means they are harmless or not addictive.
And with regard to starches, modern wheat in particular has been so genetically altered that it has biochemical impacts, including rapid raising of blood glucose, quite different from its ancient ancestors.
Q: What do you mean by sugar?
A: Any refined sugar product, but mainly sucrose, which is table sugar, and high fructose corn syrup, also known as corn sugar. Included are also blood-sugar-spiking starchy carbs like wheat flour, potato chips, and other processed foods. Starches are long-chain sugars that break down into simple sugars during digestion, affecting blood sugar in a way similar to simple sugars.
Q: How do I know if I’m addicted?
A: There is a wide spectrum of Sugar Addiction, from mild to very severe. Can you go three days with no refined sugar or starches, and feel no cravings for them? Then it’s unlikely you have this addiction. But if you feel the biological urge to eat sweets (cookies, candy, ice cream, sweetened yogurt, etc.) or processed starches (chips, fries, pizza, breads, bagels, etc.) every day or nearly every day, you likely have at least a degree of SA.
The clinical definition involves questions such as the following:
1. Do we have physiological and/or psychological withdrawal symptoms when we stop eating sugar, and we eat sugar again to relieve or avoid these symptoms?
2. Do we eat more of it or take it over a longer period of time than we intended?
3. Are our persistent attempts at cutting down on sugar unsuccessful?
4. Do we continue eating it despite persistent or recurrent physical and/or psychological problems exacerbated by it?
Q: I am definitely addicted, but how can I recover?
A: Although no single recovery program works for everyone, people generally find relief from SA through:
1. Accepting the existence of physiological problems that gave rise to our addictions.
2. Abstaining from sugars, flours, and processed food — foods that created or exacerbated those problems.
3. Going through consequent withdrawal, and losing the cravings which had plagued us.
4. Ongoingly nourishing our bodies with real, delicious, unprocessed food free from sugars and most grains and starches.
Q: Should people with Type 2 Diabetes give up sugar?
A: People with type 2 diabetes tend to have an intolerance or low tolerance for modern refined sugars, grains and starches. The best way to prevent, control, or reverse type 2 diabetes is through avoidance of those substances, which all spike blood sugar levels. To achieve this new way of eating, most people with type 2, like many of us, will need to undergo a recovery from Sugar Addiction.
Q: Is eating a lot of sugar really a problem if I’m not overweight?
A: Many people with normal weight suffer from high blood glucose levels, metabolic syndrome, diabetes, or cardiovascular disease. As we get older, our bodies lose the ability to metabolize large quantities of simple carbohydrates and we can develop insulin resistance which precipitates these conditions, even if we are not overweight.
Q: If I don’t eat sugar or starch, what can I eat?
A: The variety is huge: vegetables, fruit, salads, beans, meat, chicken, turkey, fish, seafood, cheese, dairy products, eggs, nuts, oils, spices, herbs, and condiments. You can eat almost any dish free from sugar, grains, processed foods or heavy starches. Recovered sugar addicts routinely find they eat a greater variety of delicious and satisfying meals after quitting “the white stuff.” It helps to understand that grains only entered the human diet about 10,000 years ago and considerable amounts of sugar only a few hundred years ago. From an evolutionary perspective, these items would not be considered native human foods.
Q: What are the dangers of Sugar Addiction?
A: Regular sugar consumption increases the risk of the following conditions, among others:
• Overweight and obesity
• Diabetes, type 2
• Heart disease
• High blood pressure
• Certain types of cancer
• Polycystic ovary syndrome
• Liver disease
• Kidney disease
• Hyperactivity and ADHD
• Concentration difficulties
• Tooth decay
• Gum disease
• Accelerated aging
• Weakened immunity
• Elevated bad cholesterol
• Elevated blood sugar
• Elevated insulin levels
• Elevated triglycerides Based on costs of obesity and diabetes treatment alone, the cost to taxpayers is estimated to be in the hundreds of billions per year, without taking into account disability caused by complications of SA. You can watch the CDC’s animated map of U.S. obesity trends, 1985-2010, here.
Q: What’s an example of a Sugar Addiction?
A: Soda (what some call “liquid candy”) addiction is a common example. A study by the National Center for Health Statistics found that half of the U.S. population older than 2 consumes sugary drinks daily. A California study found that 41 percent of children ages 2-11, 62 percent of adolescents ages 12-17, and 24 percent of adults drink at least one soda or other sugary drink every day.
Addicts also commonly report addictions to chocolate, sweets, and breads, among other items.
Q: I’m afraid of giving up sugar. I know I’ll go through withdrawal and give into my cravings. What can I do?
A: Try a support group, consult with a nutritionist or other clinician knowledgeable about Sugar Addiction, or check out some of the books, websites, or podcasts listed under Helpful Resources. Please note this site does not accept advertising and that books or podcasts are listed only for informational purposes and not due to endorsement or paid sponsorship.
Q: Aren’t “complex carbohydrates” like grains essential to good nutrition?
A: Fruits and vegetables offer complex carbohydrates that can be part of a healthy eating plan. However, for people with weight problems, elevated blood sugar, or insulin resistance, the concentrated carbohydrates found in grains can exacerbate their health problems. Grains are also of low nutritional value compared to vegetables and fruits, and often, as in the case of wheat, contain potentially dangerous substances like gluten.
Q: Isn’t the establishment of SAAD further stigmatizing plus-sized individuals?
A: No. To the contrary, SAAD believes overweight and obesity has nothing to do with character, personality, overindulgence, laziness, or “poor lifestyle choices” — as we are accustomed to hearing — but instead, with biochemical influences that largely lie outside of the realm of conscious individual control. Genetic susceptibility coupled with an environment teeming with refined carbohydrates triggers and sustains this disease.
Furthermore, while a large body size can certainly be beautiful and no one should be judged based on his BMI, we believe people threatened with chronic diseases like type 2 diabetes are entitled to have accurate information about addiction and nutrition so they can finally attack the roots of their health problems.
In sum, we agree with the eminent endocrinologist Dr. Robert Lustig, who concludes that today’s epidemics are the result of an adulterated food supply, and not a mass shift in the national character.