Trading Alcoholism for Sugar Addiction: Here’s the Not-So-Sweet Truth
It doesn’t matter if you’ve struggled with alcoholism yourself or if someone close to you has abused it, you understand the challenges of becoming and staying sober. But what happens when another addiction takes the place of drinking? Instead of reaching for beer or vodka, or even a drug, the alcoholic reaches for a box of cookies or several oversized bowls of sugary cereal. If this sounds familiar, it’s possible that you or your loved one has developed a new addiction –one to sugar.
The Alcohol-Sugar Addiction Link
Sugar, whether in its natural form or as high fructose corn syrup, affects the brain by boosting levels of dopamine. Dopamine is the same chemical that’s released when an alcoholic drinks. Dopamine is sometimes called the reward chemical because it creates feelings of pleasure – the very feelings the brain wants to replicate. Sugar also increases levels of another hormone called serotonin, which plays a role in mood as well.
While many of us understand the effect sugar has on our weight, its ability to affect hormones related to mood can compel some individuals to engage in addictive behavior. Just as an alcoholic loses control of his or her ability to control drinking, someone who consumes too much sugar may eat uncontrollably, often referred to as binge eating.
Similar to alcoholism, those with a sugar addiction can experience similar withdrawal-like symptoms when sugar consumption is suddenly stopped. For instance, heavy sugar users might feel anxiety or shakiness if they abruptly eliminate their sugar intake. While these symptoms don’t have the potential to cause physical harm (as can occur with alcohol withdrawal), the fact that someone experiences them indicates their brain has been altered in such a way that they feel the need for more of the substance.
Science supports the link between sugar and alcohol. For instance, researchers in one study showed women pictures of a chocolate milkshake made with Haagen-Dazs ice cream. The women who had reported previous problems with food dependence or food addiction showed high levels of brain activity in regions that have been connected to drug and alcohol cravings.
Additionally, research suggests there may be a biological connection between having a sweet tooth and an alcohol abuse problem. For example, a study of more than 300 children found that those with a heightened preference for sugary foods and beverages were more likely to have a family history of alcoholism. These children were also more likely to have a family history of depression, which is an additional risk factor for alcohol abuse. These findings do not mean that everyone with a taste for sweets is destined to develop depression or alcohol problems. It does, however, suggest a connection that may be important for those trying to stay sober.
Trading Alcohol for Sugar
It’s clear that sugar addiction can mimic alcohol use in certain respects. For some recovering alcoholics, that connection can be dangerously close. Addiction substitution is often a challenge for someone in recovery from alcoholism. It’s not uncommon for an addict to trade in one addiction for another. For instance, a heavy drinker might become sober, only to latch onto prescription pills or take up cigarette smoking. However, a sober person might also start using sugar as a substitute for alcohol.
If you substitute alcohol with sugar, you’ll likely use sweetened foods or drinks in the same ways you had used alcohol: you reach for a package of cookies when you’re lonely, gulp down a giant soda when you’re stressed, or dig into a box of chocolates when you’re angry.
Sugar Addiction Is Not Safe
It may seem as though developing a sugar addiction is relatively safe compared to alcoholism. However, eating too much sugar can trigger serious consequences for an alcoholic. Most of us are familiar with the concept that consuming too much sugar will add unwanted pounds and increase our risk for type 2 diabetes, a chronic condition with complications ranging from nerve damage to kidney disease. Furthermore, excess sugar can increase belly fat, which is a risk factor for heart disease. In addition, an addiction to sugar may play a role in the development and feeding of some cancers; high sugar consumption in breast cancer patients has been linked to lower survival rates after diagnosis.
Help for Sugar Addiction
If you are in recovery for alcoholism or know someone who is, and sweets have become an unhealthy substitute for alcohol, it’s time to get help and make some serious changes.
- Talk with your addiction counselor. Let your counselor know that you’re concerned about your sugar intake. The feelings or behaviors that contributed to your alcohol abuse may also be contributing to this new addiction. Your counselor can help you figure out the root causes, as well as teach you how to manage negative emotions or behaviors in a healthy way — one that doesn’t involve self-medication with sugar.
- Consult a nutritionist. If you already live with a chronic health condition, such as type 2 diabetes, work with a nutritionist to reduce your sugar consumption and implement an eating plan — not a diet — that you can make part of a healthier lifestyle.
- Reduce your sugar intake. It may be possible to reduce your sugar consumption on your own. If you’ve been addicted to alcohol, you understand how hard it can be to go cold turkey. The same can be true for foods that are bad for your body. Gradually cut back on the amount of sugar you consume each day or week. For instance, start by eliminating one can of soda a day or enjoying dessert only once a week instead of every night. If you dump sugar into your morning coffee or tea, gradually reduce that amount over a period of weeks. Over time, you will be able to significantly reduce — and even eliminate — the sugar in your diet.
- Replace bad sugar with natural sugar. Fresh fruit will satisfy a craving for sweetness without loading the body with excess sugar that’s often been processed. Instead of sugary boxed cereal, try plain yogurt topped with fresh berries. Be careful to not overdo it with fruit, though, because even natural sugar is still sugar, and can keep cravings alive.
- Make lifestyle changes. Addiction is a chronic condition that alters your thinking and behavior. That’s what makes it so difficult to resist urges and cravings. Put sugar cravings in check by avoiding situations that will test your resolve to reduce or eliminate the substance. For example, if members of a particular 12-step meeting always gather around a table packed with doughnuts and soda pop, find another meeting where sweets aren’t present — or at least not the center of attention.
Don’t allow a sugar addiction to take the place alcoholism had in your life. Be proactive and take steps to reduce or eliminate excess sugar consumption before it causes serious health consequences.