The New U.S. Dietary Guidelines recommend that Americans limit their sugar intake to no more than 10 percent of their calories. For a lot of people, this won’t be easy, especially for those who suffer from an addiction to sugar. Researchers are finding that this addiction really exists.
Neuroscientist Nicole Avena of the New York Obesity Research Center at Mount Sinai-St. Luke’s Hospital has seen it in her laboratory rats, who showed signs of dependence when exposed to sugar for only a few hours a day
“When animals get sugar, they’ll overeat,” she explains. “And they’ll show tolerance to it—they eat more and more each day, perhaps to feel the same euphoria.” (Dr. Avena writes a blog on addictive overeating at Psychology Today.)
If you take their 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,” Avena notes.
“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.”
Liz Gordon of Corpus Christi, Texas, knows firsthand about food addiction
“For a long time, I didn’t like the word addiction because it felt like it was a disease,” she says. But Gordon 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 in her mid-60s, 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 the telltale signs of addiction. And there are no established criteria that doctors can use to diagnose food addiction in their patients.
Gordon has turned her life around
The good news is that she has lost nearly 40 pounds. 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. (Peeke’s The Hunger Fix: The Three Stage Detox and Recovery Plan for Overeating and Food Addiction is published by Rodale.)
“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.”
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, exercising 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.” Meditation has also become essential for her.
And she has learned techniques to keep from sabotaging herself. “When I’m worn down and tired, that’s when the demons set in. But I get up in the morning and it’s a new day. I say, ‘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.”
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