Beating Sugar Addiction

February 28, 2012 in Categories: , , , , , by

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Hello.  My name is Sarah and I am a sugar addict.  It’s been 61 days since my last dessert.

It’s not a joke.  Sugar is addictive.  And while sugar addiction may be nowhere near as life-threatening or destructive as alcohol or drug addiction, it is still negatively impacts your health.  Frequent consumption of not just sweets but any food high in carbohydrates profoundly alters your hormones (like insulin and the hunger hormone leptin) and alters your metabolism.  The more sugar you eat, the more your body wants.  You crave it, can’t stop thinking about it, and you feel crummy when you abstain from it.  That’s the definition of addiction.  And eating too much sugar greatly increases your risk of serious health conditions, like heart disease, diabetes and cancer.

The good news is that the physical addiction to sugar is fairly easy to beat.  I recommend going cold turkey.  Okay, wait a minute.  If you are eating alot of carbs now, I recommend a gradual decrease in your carbs (especially super sweet foods) over about a month before going cold turkey.  And by cold turkey, I don’t mean no carbs.  Eat lots of vegetables and maybe even some fruit (check out my post How Many Carbs Should You Eat? for a guideline on how low to go).  It takes most people 2-3 weeks of eating a low-carb diet to adjust.  Even if you gradually decreased your carb intake first, those first few weeks after going cold turkey are pretty awful.  You’ll feel tired, cranky, hungry, and you might have headaches or feel nauseous.  You’ll need a lot of discipline to get through the cravings, but it’s the easiest way (maybe the only way) to beat the bad habit of consuming too much sugar.  And once your body kicks into a metabolism that runs better on fat (which is a healthier and more natural state for our bodies to be in), your energy will come back, your mood will pick up, and you may even notice that you’ve lost a few pounds.  To get through that adjustment, make sure you are eating lots of fat with your meals (coconut products can be especially helpful), keeping busy during the day, and getting lots of sleep.

The bad news is that the emotional addiction to sugar can take a loooooong time to beat.  I feel like I may never really beat it.  I guess it’s like an alcoholic who can never take a drink again and who looks at it longingly even after years of being sober.  I look at a piece of chocolate cake and I want it.  I long for it with every fiber of my being.  The thing that keeps me from eating it is the deep knowledge that I will feel absolutely terrible if I succumb.  And that after I recover from that awful nauseous, headachy, dizzy feeling of my blood sugar skyrocketing, I will want more.  And it will be easier to succumb the second time.  Knowing about the Slippery Slope keeps me on The Straight and Narrow.

So, how do you deal with sugar addiction?  I’m not talking so much about the physical addiction, but that long lasting emotional one.  For some practical strategies for dealing with the habit aspect of sugar addiction, check out my post Breaking the Habit of Dessert.  Also check out my post FoodAssociations:  Changing the Paradigm.  As for some more general survival strategies, here are some additional tips:

1.    Don’t keep sweets in the house.  Whatever your greatest weakness is, don’t have it where you can reach it in the midst of a strong craving.

2.    Don’t use artificial (or natural!) sweeteners.  They fool the body into thinking it’s about to get something sweet, so your insulin spikes, which makes your blood sugar plummet, which makes you crave sugar even more.

3.    Use 85% or higher dark chocolate to ease the cravings.  It doesn’t actually contain much sugar and once your body has adjusted to an overall lower carbohydrate level, it will taste quite sweet.

4.    Try not to substitute eat.  This means that you should try not to eat an entire jar of almond butter because what you really want is ice cream.  If you absolutely need a substitute, try and find something harmless. I drink alot of herbal teas when I’m craving sweets, especially ginger tea and Trader Joe’s Ruby Red Chai (a chai-spiced rooibos tea).

5.    Eat high (good) fat foods.  I am especially fond of coconut with or between meals to deal with cravings.  But check out tip #4 before you open up that bag of coconut flakes.

6.    Eat a wide variety of healthy (paleo) foods, including lots of vegetables (the whole rainbow) and some organ meats.  Many cravings reflect a lack of some nutrient.  One of the best ways to avoid cravings is to consume everything your body needs.

7.    Don’t fool yourself into thinking that just once won’t hurt.  If you decide to have one treat (on your birthday for example), know that you will have to work extra hard to avoid sweets over the next few days.

8.    Remind yourself about how hard it was to beat the sugar habit and how much better you feel for it.  Just taking a moment to remember how much work it took to get here just might be enough to keep you straight.  Feeling good is no small thing.


I totally agree with your post. I try to emphasize to people that ask my opinion on their diet how much of an impact sugar has, which is also usually “anything” that comes in a box. For myself, I have also learned fruit should be in moderation because I will end up eating an entire pint of blueberries. Thanks for the great advice!
(p.s. I have come to love super bitter chocolate, you can actually taste it now! 🙂

I have to be really careful with fruit too, but I seem to be able to handle it better than starchy vegetables. And isn’t it amazing how great 85-100% chocolate can taste! 🙂

I’ve been trying since early January to clean up my diet and the sugar addiction is wreaking havoc. I substitute eat nuts and sweet potatoes and too much fruit and often end up feeling just as crummy at the end of the day as when I was consuming grains and white sugar. I am fit and active and not trying to lose weight and I get really hungry keeping up with 3 kids. However my Naturopath wants me to minimize dietary fat due to gallbladder issues. Believe me the clean diet is even more difficult when fat intake is limited; I feel hungry all the time. I’ve been trying tea in the afternoons but still have such a hard time with the emotional addiction. You nailed it. Well at least I know I’m not alone in this struggle. And since I’ve been making changes for a month and a half, maybe it really is time to go cold turkey. Ah, now I’m hungry for cold turkey and there’s none in the house!

A paleo diet is supposed to be really great for gallbladder health. I would suggest looking into the dietary fat for gallbladder health a little more closely though. I have read in a number of sources that MCTs (like in coconut) are extremely good for gallbladder issues (they don’t require active digestion or modification before being used by the body). They may even help dissolve gallstones. It would certainly be worth double checking with your Naturopath (who should be savvy to the benefits of MCTs). A simple google search of gallbladder and either MCT or coconut oil should give you a few hundred different articles to reference next time you have an appointment. 🙂

Thanks for this blog. I think that you have gotten me to finally say “I give” “Uncle” “You win” when it comes to sugar. I am tired of dealing with this constant internal struggle. I am an intelligent woman who can deal with anything that comes her way but is brought to her knees by a piece of cheesecake. That’s ridiculous but it is true. I am going cold turkey and suppose that I’ll have to deal with the withdrawal symptoms but would prefer to deal with those temporary discomforts that this constant struggle which has affected my self esteem, has caused me to have many sleepless nights because of the panic from knowing that I am gaining weight, of knowing that the disease of diabeties is the worse that one can have and that if I don’t stop eating the sugar then it will only get worse. So thanks for letting me know that I am not alone.

Thank you SO much for your comment. I too have had panic attacks completely related to knowing my eating is out of control and that I’m gaining weight, so I know exactly how you feel! Good luck getting through the adjustment period. You CAN do it. It can be a rough two weeks, but the other side is worth it! If you need any moral support, feel free to check in here or on the Facebook page (lots of us are dealing with the same issues).

I just came across your blog and have been reading through all of the sugar addiction posts. It’s nice to know that someone struggles with sugar the same way that I do — I thought I was alone or crazy or just weak for having crazy cravings and giving in. Your words give me hope — I will try once again to kick this addiction. We’ll see how it goes. Thanks!

Just another sugar addict, stumbling around the web, trying to figure out why I feel like I’m going nuts.

I started eating Paleo only about two weeks ago, and MAN. Those cravings are ROUGH. Daydreaming of all of those horrible treats that I used to eat without giving it any thought at all makes it hard to resist, but I haven’t given in yet.

I’m sure the fact that I have PCOS isn’t helping. My insulin receptors are all busted up from years of abuse, so I may be even more of a special case. Thanks for making me feel like I’m not alone in this battle!

I found your blog a couple days ago and have been reading through it. My husband and I have been trying to commit to a paleo diet/lifestyle, but sugar keeps getting in the way. I have struggled for years, probably my whole life, with sugar addiction and have become pretty good at getting off it. Staying off it is the problem. I get that transitional confidence that comes from feeling better and still being an addict that will rationalize anything just to eat one more bite.

Thanks so much for creating this blog and taking so much time on each issue. Knowing there is someone out there who is overcoming the very issues I have is inspiring and gives me hope. I can’t tell you how amazing it would be for me to lose 120 lbs and reading about your success makes me feel like it’s possible.

If there is a forum or group related to your site I’d love to know about it, and if you offer any coaching services, now or in the future, I’d especially love to know about those!

I teared up as I read this. Thank you SO much. At the moment, I am using my FB fan page as a place to have open discussions about varied topics.

I am not offering coaching services yet (maybe once I feel a bit less overwhelmed trying to balance this blog and life with two young kids!). In the meantime, you may email me any questions you have and I will do my best to answer them:

I’ve been woking on strategies for the transition from a sugar addict with (the various degrees of) poor insulin sensitivity to a full paleo diet. This is the hardest part of making any meaningful dietary change. It is this transition period that to me, is the absolute key. If it were easy, everyone would be doing it. That it is so difficult means we really need it – our body is screaming at us, trying to tell us it is out of whack!!

So, I’ve been thinking about what would be useful in transition. One very effective way to re-sensitise the cell to insulin is exercise. There is a lot of conflicting anecdotal and empirical evidence but from my reading, ultimately, we need to be exercising *hard* five times a week. Walking does not cut it as far as re-sensitising the cell to insulin. However, walking is in itself a useful transition tool. Use it for a couple of weeks or so to develop the exercise habit and get your muscles and ligaments used to movement. Then power walking for a week or so (these time frames will vary person to person but you can’t use that as an excuse to go too easy but we must not overdo it in our enthusiasm for immediate change). Then running… after a warm up, power walk one minute, run one minute, then keep alternating. Over time, building some sort of interval training (walk one minute/run one minute) up to 45 minutes is the ultimate goal. I feel I should repeat: this occurs over weeks to months, not within a week! Physical fitness built on cardiovascular fitness/running is an amazing way to build physical and mental strength. Also, if some time is taken to build this, before the sugarless transition, you will have a greater ‘feel good’/serotonin base line to deal with ‘sugarless’. ie the warrior or the fighter emerges that is strong and ready to fight!!

The other strategy that I have found very useful is something called ‘tapping’, it may not be for everyone but it is a very quick, completely mobile(!), cheap!, very useful and effective strategy for any addiction or pain. I am not a tapping expert and I will leave it to you to google/ you tube for some instructions. I’d suggest looking at a couple of tutorials and getting the theme out of it for yourself as every practitioner may be slightly different – find one that fits for you! It basically works on resetting a mental attitude.

I think the one other thing I use that is important is kindness! To myself! Would I talk to my best friend the way I talk to myself when I slip? Or succeed? A positive attitude is only positive when it conquers the negative – it’s times of challenge that sets us apart from those with negative attitudes – use every mental challenge as a chance to choose to be positive. Let the difficulties bring out the best not hte worst in us. I know I know! May be easy for me to say when you are face to face with a pack of jam tarts that are looking at you funny!! But just make the choice. One choice at a time. Worry about the next choice later.

Good luck! just thought I would share some strategies, i hope they are useful! xx

Thanks for you comment! I’ve heard of tapping and it seems very interesting. I’m working on a very long series that deals with the impact of lifestyle factors on hunger hormones and blood sugar regulation (with at least two posts on exercise). I’m hoping to have the series ready to go by the end of June. I love the idea of taking things one choice at a time!

Hi I am a 38 year old man , fit having done 2 ironman triathlons , but am over weight and totally addicted to sugar waking at night and eating a packet of biscuits ! Went cold turkey last week , I had a very bad headache all week back to the sugar highs and lows 🙁 my question is how do u train I am going to do a 3 hr run now without eating sugar for quick fuel training ?

Good question! What are you used to fueling with? gels? sports drinks? You will probably still need some carbs, but if you can stick to whole fruit or starchy vegetable, that will help with the sugar addiction piece (those headaches will go away as will the cravings… just another week or two!). Banana, apricot, grapes, figs, dates, and plums (and their dried or freeze dried counterparts) are all much higher in glucose than fructose, which makes them excellent fuel during a run (only downside is chewing, but you could try making them into a smoothie with some coconut milk and carrying that in a bottle). You could also use sweet potato (again, you could puree it with coconut milk) which would be a slower burning carb source. But even more important, use fat as fuel. You are trying to transition your body to one that will use fat for fuel preferentially. Coconut oil (or full fat coconut milk) would be the best because the medium chain triglycerides can be passively absorbed and used as fuel without modification (and it’s hard to digest while running). You could even try just using coconut oil if you’re hoping to transition to a fairly low carb diet. If it’s against your body, it will probably melt. You could melt it before you start and put it in one of those little squirt bottles. If it’s cold enough and you think it will stay solid, you could pack it in a ziplock bag and it would be kindof like a running gel in consistency. Let me know how this works for you!

Definitely binge eating disorder exists and I have personally continued to struggle with it when stressed or fatigued. I think it’s separate from sugar addictions. I sort of refer to it as the chemical addiction and the emotional addiction. Like smokers who just miss the routine of smoking or associate always having a cigarette with their coffee decades after they quit.

For me, craving sugar usually means I am getting dehydrated. I think it is because a lot of my sugar has always been in the liquid I drink. I try to substitute a glass of water for the candy bar now & it does seem to help

in my experience it takes about 6 months to get over sugar emotionally, but once you get there it’s great. I’ve been through that process twice and it was the same for me both times. when you walk past a bakery and feel repulsed, it’s a wonderful feeling 🙂

hear hear, I’m personally guilty of #4. But even after eating so much almond butter, I still wouldn’t be satisfied. What I found as a good substitute is avocado, because the fat in it makes me feel full as soon as I eat it.

I have eaten a lot of sugar my entire life. I grew up on sugar, dairy and wheat. I have tried giving up sugar many, many times and I have always gone back. I have developed a lot of food sensitivities and two of them are avocado and coconut, I also don’t do well with nuts and seeds so there isn’t much fat left for me to eat to help feel full. I gave up gluten over 10 years ago and I’ve given up all grains and starchy vegetables months ago and feel better with those changes. The one food I have yet to stop eating is milk chocolate. I have tried dark chocolate and have had bad reactions to it. I also know I am experiencing an emotional battle with giving up milk chocolate. There is upset that I have to give it up too along with all the other foods I’ve given up over the years. Any suggestions on things I can try would be greatly appreciated.

Magnesium. I used to consume two or even three milk chocolate candy bars per day, and l’m talking about the one pound milk chocolate Hershey’s bars. Plus three or more liters of soda. Daily.

The magic cure for the chocolate was magnesium. In the US something like 85% of all adult women are magnesium defficient, while almost no men are. Chocolate is the best source of dietary magnesium in the western diet, followed by nuts. But women need a lot of it, and there isn’t NEARLY enough in one serving of chocolate. Also, magnesium is almost never in your multivitamin because it’s too bulky. Side benefit: it will permanently cure even very severe menstrual cramps. since adding magnesium supplements, I almost never eat chocolate anymore, it doesn’t taste good. When I do, a very small piece of dark chocolate does it. I can’t stand milk chocolate anymore. and haven’t had it in ten years.

I am not trying to sound dramatic but I am REALLY desperate. I can resist buying junk when I buy food, it’s only 20 minutes and then I am out of there! My problem is my mom. She won’t stop buying junk food. I’ve begged her but she isn’t the most stable person and she gets really angry at me at worst and says it isn’t fair to her at best. How is it fair to do this to me but it isn’t fair for me to ask her to stop eating junk around me and to stop bringing it home?
I want to do the whole 30 but their apporoach isn’t tough love, it’s cruel. They say it’s not hard and to stop making excuses and even go on to guilt you! They ask, how dare we say that it is hard? They say beating cancer is hard, having a baby is hard(also really negative! Stop pathologising pregnancy and birth! But that is a WHOLE other post). That is such crap! I have had a REALLY hard life, I have done things that take more willpower than most people can comprehend, and I just finished eating over half a large package of Skittles!
It’s SO HARD! I try SO HARD! I have willpower but how are you supposed to beat an addiction while what you are addicted to is constantly all around you? I can stay away from cookies now because I am pretty scared of how sick wheat makes me. Sugar and food additives make me sick too but for some reason candy keeps getting the better of me. How am I supposed to quit when I am surrounded by temptation! I can’t do this anymore I’m SO sick and candy affects my mental health, all processed food does TBH! Many people have told me to move out but I am on disability and if I move out I won’t have money to eat healthy food so it is a moot point! Please help, I don’t know what to do!

I’m sorry to hear about your struggles. It is definitely easier to avoid temptation when it isn’t in your home. I found that I was only able to beat my sugar addiction when I realized that candy, chocolate, and other sweets *were* just as bad for me as gluten is, even if my body didn’t immediately, violently tell me that when I ate them. But the symptoms they caused like hormonal imbalance, depression, and blood sugar spikes were a sure sign that I was poisoning myself. It was also instrumental for me to have “safe sweets” around, like bananas, pineapple, and coconut butter that I could reach for when I couldn’t take it any more, and to help curb cravings with plenty of probiotics, healthy fats, and mindful meditation (every time I feel like reaching for my husband’s candy stash, I take a 30-minute walk or do some yoga and think about how much I want to be good to my body, all of the tasty, healthy foods I can prepare, and how much better I feel when I don’t indulge). Like any addiction, it is a constant battle, but time and practice do make it easier. The more distance you get from it and the better you feel, the easier it is to see that stuff as poison. I hope this helps. – Christina, Sarah’s assistant

Hi, so I’m brand new to the Paleo lifestyle..just working my way in 🙂
My BIGGEST struggle is the sugar. Ive given up any and all sugar drinks about a month ago, and I consume about 100oz of water/day. (With an OCCASIONAL 8oz black coffee, here and there). That was hard but I feel GREAT now. I need more advice on snacking, though. I sit at a desk all day and am used to snacking on carbs and SUGARSSSS.
I try and eat fruit and veggies as much as possible, but they get boring so any other suggestions? Like I said, this will be a HUGE feat to overcome, but im ready!

Thanks ladies! ♡♡♡

I’ve been Paleo for about 4 months now due to leaky gut syndrome, IBS and some high FODMAP’s intolerances. I am almost fat-adapted even i would say.

Yesterday unfortunately i had a bit of a sugar “binge”: i ate about 9 regular Dutch cookies (gingersnaps and almond macaroons, my family isn’t Paleo so that’s why it’s in the house but never a problem for me) and 2 fresh baked Paleo lemon/poppyseed muffins, all within an hour.

I don’t know why, it started with just the one cookie while i was busy baking the muffins and i couldn’t stop. I felt terrible afterwards, a combination of guilt and physical unease.
Then overnight i developed acute and very painful cystitis for wich i just popped the first AB pill :-(.

I’m 100% sure the cystitis is caused by a sugar overdose.

Hard lesson.

As for why i started with a cookie in the first place: maybe because i was Paleo baking? I sort of feel maybe i should not do any kind of Paleo baking anymore? It just entices me to want it and eat it. Best to stick to raw chocolate.

I agree that sugar is addicting — I am a bona-fide addict myself, and I’ve been off sugar for quite some time. The only thing is — I really miss chocolate. How do you rationalize using high-quality bittersweet chocolate when you know there’s added sugar? Would you recommend staying away from chocolate for a certain amount of time until the cravings are more under control? Using unsweetened chocolate with a paleo sweetener like honey or molasses? I love your cookie recipes but I’ve yet to make them because of the added sugar in the chocolate components…

I love the paleo approach, and I have also found that through an amazing probiotic I take that getting my Candida under control has vastly changed my desire for sweets 😀

Every single cell in my body is calling soda. And I never have soda. I’m bound exhausted. I think I’ll have a glass of water and go to bed!

One other thing to mention – if you drink alcohol regularly, quit the alcohol first for at least 30 days, then work on eliminating sugar. You will crave more sugar while detoxing from the alcohol. Peppermint tea helps, I can drink gallons of it. When I have detoxed before I will ensure it is pretty sweet at first, then reduce the amount of sugar after the first week, etc…Good Luck everyone

HI! I, too battle with sugar addiction. I’m just curious since this is an older post, how are you with sugar now? Do you have it occasionally? Are you free from the addiction?

Please I need HELP! I am 8 months pregnant and have been trying to eat paleo for the last 2 years but I simply cant avoid eating sugar, especially ice cream and milk chocolate, whenever I see it. I feel terribly guilty because this last week its happening every day and I think this might be hurting the baby.
Apart form that my diet is healthy: zero gluten and legumes, no grains except for white rice twice a week, loads of venggies, starchy ones too including white potatoes, plenty of healthy fats and protein, and plenty of fruit too. I am afraid of going too low carb being pregnant… So I cant go cold turkey.
Please, any tips on managing this obsession so that I can at least garantee my baby a healthy nutrition during his last month in my womb and breastfeeding?

What you are saying is right in line with my journey right now. I’ve finally realized that this is an addiction for me not something I can just give up for a little while. I’m exploring overeaters anonymous and it is helpful in some ways. I’m still trying to figure out what beyond sugar I can and can’t eat and I know some real personal work need to happen so that I can deal with the things that make me want to go to sugar. Now, I’m finding it hard to eat so many veggies…good problem to have though.

This for the work you do, it is nice to see the science bear this all out as well.

2 weeks ago I started drinking 3 ltrs of water with cucumber and lemon in it a day. I no longer crave sugar or alcohol (I was a big biscuit and wine fiend) my question iOS there any scientific evidence that this water stops cravings?

Hi, Great article! The only thing that bothers me however is when you say artificial sweeteners make insulin spike… They do not! The reason is that the receptors on the beta cells of the pancreas (which release insulin, you probably know that…) are extremely specific to glucose. Artificial sweeteners are not the same molecule and hence they cannot stimulate the release of insulin (in theory, although some studies have found an effect with acesulfame K in rates or in vitro, which mechanism is still not known, but for other sweeteners it does not). Even fructose cannot stimulate insulin release! Additionally, even if your insulin was to increase, this would have the effect of DECREASING blood sugar, so it’s the opposite of what you said. I’m a MSc student in Nutrition so that’s why it struck me. As a PhD you should know you have to research everything you say from trustworthy sources because posting this online, unless you want to be part of the pseudoscience (aka anti-science) fitness freak crowd!

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