Sugar Addiction

My Secret Sugar Addiction

Sugar addiction, much like other addictions, involves a complex interplay between pleasure-seeking and a desire to be free of inner angst. Sugar often serves as a distraction, a means to self-soothe, and can be unconsciously and compulsively consumed. Eating sugar releases dopamine, the neurotransmitter responsible for pleasurable reward, and thus reinforces the desire to consume more of it! Frequently eating high-sugar foods amplifies cravings. A secret ‘drug’ of choice for many, its insidiously addictive nature may be disguised, within packaging that has an alluring innocence. Heed caution when entertaining the lollipops of the world, for they are truly sheep in wolf’s clothing.

If you struggle with overconsuming sugar, know that in addition to being habitual and familial, it is neurochemically reinforced. While it may be funny when Jim Gaffigan, the comedian, says, “You’re addicted to cake” it may also be true.

..our brains still perceive sugar as beneficial (from an evolutionary perspective) and release huge amounts of dopamine when we consume sugary, high-calorie foods. In the long term, this can mimic the effects of addiction and create high tolerance and cravings for sugar. Furthermore, can even lead to withdrawal when we cut it out of our diets.

Sugar and Dopamine: The Link Between Sweets and Addiction, Wellness Retreat Recovery

There is no magic pill that will fix your dopamine issues to help you kick the sugar habit. Neurochemicals alone do not explain why we gravitate towards our addictions. Engage in some self-discovery and you’ll likely find the roots run deep.

Perpetually Sticky! The Beginning of My Sugar Addiction

From my earliest beginnings, sugar was my drug of choice, my friend and foe. Both behaviorally and chemically reinforced, it was my focus and solace. As such, I sought out sugar to meet my unmet emotional needs. Chocolate was good, but my sugar addiction warranted something that packed a punch! Fun Dip, a favorite of mine, was like the Jack Daniels of my candy world. Lick a confectionary candy stick and dip it into various flavored, sugar-filled pouches. Through this process, you consume about half a cup or more of sugar, then you eat the stick.

I was never selective about my sugar consumption. Even circus peanuts were acceptable if nothing else was available. Sugary snacks were easy to come by, and I relied on them to soothe the inner discomfort that was my baseline and essentially get my fix.

My Sugar Addiction Beginnings Lollipops

In the absence of attuned caregivers, emotional needs were met in the form of confectionaries. I suspect that lollipops were given to me as a means to self-soothe so often because I sucked my thumb. While the behavior of thumb-sucking was slow to extinguish, my sugar addiction lingers today. In my youth, sugar was the acceptable go-to drug and could be denied as such because we weren’t drunk off it, or were we?

Hawaiian Punch in a Can: High Fructose Corn Syrup Fed My Sugar Addiction

I sported a Hawaiian Punch mustache for a good part of my childhood. The 70s was a time of gratuitous use of Red dye 40 and increasingly added high fructose corn syrup to our foods to replace regular sugar because it was cheaper. By the early 1980s, HFCS had replaced sugar in almost all sodas. For more on the history, see HFCS Story Map. We now know that both of these food additives cause behavioral issues such as spontaneous hyperlocomotion and hyperactivity and are linked now to several mental health diagnoses. These dangerous food additives are banned or limited in several countries but not in the US. Read more: Why isn’t High Fructose Corn Syrup Regulated?

The stains of High Fructose Corn Syrup and Red Dye 40 Sugar Addiction in a can

I often thought that had I been born at a different time, I would have received diagnoses for my childhood behaviors. My sugar addiction began in diapers and continued with copious amounts of Hawaiian Punch, white sugar on sugar-coated cereals, and Hostess snacks. To everyone else, it was a means to keep me quiet and occupied. That is until I began doing something problematic, like consecutive handstands against a closet door. The poisons we consumed were accepted and promoted. Connecting sugar consumption and food additives to health and behavior was rarely considered.

A Family with Sugar Addiction Meant Easy Access to a Sugar Fix

I have a long familial history of self-soothing through alcohol and sweets. Both sugar and alcohol were available in abundance in my home and extended family homes. My grandmother’s house was a treasure trove of candy dishes. At every turn, there was something new to discover: Ferrari Italian nougat candy in little boxes, ribbon candy, and sugar-coated, jellied orange and spearmint slices. Lunch concluded with a bowl of cling peaches in a heavy syrup, followed by Jello with Cool Whip topping. Cool Whip was removed from the freezer to be readied before the Tupperware cups of Jello magically appeared from the back of her fridge.

The sugar adventures continued with my grandmother’s Cracker Jack and soda stash! Orange Crush, Sprite, Mountain Dew, Grape Soda (my personal favorite) and Coke. I drank Hawaiian Punch pretty exclusively, so Nana’s house was a chance to get a new mustache. Kids could freely consume any of it. It was like my own Willie Wonka paradise.

Sugar Addiction is Part of My Legacy, It’s Why I Bake

My Sugar Addiction
It's Why I Bake

Baking pleases people, so I’ll bake you a cake for your birthday, a pie or two at the holidays, and cookies because there are chocolate chips. When I share these goodies with you, the gift feeds my desire. A sugar addiction loves company, so please join me so we can sugar-pollute together.

Sugar Addiction during the Holidays: A Perfect Time For Sweet Treats and Connecting Through Consumption

Excitement, or is it anxious anticipation as a holiday approaches? New recipes to explore, cake pans to be dusted off, and so many must-make baked goods to prepare for specific holidays. Italian cookies with rainbow nonpareils or cinnamon sugar topped with anise-flavored icing at Christmas and cinnamon pound cake in the heart-shaped pan on Valentine’s Day. A Birthday must be commemorated with at least cupcakes, and Halloween requires outrageous baked goods because literal bags of mixed candy are not enough.

Melting witch brownies pictured below are a powder keg of high-octane sugar blast! Eating one gives me such a surge that I could do a cartwheel, but I expect a crash followed by a sugar hangover.

My Sugar Addiction Holiday Treats
Melting Witch Brownies, A batch of random Christmas cookies and mini Halloween hand pies.

An honest look at my baking projects tells me there’s a lot of love in them. It’s not just drug seeking. However, creating these confectionaries leads to sugar consumption outside what I now consider healthy.

The Dark Side of Sugar Addiction

Research has shown that sugar contributes to major illnesses and diseases. It suppresses your immune system and causes inflammation. The inflammatory response correlates to health risks ranging from heart disease to cognitive decline. Read more details about The Dangers of Sugar.

Making Connections: Sugar Addiction, Alcoholism, and Other Compulsions

My gateway into addiction was trauma, soothed by sugar, later numbed and nearly drowned in alcohol-induced shame, then esteemed by over-exercising, obsessively compulsively studying, and, after that, overworking. My addictive behaviors waxed and waned, but sugar addiction was acceptable and easy to dismiss. It was the safe compulsion that brought little shame because I wasn’t overweight.

My Sugar Addiction Compulsive Behavior

When a person can’t find a deep sense of meaning, they distract themselves with pleasure.

Viktor Frankl

Whether I was eating candy, drinking, or smoking my compulsions never felt like pleasure-seeking, but more like relief-seeking. Compulsive behavior met an insatiable emotional hole like a bucket with a huge crack that leaks all its contents. My sugar addiction was a habit no less compulsive than gambling, no less numbing than a tumbler of Jack.

Sugar Addiction and The Lies That Make It Alright

When my daughter was young, she had a dear friend whose mother was, let’s just say, running a tight ship. She gave specific instructions to not offer her son sweets of any kind. While he was in my care, I provided healthy meals but was, at a loss withholding sugary reassurance or confectionary love. Certainly a little sugar wouldn’t hurt him. And, what kind of mean mother will deny their child sweets?

She told me point blank, “Sugar is bad for you…very bad!”. I tried not to laugh or suggest she relax. Sugar is natural and, in the scheme of things, hardly the demon she was making it out to be.

Her struggle to stay away from sugar was likely similar to my own, but at the time, I was bewildered by her decision to maintain a relatively sugar-free household. It never occurred to me to entertain a home without sugar- if anything, I took measures to ensure a fully stocked pantry! Perhaps this mad woman knew something I didn’t. Years later, I saw the flaws in my reasoning that a little sugar didn’t hurt and, more importantly, that my sugar addiction was trivial.

When I finally acknowledged my inability to curb my sugar consumption, especially when emotionally activated, sad, or just checked out, it revealed to me that sugar was not as wholesome as I once thought. How many lies have I told myself that justified my sugar-consuming tendencies?

You better cut the pizza in four pieces because I’m not hungry enough to eat six.

Yogi Berra

Recently, I told my mother that eating six large candy bars a week is a lot of sugar. “I didn’t eat six candy bars” she argued, like the alcoholic who claims to have had only two drinks instead of seven. I assured her I was not shaming her but simply offering an observation that may help her to make better choices to reduce arthritic inflammation.

I’ve told myself similar lies about the true quantity of sugar I consumed. Baby slices of cake… one sliver at a time, somehow will always add up to less cake than having a couple of big hunks. Some of us use this invisible magic calculator when the moment presents itself. It’s like the room of necessity in Harry Potter that appears when you need it most. The magic calculator makes half a cake, a series of insignificant slivers, and a bottle of wine, only two mere glasses.

Sugar Addiction and Shame

Distractions and compulsions begin by offering relief, but at some point, the scales tip, and what was once desirable and rewarding is seen as insidiously promoting something else. An anxious lie that wells up, connected to any unconscious childhood feelings of being at fault, not because of something you did, but because of something you are. It can take a lifetime to make the connection between shame and overconsumption.

Cake is a true symbol of gluttony. If you eat a whole pizza people will say ‘Wow, you were hungry!’, but if you say you ate a whole cake people are like ‘You’ve got a problem….you’re addicted to cake!’

Jim Gaffigan

From mid-October until the end of the year, my sugar addiction and other compulsions amp up. When I was younger, it occurred under my awareness. Now, I recognize this period as one of vulnerability. Emotional memory peaks around Thanksgiving, so if I don’t mentally prepare, consumption can spiral. Headaches, bloating, and losing my high vibe ‘glow’ are clear indicators, that I have not been consuming kindly.

Better Choices, Mindful Eating, and “The New Sticky”

To make healthier choices around your consumption, increase your awareness of your eating habits and establish tools that help with mindful eating and drinking. Most compulsive eating occurs under your awareness so slow down to get a sense of what pulls you toward the desire to distract and numb. Practicing an intentional pause will help you sense whether your addictive behavior is actually meeting a need. Once you start caring for yourself, the unhealthy compulsions fall short.

Work toward eating, drinking, thinking, and treating yourself kindly overall. Better, healthier habits are naturally reinforcing and will help reduce chemical cravings. Once lessened, sugar consumption is easier to moderate.

A Few Thoughts to Help You Start to Moderate Consumption

  • Start your day with an achievable goal ie., no sugary beverages.
  • Increase your water intake.
  • Practice mindfulness and intentionally pause to increase body awareness before, during, and after eating and drinking.
  • Find healthier food alternatives to satisfy your sweet cravings ie., nut butter, fruits, or natural sweeteners.
  • Eliminate high-sugar items from your home (you can’t eat or drink what’s not there).
  • Explore creative outlets and engage in activities that feel meaningful and nourishing.
  • Move your body to reduce emotional heaviness during cravings.
  • Get plenty of rest.

Learning how to moderate consumption will help you identify what it is that you’re trying to escape or soothe. Think of the “new sticky” as an opportunity to engage in activities that are mindful, intentional, and nurturing. Explore the comforts of smells, sounds, and items that feel soft to the touch. What can you do to care for yourself? (No, not a pint of Ben & Jerry’s!) Don’t let your addiction tell you otherwise.

Quitting smoking is easy. I’ve done it a hundred times.
– Mark Twain with a hard truth on addiction recovery. 

My sugar addiction is still alive and well; however, I am more aware of and present with my consumption. I treat myself kindly when I overconsume and my senses are more in tune with the overall vibe of my treats. “Sugar emergencies” are infrequent and rarely bring me to eating foods I have little respect for, despite their lure to a quick sugar fix.

As an addiction intensifies, the bar gets lower, so meeting the perceived need is more important than the quality, especially if it means going without. However, when you abstain from sugar, your palette becomes more discerning and even more so when you begin eating mindfully. Your new sensitivity will alert you to high sugar content and help you detect the other crappy additives that went unnoticed when eating treats were about needing relief.  Pre-packaged sweets with preservatives exposed as the processed garbage that they are will make you wonder how you never knew.

Not Included in “The New Sticky”!

  1. Sugar Substitutes. No apologies here; I am not interested in artificial sweeteners. Firstly, the pink packet a safe alternative until it wasn’t. Then the blue one was safe to take until, it wasn’t. I’m not taking the blue pill either, so it’s a natural sweetener or nothing.
  2. A Prescription. While a physician might encourage you to mask your habitual issues and replace your fix with another one, you will miss the opportunity to heal what’s underneath your addictions, sugar or otherwise.

We don’t want to EAT hot fudge sundaes as much as we want our lives to BE hot fudge sundaes. We want to come home to ourselves.

Geneen Roth: Women, Food & God: An Unexpected Path to Everything

I decided to become addicted to caring for myself in all ways. Instead of unconsciously eating, drinking, or being, I choose healthy habits that honor the person I am and wish to become. Here is a list to help you join me on this journey: How to Stay Healthy~ (18) Simple Habits. Choose to extinguish what is not working for you and ease into a lifestyle that strengthens and sustains you.

Please visit my Coaching Services page for more information or contact me to book an appointment for support with your sugar addiction or help with developing a healthy lifestyle to find your new ‘sticky’. New healthier habits and tools to self-soothe await you.

Estelle Bonaceto
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