Two common reasons you feel you’re addicted to sugar and what you can do about it
In my 18 years practising as a dietitian, one of the most common things I hear people say is “I can’t stop at just one.” While some people have a very complex relationship with certain food that goes beyond the scope of this piece, the majority of people I see discover they can stop at just one and that they are not addicted to sugar when they address the following issues.
Issue 1. Being hungry and simply needing to eat.
When your body needs food energy (calories), your brain releases a chemical that tells you to look for food – usually something with carbohydrate – as this is your brain’s preferred food choice. This is a basic biological need, as powerful as the need to breath and sleep.
If you haven’t eaten enough at lunch or breakfast (or you skipped one of them), you’re going to need even more fuel (calories) by the afternoon. While some people will notice they are hungry, others won’t and I’ll talk about later. When it’s time for your afternoon break, if you plan on a sweet biscuit or two, but always find yourself eating much more, this is because your body actually needs more food energy than can be obtained from a couple of sweet biscuits. This real need for food energy drives you to eat much more of the food than you intended. When this happens, you might mistakenly think it’s because sugar is somehow “addictive”, when in reality you just needed more to eat.
In my practice, one of the most common presentations I see is people not eating enough during the day, very often they are not even aware they are not eating enough. In most cases, once people start eating more, their sugar cravings reduce significantly or disappear completely. In time, these people are able to enjoy sweet foods in smaller amounts, a block of chocolate can last all week in the fridge and the opened packet of Tim Tams doesn’t disappear within a day.
Given this seems like such a simple solution for reducing sugar cravings, why aren’t we just advising people to make sure they eat enough?
Answer: Almost everything we are taught about managing our health – be that through various health/medical professions, media and diet culture – revolves around eating less, or restricting food, often with a goal to lose weight. When people are restricting food and actively eating less, our culture validates this with messages that we are being “good” or “disciplined” and people may even comment with “I wish I could be more like you”. If weight loss also occurs, the food restriction is further validated with comments around how great a person looks and much “healthier” they are. This validation happens regardless of the very real fact that behind the scenes, at some point in time, many of these people may be feeling out of control around food, experiencing heightened comfort eating, binge eating and/or being preoccupied with thoughts about food and weight to the point of obsession. This cultural validation also occurs despite the food restriction or weight loss usually only being short term, often less than a year (short-term is anything less than 5 years) and despite some people developing eating disorders. It’s not unusual to hear someone with Anorexia Nervosa say how people praised their weight loss and “disciplined” eating habits as they were becoming more and more unwell.
We live in a culture that actively encourages us to under-eat and when your energy intake is low and blood sugar drops, it makes sense your brain wants you to eat high-energy food (often food high in sugar and fat) as this will replenish your fuel more quickly. In understanding that under-eating is a key driver of over-eating, it starts to make sense as to why so many people feel they are addicted to food and especially sweet food. After all, if you were deprived of air, you would have a strong desire to for air and when you found that air, you would be gulping it down!
I mentioned earlier that not everybody will recognise their physical hunger, this disconnect with appetite can occur as a result of dieting (or any form of restricting food to lose weight), disordered or chaotic eating patterns or just not paying attention to the body, all of which are very common in our busy chaotic lives. If you feel addicted to sugar, or struggle with food cravings and over-eating, a useful first step is to practise getting back in tune with your appetite cues. You can do this through a process called intuitive eating, an approach that takes the focus of restricting food or calories. While some will find this fairly straight forward, many will find it challenging and may need help from a practitioner experienced in this field.
A side note: Diet culture and the associated “wellness industry” drives sugar addiction and then sells us the “solution” in the form of various diets or “healthy lifestyle programs” that for many people only serve to compound the feeling of addiction… Such programs include “I quit sugar”, “keto”, “whole 30”, “Paleo” to name just a few. I want to be clear that I am not saying these patterns of eating are wrong for everybody, if you are someone, or know someone, who eats this way and has truly benefitted long-term, then I have no issue. What I take issue with is how these programs or patterns of eating target everybody and for many people they are not the solution and long-term these people find themselves feeling even more “addicted” to sugar or experiencing more intense bingeing behaviour and feelings of guilt and shame.
Issue 2: Restricting sweets and then finding yourself in the “last super effect” every time you eat something sweet.
The last supper effect is what many people experience when they make a decision to take action on their eating habits, be that starting a new diet or eating program, seeing a dietitian or to stop eating a particular food. In the hours leading up to the intended diet change, you find yourself eating lots of the food you plan to never eat again. The last supper effect can be so strong that many of clients experience it before seeing me even though they know I’m not going to put them on a diet or tell them to restrict. To quote something I read “scarcity makes us anxious and abundance allows us to feel calm.” The very idea that you might not be able to eat a certain food again, can make you feel anxious to the point of wanting to eat as much as possible before it’s too late.
Along with the last supper effect, the idea that you shouldn’t be eating a certain food, or not too much of it, can lead to a range of diet mentality thoughts including:
“I’ll just have this one and then I’ll be good tomorrow”
“I just finish this packet so it’s not in the house and then I’ll never buy it again!”
“I’ve stuffed it now, I may as well write off the rest off the rest of the day and I’ll be good tomorrow/start again on Monday.”
“It’s so delicious, I’m just gonna eat it all and then I’ll be careful tomorrow.”
The problem with this diet mentality is you end up eating more than you intended, often to point that any satisfaction you could have received from the eating experience is ruined by feeling uncomfortably full and/or beating yourself up over it. In addition, as I know you all know, there’s always another tomorrow.
The ability to eat food to the point of satisfaction where you don’t feel you’ve eaten too much, or to leave delicious food on your plate, often only become possible once you truly start to believe that you can eat that delicious food whenever you are hungry for it. While this can seem like an impossibility at first, learning how to rewire your brain to change the way you think about food will allow it to happen. Just as it’s normal human psychology to want more of we can’t have with things that bring us pleasure, if you were made to eat an entire block of chocolate everyday, you might start to resent having to eat chocolate. This is not to say chocolate can’t be enjoyed daily (I enjoy chocolate most days), but if eating a whole block makes you feel a little sickly afterward, would you want to do it as often?
In summary, if you feel are you addicted to sugar (or any other food) and you haven’t explored whether or not you’re eating enough (as mentioned many people don’t even realise) or explored the process of not restricting food and rewiring your brain to change diet mentality thoughts, then I urge you consider these processes. The intuitive eating approach I mentioned earlier can help you do this. On the other hand, if you feel are you addicted to sugar and simply avoiding it works for you without any downsides emotionally, mentally or socially, then I have no issue with your choice – but please don’t expect that this is right for everybody.