Are Sugar and Carb Addictions Real?

Don’t Take Carbohydrate Addictions Lightly

I was caught off guard last week in an interview with Andree Clearwater, of Gill, Massachusetts, when she mentioned her addiction to sugar.  Andree is thin, healthy, and meticulous about what she eats.  Yet here she was describing an addiction that once dominated her, and still tempts her from time to time.  As I listened, I considered my own struggles with the shame and distraction of continuous sugar cravings.  Today, research in microbiomes, neurobiology, and other health sciences provide both supporting and conflicting evidence that sugar cravings are equivalent to addiction.  The very prevalence of research in the field stands as evidence that for many, the cravings are real.

The debate is not surprising.  Addiction is a complex behavioral problem, and sugar is so prevalent in our economy that identification as an addictive substance would clearly disrupt industries.  Corporate efforts to promote its safety are high.  But this is only the beginning.  Unlike drugs, sugar has high public appeal.  I mean really, how good is ice cream without sugar?  Citizens might get on the bandwagon to protest glyphosate, but who’s going to protest Ben and Jerry’s?

Sugar and Carbs are Engrained in Our Culture

Food filled with sugar and carbohydrates is found in almost every mainstream social event or meal that people participate in.  Sweets become equated with all that is good in our lives.

There was a time in my own childhood when eating was a simple process.  The family gathered at the table, gave thanks, and ate whatever Mom prepared.  As kids we also complained, and got scolded, but we were taught to clean our plates, give thanks for what the good Lord gave us, and remember the starving children in Africa.  Sugar was reserved for “treats.”

We moved to Virginia when I was a toddler.  Most of my earliest memories are there. We lived in a classic suburban neighborhood.  On Sunday evenings we would watch Walt Disney and Wild Kingdom while we drank root beer floats, or Cherry Smash (a local cherry soda that I have not seen in decades).  The “treat” factor was enormous.  There was a lot of stress within our family life, and we had neither time nor money for very adventurous recreation, so “treats” and television were our recreation.  I have fond memories of Marlin Perkins and his partner, Jim roping giraffes in Africa.

Though we didn’t claim to eat sweets the rest of the week, we always put sugar in our breakfast cereal, and at Christmas time, my father, who was NEVER home during the rest of the year, would spend days making empanadas, chocolate fudge, pastelitos (hand held pies), bischochitos, and a host of other sweets that no one else in our east coast neighborhood had ever heard of.  Restraint, when enforced by my parents, was less about protecting our health, and more about making sure there were enough “goodies” for everyone.  “Goodies” were, well, “good.”

By my teens, I was struggling constantly with sugar cravings and the desire to eat more sweets than I should.  Frustrated, I began to educate myself about the downfalls of sugar.  As an undergraduate, I began my freshman year determined to lose 10 pounds.  I resolved to avoid the fatty and starchy foods in the cafeteria.  At first, it worked like a charm.  I lost weight.  In fact, I lost a lot of weight.  More importantly, my food cravings disappeared.  When I began having sleep problems and feinting spells, I looked more closely at what I was doing with my diet. I saw a nutritionist who said I needed more carbs, and slowly I reintroduced “healthy carbs” (bread and pasta) and “occasional treats” she advised.  The cravings returned with the force of an addiction. I craved sweets before, after, and in between meals.   While I said no more than I said yes, each yes did its damage.  Over the years, I lost enough battles to gain back the weight I’d lost, and watch additional pounds creep up.

I read the book Sugar Blues, by William Duffy, soon after I finished college.  I was a newlywed, and I began trying to eliminate sugar from my household.  Unfortunately, I had a spouse and family to deal with, and they all thought I was being way too extreme.  So-called experts that I consulted with at the time suggested the book was bogus, and moderation was the key.  Thinking I was doing the right thing, I made compromises that seemed reasonable and “moderate.”  I did not eliminate white flour, (husband thought whole grain bread cost too much) and I replaced sugar with a lot of artificial sweeteners and diet soda.  My constant cravings continued to distract me in everything I did.  While white-knuckled will power kept me below clinically defined obesity, I was never happy with my weight, and I often gave in to foods I shouldn’t eat. Family gatherings were torture, because all of the foods served were loaded with carbs that seemed to bother no one but me.  Family members wondered why I was always tense and uptight.  They could even imagine how white my knuckles were, trying to avoid temptation.

Eliminating Sweets Takes Teamwork

The social and cultural dimensions of sugar, viewed as an ingredient to many of our favorite foods, make it at least as difficult for someone with sugar cravings (including sweet cravings and cravings for other carbohydrates) to live clean as it is for an alcoholic or a recognized drug addict to become sober.  Even if we accept that other addictions have more powerful impacts on the brain, we must also grant that the social support for living drug and alcohol free is much higher.  Many friends and family members of the addict recognize the disease, and want him or her to recover.

Over the years, I have met numerous thin, healthy people like Andree Clearwater, who have abandoned sugars successfully.   All surround themselves with friends who support healthy eating and active lifestyles.

Experts may continue to debate the addictive properties of sugar for another century, but for those who live with sugar cravings, the reality, the denial, and the constant struggle are like that of any addict.  And like any addict, it may be necessary to severe ties with those people that support your addiction.  Surrounding yourself with others who value healthy lifestyles, avoiding simple carbohydrates, and ensuring that what you do eat provides you with good nutrition can go a long way towards ensuring a successful, sugar-free lifestyle.


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