Why is Sugar so Addictive?
It seems so simple and unthreatening, doesn’t it? A spoonful of sugar on your morning breakfast cereal, a candy bar for an afternoon pick-me-up, or a soda for a little extra energy…they all seem harmless enough. But, when looked at as part of a total diet that includes processed sugar, natural sugar, and hidden sugar in foods we eat, many people are surprised to learn that they have a sugar addiction. As a Santa Barbara therapist I work with many patients who are trying to free themselves from the control sugar has over their lives.
In a landmark report that focused attention on our national sweet tooth, the U.S. Department of Agriculture stated that the consumption of sugar calories hit a record high in 1999 – an astonishing 155 pounds per year! The food industry practice of using high-fructose corn syrup as a sweeter has resulted in sugar showing up in some of the most unlikely places such as hot dogs, pizza, boxed rice, soups, spaghetti sauce, lunch meat, flavored yogurts, ketchup, and mayonnaise. It can be difficult to control sugar intake, even for people who maintain a healthy diet. For people who have difficulty managing anxiety it can be downright impossible.
As a Santa Barbara psychologist, I often witness first-hand the connection between sugar addiction and mental health problems. The relationship between food and mental health becomes so intertwined that patients sometimes depend on food and sugar to help them get through the day. While a medical doctor can help manage the physical aspects of withdrawing from a sugar addiction, I provide counseling to help patients work through the mental and emotional reasons behind their sugar addiction.
Understanding Sugar Addiction
Research has shown that there is a fundamental connection between sugar and brain cells. While sugar does supply the fuel your brain needs to function, your brain can also come to see sugar as a reward. Continued overuse of sugar results in the brain demanding more and more sugar. The feeling can be similar to the effects of drugs or alcohol, which provide an artificial “high.”
The “rush” we get from our mid-day sweet snack can be attributed to sugar. This turns into glucose in our bodies, and spikes our blood sugar levels. Unfortunately, blood sugar levels then drop quickly, which can leave you feeling lethargic and ultimately make you crave even more sugar. When combined with a stressful job situation, unhappy marriage, or traumatic life events, the sugar high can become an addictive way of making ourselves feel happy.
Some people don’t realize that highly refined, starchy, carbs,” can have the same effect. Things like pretzels, white bread, pasta, potatoes, and crackers raise and lower blood sugar levels quickly.
Signs of Sugar Addiction
It may be hard to realize that you have a sugar addiction. Think about your daily food habits and your relationship with food. Here are some questions that might help determine whether sugar is starting to exert an unhealthy influence in your life:
- Does it feel like you are always “craving” something sweet?
- Do you often think about eating sweets?
- Do you lose control when eating sweet foods?
- Is it difficult for you to say “no” to sweet foods?
- When you try to cut back on sugar, do you feel intense cravings?
- Do you experience mood swings that go up and down quickly after eating sugar?
- Have you even eaten more than you planned, or more than you know is needed, because of a sweet taste?
- Have you ever felt guilty or ashamed about the amount of sugar you have eaten?
- Do you turn to sweet foods to help you deal with emotions such as depression, sadness, anger, or loneliness?
- How often do you use sugar as a reward for yourself?
- Do you associate sweet foods with any specific positive memories or emotions?
These questions don’t necessarily indicate that you have or don’t have a sugar addiction, but they can be helpful guidelines. If you think there is cause for concern it is always best to check with a medical doctor to rule out an underlying medical condition and to consult a psychologist.
Dr. Adina McGarr-Knabke