Are you addicted to sugar? Do you find it impossible to stop eating it once you start? Do you crave bread and sweets?
If you answered yes to these questions, you may be someone who’s “sugar sensitive.” Kathleen des Maisons, the author of Potatoes not Prozac, coined the term “sugar sensitive” to describe someone whose body has a strong reaction to sugar and sweetened foods – even foods made with alternative sweeteners like honey or maple syrup.
If you’re sugar sensitive and use sugar to self soothe, to care for stress, or to numb out, your sugar habit can turn into a full blown addiction, where you can’t say no, are plagued by painful sugar cravings, are obsessed with sugar, and eat more and more sugar to get your “fix.”
My sugar story: what I learned
This can lead to health problems as well as the emotional pain of living with an addiction. This was my experience. I’m Karly Randolph Pitman, the founder of growinghumankindness.com, and I struggled with over 20 years of eating disorders, including a food and sugar addiction.
My friend, there’s hope: there is a way out. I can teach how you to stop bingeing or compulsively eating sugar. But the answer may not be what you think. I explain more below, in the top four things you need to know to heal a sugar addiction:
1. It’s not your fault that you struggle with sugar.
It’s human nature to want to avoid looking at things that are difficult or painful – of course. If you feel guilty or shamed for struggling with sugar, it can make it hard for you to seek help or to admit that you have a hard time saying no.
This is where self compassion can be helpful. To change your relationship with sugar, you first have to be willing to see that it’s causing you pain or suffering. And yet to do that without getting bogged down with feelings of guilt or excessive shame means you have to see the sugar bingeing through compassionate eyes – with kindness, openness, and curiosity, rather than judgment, self blame, and shame.
Rather than fighting against your addiction, I invite you to tend and befriend – to take up a relationship with the part of you that craves sugar. By creating a loving, forgiving relationship with yourself, you paradoxically find the ability to say no to the impulse to sugar binge.
2. Sugar addiction has both an emotional and a physiological component. You need to address both to heal.
Kathleen des Maisons was one of the first people to say that sugar can be addictive – and that some people are more biologically susceptible to sugar’s siren call. In the past five years, more and more research points to the fact that sugar can be as addictive as cocaine.
There are other doctors who are doing research on how things like mineral and vitamin imbalances, candida overgrowth, the health of the gut and hormonal imbalances can lead to sugar cravings and feed a sugar addiction. So, yes, the science is there: there’s absolutely a physiological component to a sugar addiction.
But that knowledge doesn’t necessarily translate into action, into the ability to stop eating sugar. To heal your brain, your body, and your gut – the physiological component – of a sugar addiction, you probably need to stop eating sugar or drastically reduce how much you’re eating. Gulp. No more ice cream? Candy? Soda?
But because of your sugar addiction, it can be really hard to stop eating it! Here’s why: it’s not just a physiological addiction. If you’re addicted to sugar, there’s also an emotional component. You’re craving and overindulging in sugar for a reason – you may be eating sugar to care for your emotions, to numb pain, to manage stress, or to care for your emotional, psychological or relational needs.
It’s by healing the emotional component of your sugar addiction that you’re able to say no to sugar, make changes in what and how you eat, and follow through on all the things that foster your physiological healing. This is a key point that those who focus on the physiological component of sugar addiction can miss.
3. You don’t heal a sugar addiction with will power.
Once you recognize that the sugar’s a problem, most people try to use control to change. They try to control their cravings, control their emotions, control their thoughts, their environment, their diet, their relationships, other people and more – everything in their inner and outer experience that could potentially send them to sugar.
When this doesn’t work, they simply try harder. And harder.
But this doesn’t work, it doesn’t heal your relationship with sugar, and leads to frustration, discouragement, and despair. You begin to feel more and more helpless with sugar as your “will power” gives in.
Control is not the core issue with sugar and is not the solution.
There’s a way to unwind the drive for sugar – but it’s not found through control or will power. It’s found through healing the drive for sugar in the first place. To do this, you need to do counterintuitive, radical things like turn towards your cravings and feel your sugar cravings more, not less. It’s this emotional healing that unwinds the drive for sugar. Read more about healing sugar cravings without will power.
4. You need to feel the futility that the sugar doesn’t work.
You don’t stop eating sugar through will power, nutritional knowledge or by shaping your behavior through punishments and rewards. You change through the maturation process itself – through the emotional brain. (Learn more about this developmental process here.) In order to stop any compulsive habit, you need to feel the futility that the compulsion doesn’t work.
No matter how much sugar you eat, it doesn’t work. It doesn’t bring you the rest, stress relief, love, or relief that you seek. Sure, it may work for a few minutes. It may numb the pain temporarily or soothe the stress for a few minutes. But it doesn’t bring lasting relief, and bingeing on sugar can harm your body, mind and heart.
It’s by feeling the futility that the sugar doesn’t work that you’re able to adapt and stop doing the same thing over and over and seek other ways to reduce stress, self soothe, and care for your emotions without turning to sugar.
This is how you do things like:
- Eat more whole foods without resistance
- Soften the inner rebel, feelings of “you can’t make me” or “I don’t want to”
- Love the foods that love you back
- Reduce or eliminate the amount of sugar you’re eating
Healing a sugar addiction: what to do first
So where do you begin? It’s easy to get overwhelmed when you’re trying to understand what drives a sugar addiction or understand how to eat less of it. I invite you to look at it as a journey and a process, not something you have to figure out all at once.
1. Start by just observing yourself. Keep a food diary and track how much sugar you’re eating. How do you feel after you eat sugar? What triggers a sugar binge? With this awareness, step back and examine your patterns. Does one bite lead to a desire for more and more?
2. Add self care. If you decide you want to transition into a low or no sugar diet, give yourself a supportive physical foundation. This includes adding regular, rhythmic self care to your life like:
- Eating breakfast every morning
- Including fat and protein in your meals
- Eating regular meals (This is very calming and reassuring to the body.)
- Drinking more water and less juice, sodas, and more
- Creating a nourishing bedtime routine where you’re regularly getting 7 + hours of sleep a night
Where many people get stuck is they try to give up sugar without building this physiological foundation first.
3. Plan for where you get stuck. If you know that despite your best intentions, you eat 3 candy bars every afternoon, or you gorge on ice cream most weekends, plan for it. Be gently honest with yourself and accept that this is where you are right now.
This acceptance is powerful because it accepts the truth of your situation, rather than how you’d like it to be. Once you acknowledge where you get stuck, you can bring in support to help you shift your behavior. This may mean creating a ritual, something you do at 4 p.m. besides eating candy bars. The power of a ritual is that its momentum moves you through tricky times when you tend to rely on sugar. If low blood sugar drives your cravings, you may prepare a non-sugar snack to eat during this time.
One of the best ways to get support is other people: you don’t have to do this on your own. If you gorge on ice cream on Saturday nights, tell a loved one. Let them be by your side and ride the wave of craving with you, giving you warmth and comfort instead of the sugar. I know: to be this honest takes vulnerability, and yet it’s the #1 thing I recommend when people are struggling with sugar addiction. (Dr. Stan Tatkin talks beautifully about how to do this in his book, Wired for Love.) It’s much more effective than trying to tough it out by yourself.
Wanting hands on help?
If you’re wanting to learn more about why and how sugar is addictive, other books and experts go a good job of explaining this component of healing a sugar addiction. It’s a good place to start if you’re wanting to understand the why.
- Learn more – a helpful reading list for sugar addiction.
If you want to move to the how – how you move from knowledge into action – this is what I do best. What makes my work unique is that I offer something above and beyond behavior management or habit change. Rather than controlling the sugar seeking behavior, my approach can help you transform, outgrowing your need for sugar in the first place. (If you want to know what this looks like in daily life, read about how I say no to sugar when under stress.)
- If you’re serious about giving up sugar and wanting to begin, you may enjoy this free audio on navigating the sugar detox phase.
Sugar addiction reading suggestions
If you’re not there yet, that’s okay too. You may want to learn more about my approach and see if it’s a good fit for you. You may enjoy these blog posts on growinghumankindness.com on healing a sugar habit:
- How to eat less sugar without will power or white knuckling it
- How to strengthen the inner voice to say no to sugar
- Why you need to feel sugar cravings more, not less
- 10 tips to help you become sugar free
- 4 crucial needs to stop sugar bingeing
Sugar addiction videos
- How to tame your sugar binge devil
Audio message from Karly: A guide for where to begin…
Overcoming Sugar Addiction
book by author
Karly Randolph Pitman
What do I do when I’m craving sugar?
When you’re feeling the urge to binge, there are some things you can do in the heat of the moment so you can walk away from the sugar. Here’s a few helpful tools:
- Turn towards your sugar cravings and soften them. (I know this sounds counterintuitive, but it works.)
- Contact me for the free Binge Rescue worksheet. This is a map for using self compassion to care for your feelings instead of soothing them in food.
- Try the damage control tool – it’s a helpful tool when you feel overwhelmed or flooded by cravings.
- Use self compassion to rock your cravings to sleep.
- Tell a trusted loved one and let them help you regulate your emotions, as I describe above.