Have you ever asked yourself, “am I addicted to sugar?”
“For a long time, I didn’t like the word addiction because it felt like it was a disease,” says Liz Gordon of Corpus Christi, Texas.
But she came to accept that her inability to resist sugar was more than just a sweet tooth. “It’s an obsession, a craving,” she explains.
“I really have to be mindful to stop myself. Because if I start, oh gosh, it’s going to be hard to stop.”
Gordon, now 60, never was an out-of-control binge eater. And she was never quite obese. “I was always 5 or 10 pounds overweight.”
But in her 50s, the weight started to pile on. “I was almost up to 170 pounds as a 5-foot, 4-inch woman,” she notes. At 175 pounds, she would have crossed the line from overweight to obese.
Sweets were always her downfall
“I remember my mother hid chocolate in the cupboard when I was young,” says Gordon. “I remember enjoying it so much and wishing I could eat it like everyone else and not overdo it.”
But it was a constant battle. “For the moment it tastes good, and then afterwards, it’s like ‘Ugh…why did I do that?’ I’m not so addicted that I would go on a three-day binge. But I would get so discouraged and feel so defeated that I’d start to self-sabotage. I’d think, ‘Oh, forget it. Obviously, I can’t control this.’”
It’s not clear if a brain scan would show that Gordon has fewer dopamine receptors—a telltale sign of addiction. And there are no established criteria that doctors can use to diagnose food addiction in their patients.
In any case, she has turned things around. “I’ve lost 38 pounds in the last five years.” Gordon credits much of her success to Pamela Peeke, an assistant clinical professor of medicine at the University of Maryland School of Medicine who runs the Peeke Performance Center for Healthy Living.
“It was helpful for me when Dr. Peeke said that there’s something called a sugar addiction,” says Gordon. “That validation is extremely important. It isn’t something that I can just control and it will go away. That’s how I’m wired. I’d like to say that someday I won’t have to work at this. Well, no, it’s never going to be like that.”
Peeke’s program consists of what she calls the three M’s—mind, mouth, and muscle. “I still do Weight Watchers online,” says Gordon. “That’s been my form of structural dieting.”
She doesn’t avoid sugar completely. “I can’t,” she says. “I’ve tried. It’s not possible because sugar is in so many foods. I try for moderation. I say, ‘Oh, I’ll just have one bite’ or ‘Oh, I won’t keep ice cream in the house so I’ll have to go out to get it.’”
But now she plans ahead
“If I’m going out for the day, doing errands or going to the gym, I’ll bring fruit or other snacks with me. If I don’t consistently eat meals and some sort of protein snack in between, that’s when I give in to a craving. I think, ‘Darn, I’m in the store. I’ll just get that bag of licorice.’” Fortunately, the “muscle” part comes easy for her. “I’ve always exercised. And I’ve gotten more into working out harder. Spinning class has been very successful. I feel good afterwards. I feel more in control, and now I can go about my life.”
Peeke counsels her once or twice a month by phone. “It’s having a person who reminds you to be mindful, vigilant, and accepting,” says Gordon. “Meditation has also become essential.”
And she has learned techniques to keep from sabotaging herself. “Last night, I was stressed about our upcoming move to Kansas. So what did I have for dessert? A fudge brownie sundae. When I’m worn down and tired, that’s when the demons set in. But I got up today and it’s a new day. I said, ‘Okay. Don’t go down the slippery slope.’”
Sometimes she passes up social events. “I say, ‘If I go to that party, I’m going to eat whatever I want.’ My husband says, ‘Just go and don’t do it. Why the drama?’ That’s because I don’t look like a person who has a problem. But I do.”
“Denial takes a lot of mental energy,” says Gordon. “I spent years thinking, ‘I don’t think I ate that much candy or dessert or whatever. How can I be gaining weight?’ Who was I trying to fool?”
Those days are over, she adds. “You feel a freedom when you’re not battling with yourself.”
A lab test on sugar addiction
Working with the late Bart Hoebel of Princeton University, Nicole Avena found that rats showed signs of dependence when exposed to sugar for only a few hours a day.
“When animals get sugar, they’ll over-eat,” she explains. “And they’ll show tolerance to it—they eat more and more each day, perhaps to feel the same euphoria.”
“If we take the sugar away, they’ll show signs of withdrawal—anxiety, tremors, and shakes,” she adds. “And they’ll show evidence of craving for the sugar. They’re willing to work harder to get at sugar, and they show behaviors to suggest that they’re seeking the sugar.”
They also end up with fewer receptors for dopamine and opioids. “With sugar, there’s neurochemical and behavioral evidence of dependence,” says Avena. “And the changes are similar to what you’d expect to see if the animals were dependent on drugs of abuse, not just eating a tasty food.”
Sources: Physiol. Behav. 104: 87, 2011. Neurosci. Biobehav. Rev. 32: 20, 2008.