Chocolate-covered monkey on my back
July 22, 2005 8:36 PM   Subscribe

Sugar=heroin?: Is sugar really strongly physically addictive, or are these claims just the latest novelty from the diet industry?

I’m trying to lose some pregnancy weight, and while I eat well during the day (small, frequent meals, protein, low-fat) , I lose all my willpower and best intentions at night. Primarily, I crave sweets like a fiend; I'm not so much hungry as physically uncomfortable. Honestly, quitting cigarettes was a breeze next to the sugar cravings.

I can explain some of my weakness with exhaustion from having a 7-week old baby to care for, but I've found myself needing something sweet every day for well over a few years - actually, every since my first pregnanacy 4 years ago. Before that, I rarely ate or wanted sweets. So the addiction claims make sense, but the advocated "cures" seem drastic.

Will going cold turkey eliminate the binges? Is there some sort of methadone equivalent for sugar? (I’m nursing, so I’m avoiding artificial sweeteners.) And will I have to give up fruit? (that might be a deal breaker) Finally, has anyone had any success with these sorts of sugar-elimination diets?
posted by bibliowench to Health & Fitness (24 answers total)
Heroin and other addictive substances bind directly to neurotransmitter receptors, short-circuiting your brain's normal stimulus-reward mechanism.

Sugars are required by every cell in your body to sustain life.

Proceeding from here, one could then posit that food was addictive, because without it a person experiences extreme discomfort and food cravings, leading to serious physical symptoms followed by death.

However, this is a rape of language. There's no reason to use the word 'addiction', which has a fairly narrow medical application, with reference to something like sugar.
posted by ikkyu2 at 9:09 PM on July 22, 2005

ikkyu2 : "However, this is a rape of language. There's no reason to use the word 'addiction', which has a fairly narrow medical application, with reference to something like sugar."

More like a fairly narrow social application. (Mostly) everyone wants to live, and we need food to live, so that's not an 'addiction' but a 'need'.
posted by Gyan at 9:34 PM on July 22, 2005

I've radically (though not permanently) changed my diet from time to time. After months of loading up with insane amounts of sugar every day, going near-cold-turkey can cause me to feel a bit off for a while, but nothing drastic. Comparing it to heroin withdrawl is exageration.

For me, the way to cut down sugar was to stop buying the stuff when I was shopping. With nothing in the house, I had no choice :-)

IANANutritionist, but I think cold turkey is unnecessary with sugar. Weaning yourself off it more slowly is mentally harder, since you can't use the empty-the-house trick and are forced to use that pathetically weak and painful tool called willpower, but it isn't going to leave you lethargic the way cold-turkey can, and personally, I hate feeling lethargic.
posted by -harlequin- at 9:48 PM on July 22, 2005

Forgot to add - fruit is probably a good thing to keep in the diet - it gives you sugar, helping prevent lethagy etc, but not a sugar rush the way sweets do to give you cravings.
As to success, I rarely ever feel like sugar, but some days I end up eating plenty of it because I constantly snack and whether the snacks availible are sugary or savory doesn't really get taken into consideration, just whatever is around :)
I also have no real motivation to cut out sugar beyond "I should do it for my long-term future health", so it's definitely possible, I wasn't trying very hard, it just sorta happened. I suspect cutting back on softdrinks may have been a big factor for me.
posted by -harlequin- at 10:01 PM on July 22, 2005

I suggest you pick up a copy of The South Beach Diet book (if you don't want to buy, pick up a copy at the library). You may not want to follow the diet itself, but it describes how and why we get cravings for carbs, especially sugar. The first two weeks of the diet is designed to wean a person off carb rushes to eliminate the cravings. Worked for me (I ended up losing 1/4 of my body weight since Jan 1 this year.)
posted by Doohickie at 10:10 PM on July 22, 2005

Calling my dealings with sugar "addiction" would be quite fair. The main thing that's helped substantially reduce my cravings is to keep the house stocked with yummy sources of less refined sugars. Eating a piece of fruit instead of a candy, or using honey instead of a sugar cube in the tea, etc. When a really had craving hits, a couple nibbles of dried fruit usually takes care of it. Man that stuff is super-sweet. These days I have no problem bypassing the candy/cookie aisle, and when I have to go down it there's no hint of craving. *PMS excepted.

Since the cravings are connected to losing energy at the end f the day, watch out for starchy or sugary snacks. The temporary energy boost leads to energy crashes that fuel more cravings. Break the cycle, and maybe the rest will get a little easier to deal with.
posted by nakedcodemonkey at 10:18 PM on July 22, 2005

I have a real sweet tooth, and a few months back I had to go on an elimination diet (to test for food sensitivities) and couldn't eat any sweet things except fruit, pure maple syrup, or rice syrup.

I was craving sweets like mad the first few days, but I managed to satisfy my sweet tooth by drinking lots of apple juice (the fresh stuff, not Treetop). Fruit smoothies (bananas, berries blended with apple juice) were good. One thing became immediately apparent to me. I was actually satisfying my sweet tooth and I didn't crave sweets nearly as much.

And I lost 13 pounds. YMMV.

The hard bit is that I can't eat most processed foods now. Corn syrup (a no-no) is in just about everything.

Good luck.
posted by luneray at 10:27 PM on July 22, 2005

Fruit is real sugar, not that nasty high fructose corn syrup that seems to be in every product in the store. It would be a shame to give that up.

I had a killer sweet tooth for a while. Started replacing nightly ice cream with a bowl of honeynut cheerios. It was still sugar, but at least it wasn't empty calories. I eventually weaned myself off of needing a dessert every night.
posted by idiotfactory at 10:30 PM on July 22, 2005

Oh, the other thing: You can go to the snooty-pitootie grocery store and buy Lindt or some other brand of Euro chocolate with high cocoa content (70% or higher) to satisfy chocolate cravings without taking in all that sugar. (The trick is stopping after eating only two squares of the 10-square bar.)
posted by Doohickie at 10:32 PM on July 22, 2005

ikkyu2: Sugars are required by every cell in your body to sustain life.

You're using a definition of "sugar" here that I think was not intended by bibliowench. Yes, humans need sugar to survive, if by sugar you mean carbohydrates. But there's a vast difference between refined white sugar - even white flour - and, say, broccoli, and a corresponding vast difference in one's physical reaction to it (which, of course, varies by individual). There's absolutely NO reason why the former needs to be included in a person's diet.

In other words, personally, I can have a serving of brown rice (a "sugar" in your sense), feel fine, and not desire any more. But when I was still eating sugar, I'd find myself craving, say, a frappuccino, and I'd go to any and all absurd lengths to get my fix, and if I didn't - well, I remember when I was ten I punched my mother in the face because she promised to get me a sundae and then reneged. In retrospect I'm astounded at the things I did in pursuit of and in glory of sugar. I'm being a little bit melodramatic, but seriously, I think if you're not physically addicted to sugar - and a lot of people aren't - it's impossible to understand what it's like for those of us who are. And vice versa. I remember once witnessing a friend eat a jelly bean, say, "That was really good. I think I'll have another!" Then he ate one more, and WTF?!

Right, so...yes, bibliowench, it is absolutely possible to be physically addicted to sugar. I cannot say this with more conviction, with more certainty. But really - that's probably not enough to convince anyone, as Scientologists will promote their beliefs with similar conviction, and the idea of sugar addiction has the same extremist and voodoo-like feel to it, unfortunately. The diet industry is so ridiculous that any seemingly outlandish claim with regards to nutrition is brushed off without fair examination.

I recommend a website called Radiant Recovery, which - aside from the "radiance" hooha - is the most clearheaded and common-sense approach to nutrition and sugar addiction anywhere. I found it nearly five years ago, followed the program for six months, and haven't had sugar in nearly four years. I honestly don't think I would have been able to do it any other way. Certainly not following Atkins or South Beach or frankly any other program that focuses mostly on weight loss, because when you're talking about overcoming sugar addiction, weight loss is a side issue - overcoming the addiction should be at the forefront.

Really, human biochemistry is so varied, and we know so little, that only you can decide whether you are truly addicted to sugar, and how drastic a diet change you have to make. For me, I had to not only cut out sugar, but all those sugar substitutes, too, and I don't just mean aspartame, etc, but stuff like rice syrup, honey, maltodextrin, etc - I react to all of it the same way. Even fruit. With addiction, it doesn't matter if it's "a shame" to give it up - if it affects you like a drug, it has to go. I'm not saying it's not a pain in the ass. It's the most difficult thing I've ever done, but I've never for one second regretted it.

Please, if you have any more questions about this, feel free to e-mail me.
posted by granted at 1:13 AM on July 23, 2005 [4 favorites]

All of the published clinical trials I've read about comparing the low-carb (eg atkins, south beach or whatever) to traditional low-calorie diets have found that over periods of one year or more, low-cal diets work at least as well as the fad diets.
posted by shoos at 3:12 AM on July 23, 2005

Sugars are required by every cell in your body to sustain life. Proceeding from here, one could then posit that food was addictive

Yeah, I can see how you would object to this, but there's degrees, here. There's a big difference between a small bowl of wild rice and an 82-ounce pepsi. When you inject refined sugar into your system, your entire system reacts. And subjecting yourself to this all the time is not a good idea. Your blood sugar rises and plummets, your moods can become triggered to the sugar, your digestive system becomes accustomed to lots of refined quick-fuel, and your brain will eventually learn to expect ready doses of sugar on demand.

Addiction is a loaded word. But suffice it to say that habitual intake of simple sugars will change your body chemistry and you will come to depend on them to feel normal. There can be adverse long-term health effects, not to mention cavity and obesity-type consequences. So call it what you will, but I think addiction is as good a word as any.

And no, btw, we do not need to eat sugar to survive. We synthesize the sugars we need inside our bodies.
posted by scarabic at 3:21 AM on July 23, 2005

Sugar can certainly mess with your brain chemistry, and hence can be sort of "addictive". But it's not the same kind of addiction as heroin and nicotine. One very common belief (which I've heard from some unreliable source or other), is that the mechanism of addiction is the elevated levels of serotonin produced by eating carbohydrates in general.
posted by sfenders at 6:15 AM on July 23, 2005

granted mentioned the Radiant Recovery website, I would also recommend reading Kathleen DesMaisons book Potatoes not Prozac which you can probably get at the library.
posted by teleskiving at 6:34 AM on July 23, 2005

granted and scarabic are right on about sugar addiction. And just because you need something to survive doesn't mean you can't be addicted to it; an addict simply consumes much more of that substance than necessary. I echo the suggestion to read the South Beach diet book, if only for its explanation of sugar cravings. And sfenders is right too; as serious as sugar addiction is, "sugar=heroin" is not a valid way to express it.
posted by bingo at 6:35 AM on July 23, 2005

Thanks for all your help so far. I'd seen the Radient Recovery site, and was a little put off by it visually, but I will recheck it out. I'll also look at South Beach. As to the heroin analogy, it was more of a sarcastic hook than an actual comparison, echoing some of the more strident anti-sugar literature I'd perused. Certainly, I don't see myself reduced to offering sexual favors for Ho-Hos or mainlining pixie stix, but the physical discomfort and sheer irrationality of it all had me wondering if I needed to avoid sugars altogether, like I would with an addictive substance like alcohol or nicotine, or if I was just being melodramatic. Sounds like a little of both.
posted by bibliowench at 6:53 AM on July 23, 2005

Will going cold turkey eliminate the binges?

In my experience, yes. I cut all sugar a few years back when I went on Atkins and after a painful three days of cravings, I now rarely have a craving I can't control. The smokes, on the other hand, I've never been able to kick.
posted by CunningLinguist at 7:28 AM on July 23, 2005

Are you breastfeeding? Because that should make losing preagnancy weight a lot easier. If you are, I would suggest just eating what your body craves, because there's a lot going into breastmilk.
posted by mai at 8:06 AM on July 23, 2005

I do think you can get hooked on the "up" of a sugar rush. So it's probably wise to cut back if you feel your sweets craving is over-the-top. When I was pregnant with and after I had my first, I drank a lot of fruit juice - I didn't realize how many calories it had. When I gave up most juices in favor of simply fruit instead, I lost five pounds. (I still drink a glass of cranberry every day, but that's it.) Not that fruit juice in moderation isn't healthy, but fruit itself is better; one apple is less calories and more fiber than a glass of apple juice.

Since you're nursing, do be careful with dieting. You *need* extra calories - an adult woman's normal intake plus 300-500 more a day. Moderate exercise is a good way to work back to pre-pregnancy weight, and of course, eating healthier. (Some useful info on breastfeeding, nutrition, and dieting.) Also do be aware that, even though nursing helps you lose pregnancy weight more quickly, most nursing women hang on to a few pounds (five or ten lbs.) for some months while they nurse - it's a backup fat store. A guideline I have heard is "it takes nine months to make the baby and just as much time for your body to recover".
posted by Melinika at 10:05 AM on July 23, 2005

I've also swapped out nightly ice cream, and instead have dark chocolates. It only takes one or two to satisfy a craving when I have it, and it feels a lot more decadent - I'm having a Special Treat! instead of just boring old ice cream.

I've also taken to drinking homemade chai - just some black tea, brewed with pieces of cinammon stick, a few pods of green cardamom, and some cloves in water and milk. (Want some extra pep? Add a small pinch of black pepper.) It takes a lot less sugar to make it taste 'sweet' than just straight black tea with milk. The coffeeshop chai now tastes too sweet to me in comparison.
posted by spinifex23 at 11:37 AM on July 23, 2005 [1 favorite]

If you're put off by reading commercial programs and sales-oriented stuff, just do some research on glycemic index of foods. This will take you into the realm of insulin response and diabetic control, which is the underlying physiology I think you're maybe wanting to address.
posted by salt at 12:20 PM on July 23, 2005

Fruit is real sugar, not that nasty high fructose corn syrup that seems to be in every product in the store. It would be a shame to give that up.

What does this even mean? Fruit contains fructose, that's why it's called Fructose, because it comes from fruits. The active ingredient is the same as HFCS.
posted by delmoi at 3:52 PM on July 23, 2005

Also, I'd like to point out that I've lost a ton of weight the past few weeks eating a moderate amount of junk food and exercising a ton.
posted by delmoi at 4:01 PM on July 23, 2005

It's strange, but when I was a teenager I was a card-carrying chocoholic... the more chocolate, the better... but in the past few years (I'm 25 now), too much chocolate tastes far too sweet for me... I often prefer, say, fruit-flavored ice creams over chocolate. Does that have to do with the different sugars in chocolate?
posted by IndigoRain at 11:38 PM on July 23, 2005

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