This comes to us from a reader in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.
Q- So I’m pretty sure that I’m a sugar addict. I’ve been in treatment for years to deal with my eating disorder. It started as anorexia when I was in high school. Spun into bulimia when I was in college. When I was 22, I went into rehab for my eating disorder where all sugar was off limits. When I got out of treatment, I stayed off of sugar for like 4 years. For the past year and a half, I’ve been eating sugar again, and not in a healthy way. I’ve been bingeing on it. I’m not purging, which is great, but every time I try to get back off sugar, I last for like maybe 2 or 3 days, then I’ll have an insane binge. I want to quit again for good. My current therapist says that sugar addiction is a myth and wants me to learn to eat it in moderation. But I can’t! I really can’t. And I definitely feel better when I’m off sugar. When I’m eating sugar, my head is foggy, I’m bloated and tired, I think about it all the time, where to get it, what I’m going to do with it, how to stop eating it, my skin breaks out, and I’m lethargic. When I’m off sugar, I’m calmer, more relaxed, more focused and happier. Do you think that sugar addiction real? How can I give up sugar once and for all? -Rebecca
Answer: Hi Rebecca, thanks so much for your question and I want to tell you that there is no easy answer to this. I understand your therapist’s perspective on this. Many eating disorder treatment programs shun the addiction model and believe that restricting particular foods is what leads to bingeing, purging, and anorexia. Many programs will even take patients out for dinner as part of treatment and have them order dessert to learn to integrate sweets in a healthy and moderate way. However, the 12-step model of recovery does believe in the addiction model and programs like OA will support abstinence not just from a behavior, but also from a particular substance (sugar, white flour, etc.) The recovery community is at odds as to which model to follow. There have been many studies done, but there has been no consensus on whether sugar addiction is real or not.
That being said, there is evidence of sugar addiction. In a 2003 study published in Brain Briefings, it was found that rats exhibited identical behaviors toward sugar that follow the addiction model in humans, which are bingeing, withdrawal and craving. They doubled their intake and began bingeing on it after having it restricted from them, which of course it what happens to people when they diet and restrict calories then come in contact with lots of candy, ice cream or baked goods. According to Takash Yamamoto, in his May 2003 study “Brain mechanisms of sweetness and palatability of sugars” published in Nutrition Reviews, Sugar and the taste of sweet stimulate the brain by activating beta endorphin receptor sites, which are the same chemicals activated by heroin and morphine. However, a literature review published in 2010, in Clinical Nutrition Journal states that there is no support that sugar may be physically addictive or that addiction to sugar plays a role in eating disorders.
So, although there’s no real consensus from the scientific community, in your email you state When I’m eating sugar, my head is foggy, I’m bloated and tired, I think about it all the time, where to get it, what I’m going to do with it, how to stop eating it.. That statement alone can describe someone dealing with a crippling addiction. So, is sugar addiction real? I think that for you it certainly feels real.
So that brings us to another question, do you have to give up sugar completely? I am always hesitant to go for the all-or-nothing approach. I do like to encourage people to learn to eat sugar moderately. Sometimes I’ll have someone bring in their binge food to the office and eat it slowly, very slowly to see what comes up for them emotionally when they eat that food. We then discuss it, and as they s-l-o-w-l-y eat the food, they begin to take the power away from it and reclaim their own power. They then make a plan as to how they will eat the rest of the night and what they will do to take care of themselves. This act of eating sugar in a contemplative way, without the fury and the madness, and then walking away from it, can change your belief about yourself around it. If you can physically walk away from it, even once, then the addiction is broken. Then you know that you have the power, not the sugar. That’s an exercise in mindfulness.
But it is true that some people find avoiding sugar altogether much easier than using mindfulness to gain power over the sugar. And it’s true, it’s a practice. But it is possible to find peace around sugar whether you decide to give it up completely or to find some moderation with it. Below is a list I created to help you to give up sugar if that’s what you would truly like to do.
How to Give Up Sugar
1.)Eat fruit! Your body needs glucose. Some anti-sugar advocates will say that you need nothing but meat. Even our first food, breast milk is very, very sweet. We need glucose to give us energy, rebuild our cells and keep us going. Don’t eschew fruit in attempts to let go of sugar.
2.)Take it one day at a time. Don’t say, “I am giving up sugar forever,” say “I won’t eat sugar just for today.”
3.)Don’t be all-or-nothing about it. Just because you eat one cookie, that doesn’t mean that your body has to continue on a sugar binge. You can choose to make the next thing that you put in your mouth be something healthy, or nothing at all for a few hours until you’re ready for your next meal.
4.)Meditate! Try hypnosis for sugar addiction.
5.)Try to get more healthy fats into your diet. By adding Omega-3 fatty acids, or olive oil to your salads, or even a teaspoon of extra virgin coconut oil, you might find that your cravings decrease.
B-Vitamins help regulate serotonin levels to elevate mood and decrease binge episodes
Chromium 200 mcg per day – when needed for sugar cravings. Helps insulin to get into your cells to regulate glucose so that your hormones stop sending messages to your brain that you need more sugar.
Manganese– 10 Mg per day helps the transport and metabolism of glucose. It stabilizes blood sugar to reduce sugar cravings
Magnesium– 500 mg per day- calms the body and the brain while stabilizing glucose levels which can wildly fluctuate when a person is bingeing on sugar. When magnesium levels are stable, cravings decrease.
Zinc– 15mg- per day- helps to regulate appetite
5-HTP– 200 mg per day in the evening- or whenever you have the urge to binge. The precursor to serotonin will suppress your appetite and relax you to take the anxiety away from the binge.
L-Glutamine- 500 mg when needed no more than 3 times per day. When you are having a strong sugar craving, take 500 mg of L-Glutamine or open a capsule and put the powder on your tongue. L-glutamine is an amino acid that is converted into food for the brain.
7.)Stabilize your blood sugar by eating protein with every meal and eating bits of protein between meals. When you’re not having blood sugar dips, your body won’t crave sugar.
8.)Drink teas, like peppermint or chamomile when you’re having a sugar craving.
9.)Get support. Consider getting into an eating disorder group at ANAD to address these issues and get support for your mind, body and spirit.
10.)Use fruit like raisins and bananas and spices like cinnamon and cloves to “sweeten” things like plain yogurt or oatmeal.
Thank you for your question, and I hope that this has been helpful.
Do you have a question about binge eating, bulimia, anorexia, or anything associated with eating disorders? Send an email to bingeeatingtherapy at gmail dot com. All questions will be kept confidential. Include your first name or the name you want to be referred to as and your location.