Sugar Addiction in Recovery
Don’t go cold turkey—do this first
One of the most common questions I’m asked as a nutrition counselor working with people in recovery is: How do I stop eating sugar?
The most uncommon answer coming from a nutrition counselor that I respond with is: Don’t.
Before you start that 28-day no-sugar challenge, consider that as recovering addicts we risk turning to sugar as a “solution” in our sobriety just as much as we did to alcohol when we were drinking: a way to numb our anxiety, to achieve an altered state, to run away from whatever is happening in our reality, to leave our bodies.
In its simplest form, this is what addiction is: taking off, disconnecting, escaping, leaving our bodies—and all for very good reasons. For me, it was a constant underlying anxiety that I found it impossible to connect with for more than five seconds (or I’d start to go into extreme panic mode). So, naturally, even when I eventually took the alcohol out of the picture, the anxiety stayed—and my love affair with sugar began.
Was that predictable—at least in hindsight? Yes. Was it annoying as hell? Also yes.
I was fortunate to have found holistic nutrition early in my sobriety and to get turned on to some powerful solutions that helped me beat my sugar addiction. Interestingly, drastically reducing my sugar intake or quitting sugar cold turkey were not among them.
A brief history of why cutting out sugar entirely is not likely to work
Sugar, just like alcohol and other recreational drugs, “taps directly into the reward center, that normally would be activated more arduously, by doing things that helped our ancestors spread their genes,” writes evolutionary psychologist Robert Wright. In other words, our reward centers’ feel-good sensations (fueled by dopamine) were designed to come from “natural” stimuli like eating food, drinking water, and mating. They were felt on a subtler level, and released much more slowly. Now, with the flood of alcohol, refined sugars, and other drugs in our modern age, we can get an immediate and intense surge of dopamine anytime we want.
Often, the reason we remain addicted to a rapid-release feel-good sensation even after we stop using alcohol is because the reward centers in addicts’ brains are less active due to chemical imbalances that cause conditions like depression and anxiety. Less dopamine is released via natural rewards in an addict’s brain than in the brains of individuals with “healthier” reward centers that don’t have these imbalances. As if depression and anxiety weren’t bad enough on their own, they can inhibit our ability to take pleasure from the things our reward center was designed for. It’s no wonder that many of us in recovery are drawn to intense practices like hot yoga, silent meditation retreats, triathlons, raw veganism, rigorous spiritual practices, etc. We are thrill-seekers for that dopamine high because of our special biology—and when alcohol can no longer achieve it for us, we search for other ways to get the fix: be it sugar, caffeine, or intense mental or physical experiences.
Whew—that’s a hatful. Thank goodness knowledge is power! Since we now know that people in recovery need special support to wean our bodies and brains away from huge doses of “artificial” stimulants, we can begin that work in a sensible and self-loving way.
Speaking of self-love, I also believe that beating ourselves up about an unhealthy habit we want to get rid of defeats the purpose. We all know that what we resist persists! Judging, blaming, and criticizing ourselves for not being able to say no to that box of chocolates and feeling guilty after we eat all of it never works.
Going on a 28-day sugar-free diet because we feel bad about ourselves will also not work long-term (and will probably result in a big fat binge session or two once the month is over—or sooner). We need to figure out how to activate our reward centers naturally, and this process takes time and care.
By connecting to ourselves, learning how to be present and not run away, accepting and loving ourselves, and believing that freedom is possible, we can eventually create the shift we desire, no brutality required. I am living proof that this approach—combined with getting help to work on the underlying issues in our addicts’ make-up (such as from Alcoholics Anonymous, therapy, a spiritual community, etc.) and learning about how best to feed and care for ourselves (through programs like Sweet Science!)—can change lives for good.
What you can do to stop needing a sugar fix and beat your addiction to sweets
In light of of all of the above, I do not recommend that my clients attempt to quit sugar fully or immediately, especially in early sobriety when good health habits are usually not yet established.
In my experience, the three most important steps you can take to stop your sugar addiction are:
Switch to the highest quality sweetness you can get your hands on
Look for healthier versions of your favorite go-to sugar fix that will not only make you feel (and look) better, but will also reduce your “bad” sugar consumption, keep your blood sugar levels steady (resulting in less cravings), and improve your mood and energy levels.
Back in the day, my sugary, junky snacks of choice (and I binged like the sun wasn’t coming up tomorrow) used to be: strawberry flavored Twizzlers (the big package), Twix bars, chocolate covered raisins, and any kind of baked good: chocolate chip cookies, cakes—anything made with flour (aka sugar!). Those fixes were reward center central for me. And now I really can’t believe how much time (and money) I spent dreaming of and consuming them…
Once I started learning about whole foods, I discovered chewy dried bananas; sweet smoothies made with raw cacao, banana, and my homemade almond milk; and healthy home-baked snack bars. Just by switching to higher-quality sweetness, I found that my weight stopped yoyo-ing and my mood swings leveled out. Amazingly, even my triglycerides marker dropped noticeably. (My doctor had been very concerned about my lipid/cholesterol panel, especially the triglycerides, which were three times higher than they should have been. Within just a few months, they had settled down to a normal level.)
Here’s another example. One of my clients told me she loves to bring a home-baked brownie to work for an afternoon snack. I said I thought that was fine, but recommended that we take a look at how to make her recipe healthier and more wholesome. Gradually, her baking became vegan, gluten-free, and sweetened with raw honey, and she switched to primarily organic, minimally processed ingredients. Now, she feels more satisfied when she eats a brownie and doesn’t crash an hour later—as she did when she baked with wheat flour and refined sugar. She is also able to maintain her weight when she bakes in this healthier way.
I also work on sweet tooth satisfaction and craving reduction with my clients by introducing them to sweet-natured vegetables like carrots, sweet potatoes, winter squash, beets, and the onion family, as well as berries and sweet grains. All of these help cravings go away effortlessly, curbing bad sugar intake.
In addition, my Sweet Science program employs food science basics like reducing acidity, and balancing out protein, salt, carbs, and fats in different combinations. I do all of this with an emphasis on foods that promote the serotonin-rich brain chemicals that help relieve depression and anxiety and promote better quality sleep.
Find an awareness practice that works for you and your lifestyle
Learning to pay attention to our own reality (thoughts, emotions, and bodily sensations), listening to ourselves, and cultivating the ability to be okay with what’s happening inside of us is absolutely required if we want to spend less time being addicted to anything.
Meditation techniques that teach us to observe and accept our thoughts and sensations lead to deep personal insights about the nature of our reality. The focus of these types of meditation is to remove the cause of all suffering: craving. This can only be achieved when we are able first to calm and focus our mind, and second, when we can observe our reality and accept it moment by moment. The article The Art of Living: Vipassana Meditation explains this process in more depth.
If you are in recovery, you may well have begun exploring different types of awareness practices within the meditation realm. I counsel my clients to keep experimenting and evolving their practice to find their groove. To me, the groove is where we feel like our life is flowing more smoothly and there is a sense of “effortless effort” about making healthier choices. When we’re in the groove, it’s possible to easily say no to something that we couldn’t say no to before without feeling like we were depriving or controlling ourselves.
In my work, I help people find an awareness practice or build on an existing one that can help them expose and better relate to their unhealthy patterns, like sugar addiction. There are specific meditation techniques that I found especially useful when it came to my various addictions, and I encourage my clients to experiment and see what kind of awareness practice best fits their unique life, personality, and set of challenges.
Go out in the world (and inside yourself) and find all the sweetness you can
When you carry the sensation of sweetness within you, you don’t seek all your sweetness from sugar. You find that you and your life are sweet enough.
I realize this may sound like total b.s.
For many years, when someone would say something like this to me, I’d think, “Yeah, go smoke another joint.” Then, after I started down the road to full health in sobriety, I began to experience the same sensations from sweet life experiences that I do from eating my favorite chocolates. Actually, it’s better than that! From these sweet life sensations, there is no bloating, no self-loathing, and no pimples on my face :)
This phenomenon makes sense vis-a-vis the reward center of the brain discussed above, because the sweet sensations I’m talking about arise from natural suppliers of dopamine: things like exercise, time with friends, a sensory-rich walk in the park. And as our bodies and brains recover from the abuses of addiction and begin to heal and function more as they were intended to, it follows that we would start to produce and feel the effects of more dopamine from simple, “natural” stimuli.
I myself was overjoyed to reach this conclusion in my own life—to know for a fact that I could experience the sensation of real sweetness outside of food and inside of me! Now, I am on a daily mission to find things in my life that create more of these sweet sensations. I do this by exploring new activities and ideas, as well as by noticing and realizing what I’m already experiencing that makes my life full and rich and sweet.
One of my most recent sweet discoveries is how I feel in the Savasana pose after my morning Ashtanga yoga practice. I can feel sensations of sweetness running throughout my body—and even a taste of sweetness on my tongue! I’ve also noticed that I have zero cravings for anything sweet in that moment or for hours afterward. Even if the most delicious dessert were put in front of me, I wouldn’t want to touch it, because I feel sweet enough on my own.
Another example: laughing! I’ve noticed that ever since I started on my sober health journey, I’ve been laughing more and more. I remember a time in my life when I didn’t laugh much at all. When I did, it would feel very forced. Now, it’s one of my favorite things to do. I look for every opportunity to laugh—as long as it’s still on the socially acceptable level (sometimes I wonder if I do cross that line a bit…).
Of course, as an added benefit, when you feel sweet on the inside, you’re going to be sweet to others. This also helps to make both our inner and outer lives sweeter. My sweet sensations can come from flirting with an 85-year-old stud when I’m in line at Peet’s to get my unsweetened matcha almond latte (innocent flirting makes it sweeter!), tearing up in the car while listening to touching podcast, seeing a photo of my nephew looking super cute with his little rain boots on, dancing wildly with a friend (or by myself) to my new favorite song, or just taking a springtime stroll and reveling in seeing all the trees in bloom at once.
Evolving from sugar to life’s other sweet sensations
Today, I am very happy to say that I don’t go for sugar as my main reward center fix. My reward center is much healthier these days, and thrives off healthy stimuli. Even when I stop paying attention to my wellness routine for a day or two and find myself going for that dopamine escape by any means necessary (because I still have an addict’s brain and always will—at least in this lifetime!), I will usually just overeat my healthy food, and/or eat it too fast. (The absurdity of this is that when we eat too much too quickly, we crave sweets! Look for a future blog post on how to avoid that :) While this of course is still not ideal, it does represent a big improvement from my past habits.
Now you tell me: What fills your life with sweet sensations? What’s your worst sugar hangup?
Add your thoughts in the comments below. If you want to talk more about sugar addiction, go on and schedule your free 15-minute chat with me.