Sugar – Cravings and Addiction

I apologize in advance for the long post. I could’ve gone on and on. Maybe next time I’ll break it up into two posts. Hope you get some ideas!

I don’t know about you, but I am addicted to sugar. I think a lot of us are, even if we don’t know it (or don’t want to know it!). I crave sweets when I finish a meal, I crave sweets when I am happy, sad, or pissed off. I just want to eat sweet things. But, I also know that although I crave them, they don’t treat me very well when I eat them. Sugar (especially fructose) can have many negative effects in the body, the main one of which is spiking insulin and leading to insulin resistance and diabetes (though its effects are actually much more devious than this).

First – Is sugar actually addictive? Or is it all in our heads?

Well, if you look at the research, it all seems to be pointing in the direction that sugar is actually addictive. Sugar activates dopamine in the brain and body and activates the same opioid receptors as many drugs, including cocaine! Wow! By all of the common measures of addiction, sugar really fits: bingeing, craving, withdrawal and cross-sensitization. It all fits. Does that mean we can’t have control? Of course not! We can take control… just like a drug addict can overcome their addictions, so can we. Maybe we need to start treating it more like the addiction it is, rather than just a food that we “shouldn’t eat” or “should eat in moderation”.

So – how do we get over these cravings, and move past our sugar addictions?

First, we need to look at why we are getting cravings. There are a few reasons that we may get cravings (not just for sugar, but for many things); looking past the actual addictive mechanisms in the brain…

1. We are actually thirsty. When we are on the verge of dehydration, our body sends us a message. If we don’t read it right, we think we are hungry and want food or sugar, when in reality, our body just wants water! Sugar is a quick source of energy, so we often turn to sugar in order to “feed” ourselves. Take a moment, and drink a glass of water. After a few minutes, if you still feel “hungry” eat something with protein and some healthy fats.

2. Food Allergy. This is a hard one to explain; when we crave a food, it is often a food that we are allergic to. Our body responds to the food almost like it is a drug, and so we start to crave it even more, even though it is wreaking havoc in our bodies. The foods we crave are often the foods we should test when we do an elimination diet to find out our food sensitivities.

3. Comfort – Foods often remind us of a certain time or feeling in our lives. We eat those foods in order to comfort ourselves. Food is associated with celebration, it is associated with family, with friends… We use food to calm us when we are anxious, to wake us up when we are tired, to console us when we are sad, or to congratulate us when we have done something good. It is important to find ways other than foods to comfort ourselves. When you want to celebrate, get a massage. When you are sad, go for a jog or a walk in the woods. When you are anxious, sit and do this quick breathing meditation from Dr. Andrew Weil.

4. Lack of balance in our lives. We often eat to try to find balance in our lives. If we are not happy in our relationship, don’t like our jobs, are bored at home, or just plain old stressed, we fill that void with food. Food becomes the great balancer in our lives, and without it, we feel empty and alone. Take the time to sit and think about what may not be working in your life; how can you make a positive change? How can you decrease your stress? And therefore give yourself some space to step back from the sugar.

5. Nutrient deficiency. If we do not have enough of a certain nutrient, we will often crave foods that contain those nutrients. It is our body’s way of getting what it needs. This can also backfire on us; if we have overall poor nutrition, our bodies start to find other ways to get energy, such as through caffeine. I used to be notorious for this; every time I got my period I would crave chocolate. I rationalized it by saying that my body was craving magnesium… I even called the M&Ms I would inevitably buy “my magnesium pills”!

6. Hormones. Being women, we know this one. Our fluctuating hormone levels often come with unique cravings.

If we recognize why we are craving certain foods, we can work to overcome those reasons. If we are eating because we are bored, we can find other ways to entertain ourselves. If we have a food allergy, doing an elimination diet can help.

But sometimes it seems that even knowing these things doesn’t always help. Here are some small steps that we can take to help reduce our sugar cravings:

1. Reduce or eliminate caffeine

2. Drink water

3. Eat sweet vegetables as a substitute (sweet potatoes, carrots, squash, beets)

4. Use gentle sweeteners: maple syrup, honey, stevia; or start using applesauce in lieu of sugar in your baked goods

5. Exercise

6. Sleep, rest and relax

7. Eliminate fat-free and low-fat foods (these foods contain more sugar to compensate for lack of flavor and fat!)

8. Experiment with spices to naturally sweeten your foods and reduce cravings: coriander, cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, cardamom

9. Find more sweetness in life: spend time with friends, get a massage, give hugs, work outside, spend time in nature, snuggle.

With that being said, I have been doing most of these for quite awhile, and I still get crazy cravings. I have found myself in the gas station buying two candy bars, and inhaling them within 5 minutes, barely even tasting them.

So – what have I finally found that works for me?

Two things:

1) Switching to a lowish-carb, medium protein, high fat Paleo-template diet has done wonders for me! My cravings were cut by about 90%! It was amazing to feel like I finally had control over my eating most of the time. Cutting out the grains was the first step, and had a huge impact. I am still working on cutting out all of the sweeteners, but slowly, my tastes are adjusting and I don’t need much to satisfy me. Now, a simple piece of fruit is almost too sweet! And I love it!

While that got rid of most of the cravings, I have still been having some cravings. I have gotten over my addiction to Reese’s Peanut Butter cups, but I LOVE baked goods. While I make them with almond flour and coconut flour, they still contain honey or dates, and still affect me the same way as sugar; duh – it’s still sugar! So, what have I done to help with that?

2) L-glutamine! I first heard about this from Sean Croxton of Underground Wellness. It is a supplement, an amino acid, that has worked wonders for me. I take it in the morning before I eat breakfast, and then again about an hour or so after lunch, if I need it. My sugar intake has almost completely gone to zero, and the cravings are 99% gone. Literally they have disappeared. Most of the time, sugar doesn’t even sound appealing, and that has NEVER happened to me. I still have to deal with some of the comfort thoughts, but now I can handle them, and understand them, rather than letting them take hold and making it so I can’t think of anything else but the sugar (or chocolate in my case!). And a side benefit? L-glutamine helps heal the digestive system! We could all benefit from that!

Do you want to learn more about sugar? Check out what a few other people are saying about sugar, addictions, and cravings:

Research used for this post:

Avena, N.M., Rada, P. & Hoebel, B.G. (2009). Sugar and Fat Bingeing Have Notable Differences in Addictive-Like Behavior. Journal of Nutrition. 139. p.623-628.

Brimhall, J & Cooter, S. L-Glutamine Plus: Maximum Healthy Digestion, Assimilation, and Immune Protection.

Decehelotte, P., et al. (2006). L-alanyl-L-glutamine dipeptide- supplemented total parenteral nutrition reduces infectious complications and glucose intolerance. Critical Care Medicine. 34(3).

Drewnowski, A & Levine, A.S. (2003). Sugar and Fat – From Genes to Culture. Journal of Nutrition. 133, p.829S – 830S.

Gold, M. et al. (2009). Food Addiction? Journal of Addiction Medicine. 3. p.42-45.

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8 Responses to Sugar – Cravings and Addiction

  1. Carina Wheatley says:

    I use (and sell, for full disclosure) a fabulous product called Whey Low. It’s American made and uses the natural chemistry of three natural sugars (lactose, fructose and sucrose) to block 75- 80 percent of the absorption of said sugars from the body. The sugars don’t enter the blood stream so no spike in insulin making it safe for people with diabetes, hypoglycemia and other sugar related issues. My daughter has type I diabetes and it works well for her!! I can’t speak to cravings related to it. It doesn’t cause the highs and lows related to insulin production so at least there’s that. Just letting you know that this product exists and is very highly regarded.

    I have also felt and done best on the Atkins/Paleo type diet with the proportions you describe. Carina @ Sustainable Pantry.

    • Thank you for your comment Carina.
      I, personally, hesitate promoting products that work by blocking the absorption of sugars, fats or calories, etc. I’m leery of the science behind them AND I feel that, in taking such products, we are potentially messing with our body’s natural ability to find balance and health, even if we aren’t “feeling” any side effects from taking them.
      It makes me think of the article sometime back that was posted about the study done on a zonulin-blocking drug for type 1 diabetics and celiacs. It appears that this drug prevents further damage to the intestinal lining when gluten is ingested. While promising, I am certainly not rushing out to buy it as I would rather look toward REAL food and herbal/nutritional support to heal my body and gut before I trust a study like this. Not only is there not enough known about zonulin yet to be able to say that there are no negative side effects of this drug, this is also only one small study.
      Thus I personally, would be concerned about the potential repercussions of continually consuming a food that one’s body is clearly reacting to.
      Yet, we all have personal choice.And I appreciate your sharing another potential path. 🙂

  2. That’s really interesting about L-glutamine and I wonder if that’s the reason why my sugar cravings have completely disappeared over the past year (yea!). I began taking L-glutamine after I went to see Dr. Vikki Petersen last February because research shows that it also decreases gut permeability: http://journals.lww.com/ccmjournal/Abstract/2005/05000/Intestinal_permeability_and_systemic_infections_in.35.aspx

    Great article! 🙂

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