Editor’s Note: The Temper in no way supports diet culture or the idea that one needs to lose weight or be at an optimal body size. Any mention of weight loss or body size is the sole experience of the author and/or person being quoted. Sugar Addiction remains a contentious issue with no scientific consensus about whether it actually exists or not. While some experts say that sugar may be as addictive as cocaine and that sugar addiction is the most common form of food addiction, other experts say that sugar addiction is BS and have found little evidence for sugar addiction. This article reflects the beliefs and experiences of some in the recovery community who have had heightened sugar cravings after giving up alcohol.
Emily always had a sweet tooth, but she noticed that it was exacerbated when she got sober. “It started almost as a psychological reward. I would tell myself I deserved it every day because at least it wasn’t drugs or alcohol,” she shares. “About six months into recovery, I started baking. All. The. Time. Initially, it actually unfolded as a way to implement a healthy coping mechanism when I felt on the verge of drinking. It started with making a cheesecake, and when I realized the diligence, discipline, and attention to detail it required, I got hooked.”
Emily’s story is not unique. When I was in treatment, we had a coffee pot in our lounge. Every night, the overnight tech would stock the lounge with sugar, creamer, and an additional coffee pot. We started out as a small group of about six, but as more people came in, we started going through supplies a lot more quickly. One of the things that would run out quickly was the sugar. People were putting 10 to 15 sugar packets in their 8-ounce cups of coffee. By 8pm every night, we were out of sugar.
When we’re looking at the pathology of sugar addiction, we need to look at whether or not it is actually causing us distress. In Emily’s case, she did not feel that her sugar intake negatively impacted her quality of life, and she was actually able to turn it into a very lucrative side hustle. Early this year, she started baking cheesecakes, pies, cookies, cupcakes, and cakes for people in the recovery fellowships she attended. She created a Facebook page for her No Bullshit Bakery, where she used no artificial ingredients: Pure cane sugar, raw honey, and pure local maple syrup. Now, she is experimenting with including CBD in her treats.
Addiction is defined by the American Psychiatric Association as a brain disease that is “manifested by compulsive substance use despite harmful consequences.” Normally, when we think of addiction we think of the use of alcohol, drugs, or gambling. Behaviors that have extreme, life-ruining consequences. However, there is growing evidence that we can also become addicted to sugar.
Sugar stimulates reward pathways to the brain in a similar way to other chemicals, according to experts that spoke with Healthline. In recovery, we are often looking to replace those chemicals that we have recently depleted in abstinence, so we turn to other things.
Susannah Gerber is a chef, nutritionist, and food behaviorist. By food behaviorist, she means that she is a behaviorist that works on health behavior change and relationships to food. “When we’re talking about food behavior, food behavior can mean things like disordered eating or it can simply be dispositional,” says Gerber in an interview with The Temper. “Almost all of the behavioral theories that can be used for addiction can also be applied to food.”
“Almost all of the behavioral theories that can be used for addiction can also be applied to food.”
A big part of sugar addiction in early recovery is also the idea of replacing alcohol with something that is more benign, according to Gerber. “When it comes to addiction and recovery, I think the predominant feeling I’ve experienced in the literature and my own personal relationship to myself and others is that you’re likely to adopt a mentality of ‘I’m trying to overcome this huge obstacle’,” she says. Suddenly, it becomes okay to smoke cigarettes or ingest a large amount of sugar. Anything that keeps us away from drinking again is okay.
We see this a lot around recovery fellowships. It is a running joke in 12-step fellowships that if you want to find the meeting, you should look for the crowd of people smoking outside. Similarly, meetings often have coffee or sugary treats available for the people in attendance. In some detoxes, support staff have chocolate on hand for people in the early stages of withdrawal.
Because people in early recovery from alcohol use disorder (AUD) are seeking to replace the feel-good chemicals that they got from alcohol, sugar seems like a logical stand-in. “People are going to have almost identical relationships to these substances from a behavioral standpoint,” continues Gerber. “You can get into what is the dopamine response to these things. There is a dopamine response from sugar but on a lesser scale.”
Paxton Dickerson is a Certified Chemical Dependency Counselor (CCDC) and a Registered Addiction Specialist (RAS) who owns a consulting firm called Mechanics of Recovery. He has been working in treatment for nineteen years. Dickerson has had these observations while working in treatment: “You can see the pathology. No one is going to have a problem with it but they’re going to look and watch. Because it is not one of the big killers, you’re not going to rob your grandmother to get some sugar or crash your car on sugar.” He believes that less obvious problems can, in some ways, be more dangerous.
When you drink alcohol, your body rejects the alcohol but metabolizes the sugar. So, according to Dickerson, “Now in recovery, alcohol has been stripped from you. So what do you got? Gummy bears, chocolate, donuts, sugar. People addicted to heroin love chocolate. Why? It’s sugar. The dopamine in sugar is replacing what you are now without. You have a sugar shaped hole in your soul now and you will fill it.”
We tend to focus more on the drastic consequences of our substance use disorder. Drink too much, you might get a DUI or get into an accident. Dickerson also agreed that when we replace alcohol with sugar, we are looking for something that makes us feel good but might not have the immediate, drastic consequences. But if a sugar addiction progresses too far, Paxton says “it’s like switching rooms in the Titanic.”
Finally, we need to emphasize that sugar cravings are not a moral failing. If adding a little bit of sugar brings some joy to your life, it’s okay. Give yourself some grace. However, if you are finding that you are experiencing negative consequences from too much sugar or that it is causing you emotional pain, there are alternatives that you can seek.
There are changes you can start to implement in your own eating habits. Gerber suggests planning for sugar cravings by having chopped fruits and vegetables on hand. She also suggests small changes such as the substitution of less sugary syrups, such as maple syrup or date syrup, to satisfy the sweets cravings. If sugar addiction is starting to put a strain on your life, there are also support groups, such as Overeaters Anonymous, or you can use a combination of supports such as a nutritionist and a therapist.