Hi, I’m Marisette, and I’m addicted to sugar.
I suspect this statement, in many cases, will immediately raise objections similar to the ones I have raised during my many decades of denial: Something on the order of… How can you lump food in with substances that truly cause addiction, like nicotine, opiates, or alcohol? Isn’t that being overly dramatic? And what about the fundamental difference between food and these substances, that you can stop consuming nicotine, alcohol, and opiates, but you can’t just stop eating food?
Now that I’ve been in recovery for over six weeks I think I can address these objections.
First of all, I’m not talking about all food. I’m talking about sugar. I always thought that my problem was with food. Narrowing it down to sugar has finally clarifies the problem and makes it easier to address.
To assess whether I could legitimately call this an addiction, I looked up the AA list of questions about whether you might belong in AA. You only need to answer four in the affirmative for them to suggest you do. Here are the ones that I answered in the affirmative, with “consuming sugar” substituted for “drinking”.
1. Have you ever decided to stop consuming sugar for a week or so, but only lasted for a couple of days? Yes, usually on a Monday after overindulging during the weekend. But by mid-week, some doughnut or candy in the office called my name. And of course that tiny sprinkle of sugar on my latte doesn’t even count.
3. Have you ever switched from consuming one kind of sugar to another? What, you mean like saccharine, aspartame, stevia, diet anything? (Sorry, I tend to answer questions with questions.)
4. Have you had to have an eye-opener upon awakening during the past year;
do you need sugar to get started, or to stop shaking? First thing in the morning, coffee with sugar. And yes, I’ve had the shakes and had to eat something to cure them.
5. Do you envy people who can consume sugar without getting into trouble? In this case, my positive answer mostly has to do with weight management, because I’ve struggled with that all my life. But it also has to do with immediate reactions such as stomachaches or just feeling physically bad, as you’ll see for the next question.
6. Have you had problems connected with consuming sugar during the past year? I’ve had several instances of nearly passing out from hypoglycemia. For me, hypoglycemia is caused by overconsumption of sugar, to which the body responds by overproducing insulin. The insulin rapidly lowers the glucose in the blood stream to a level that is alarming to the brain, which needs a steady supply. My normal blood glucose levels hover around 100 mg/dL depending on what and when I’ve eaten plus activity levels. During hypoglycemia my levels have been measured as low as 49 mg/dL. This results in impaired brain function that appears, and feels, very similar to being drunk: Near passing out, unable to think straight, dangerous to operate machinery, shaky, sweaty, sick.
8. Do you ever try to get “extra” sugar at a party because you do not get enough? I have made desserts to bring to a party and either made extra or not brought the entire dessert. The extra I might eat before the party or have in reserve to consume after the party was over in case I didn’t get a chance to eat enough while there. I would surreptitiously hang around the dessert table getting as much as I could eat without exceeding the bounds of polite behavior. That I was judging myself and wondering if anyone else was judging my consumption is a pretty significant sign of a problem.
9. Do you tell yourself you can stop consuming sugar any time you want to? Yes. Especially just after eating too much and feeling the start of the hypoglycemia rollercoaster.
10. Have you missed days of work because of consuming sugar? Maybe not full days, but to deal with the hypoglycemia episodes I’ve definitely had to take extra time to recover and had to take time off work to go to the doctor to find out what was wrong.
11. Do you have “blackouts”? During the worst hypoglycemia episodes I was confused and very near passing out, and certainly nothing near normal. Upon recovery from these episodes I didn’t remember clearly what had happened during them.
There you have it. Out of 12 questions, 9 resonated. So even if I wasn’t physically addicted to sugar, I definitely felt like I was addicted.
But is there science to back up my feeling? Indeed. This study describes a study in which MRI was used to examine the effects on the brain of two milkshakes – one with fast-digesting carbs like refined sugar, and the other with slow-digesting carbs. After consuming the fast-digesting milkshake, the part of the subjects’ brains associated with reward, craving, and addiction lit up like a laser.
My last episode of hypoglycemia was around Halloween. There was a bowl of candy in the office, and it contained one of my favorites: mini Peppermint Patties. I thought I could have just one. It was so good! As I walked past the bowl I grabbed just one more. Then I passed the bowl again, and there was only one more PP visible. I snagged that one. Then I purposely went to the bowl and dug around to see if there were any more PP’s hiding and I found the last one. That one went into my mouth too. I figured that my recent lunch would protect me from the sugar spike and crash, but I was wrong. After about 45 minutes I started shaking and sweating. I got tunnel vision. I stumbled as I tried to make my way to my desk. I sat down heavily and my co-workers looked up in alarm. Holding on to the desk to steady myself, I had to remind myself that I knew what to do in this situation before I opened the drawer to find the glucose tablets that I had bought after my last episodes. It had one of those plastic safety wraps that take a lot of coordination to remove, and it seemed to take forever for my shaking fingers to find the perforated strip. Within minutes of swallowing the glucose tablets, my system started calming down and stabilizing, but my brain remained foggy for another hour or so.
After that incident I knew that I really had a problem I couldn’t ignore. That made it easier to decline sugary treats offered to me, but it didn’t make the cravings go away and my system still felt like it was off-balance. And “easier” doesn’t make sense when you can get that sick. Why wasn’t it just a “no-brainer” to always refuse sugar?
As luck would have it, I woke up one morning to a radio interview with Dr. David Ludwig describing his new book, Always Hungry?
As soon as I heard his descriptions of what is going on metabolically to process sugars, I knew that he had described my problem. I immediately bought the book and read it in one day. Finally I had an explanation of what was going on inside of me. And a way to break the addiction. For the purposes of this blog entry, I am treating high glycemic load foods (usually highly refined carbohydrates such as those present in most packaged products available on grocery store shelves, but also white potatoes) the same as sugar; as I understand it from the science described in the book, this is legitimate, but I would recommend further reading to identify exactly why this is so and also to recognize which foods fall into that category.
Sugars are almost instantly available in the bloodstream after consumption, unlike low glycemic load foods that take some time being converted into sugar by the digestive process. Our metabolism works at its best with a steady amount of glucose in the bloodstream, and goes to work to correct imbalances such as this instant flood of sugar immediately. The constant wild swings between high glucose, insulin flood, low glucose, the body’s insistent demands to fix the low glucose problem (cravings), and the resulting new high level of glucose, put the body into emergency mode. In emergency mode, the body demands more fuel while decreasing metabolism to save energy.
Ironically, a lack of fat in the diet makes this situation worse, mainly because, in processing, the removed fat is replaced with sugars to try to improve the flavor. Increasing fat levels in the diet slows down the insulin cycle, calms the fat cells, and keeps the system on a more even keel.
I didn’t have time to properly prepare for the Always Hungry program right away, but the science made such sense to me that I immediately changed a couple of things: I cut out added sugar, and I replaced all my low-fat “diet” foods with their full fat counterparts. I noticed a difference instantaneously. Surprisingly, it wasn’t as hard as I expected because the full fat foods had so much more flavor. Within days my tastebuds became more sensitive. Plain Greek yogurt with berries tasted almost decadent. Ironically, I had to stand in front of a 6 foot high refrigerated section in the grocery store, staring at roughly 20 feet in width of yogurt products for quite a while before I spotted the 6 inches of a single shelf containing full fat plain yogurt. Everything else was low fat with added sugar to improve the flavor. I bought the three tubs that remained on that shelf.
Then I really started the program, following the menus and the macronutrient (fat, protein, carbohydrate) ratios recommended. The recommendations include making fresh food from scratch and eating lots of fruits and vegetables, so there is really nothing to complain about (other than not getting to eat sugar, and no alcohol for the first two weeks, and to be fair, so much time spent cooking). I found that I felt so much better, and that foods were so much tastier, that I didn’t need the sugar. The most noticeable change has been that my system feels more steady and stable, and instead of getting “hangry” I notice that I would like to eat something.
What was really shocking, and what fuels the addiction, is that there is sugar added to almost EVERYTHING. I bought turkey bacon without checking, thought it tasted sweet, and looked on the package to find sugar as the 4th ingredient. I wanted a full fat ranch dressing and, even though this is a savory dressing, could not find one bottle without added sugar. Recently I wanted to make a meal containing sausage. Warned by the bacon experience, I checked the packages before buying, and spent an extra 15 minutes in the store rejecting product after product until finally finding a kosher brand that didn’t include sugar. I have spent a LOT of time lately standing in grocery aisles reading labels. For someone trying to kick an addiction, having the addictive substance hiding in everything can really cause some paranoia.
I still feel drawn to sugar, and I could easily see slipping up. I was on a 6 hour plane ride the other day and the only thing offered without paying extra was drinks and a stroopwafel, a Dutch cookie consisting of two sweet wafers with a caramel center that brings me back to my childhood. It was very hard to watch the guy next to me eat that. I guess if I do slip up, I’ll have to take a page from the AA book and take it one day at a time.
As with all addictions, not every body reacts the same. I can drink alcohol and take it or leave it; I cannot eat sugar the same way. Apparently my metabolism is incredibly sensitive to sugar, and as a result I have to be vigilant to ensure that I don’t take in enough to cause a problem. I interpret the Always Hungry program as being meant to sort of reset the body’s metabolic functioning, with the aim that each person learns what are his or her trigger foods and which are well tolerated. It supports gradually re-introducing foods that are high in glycemic load over time, with attention being paid to their effects.
I’m not saying that I think anyone else is also a sugar addict. Maybe, though, if the objections I described jumped into your head as soon as you read my first sentence, you can think about whether you might be in denial like I have been.