How to heal what drives you to seek out sugar for stress, relief, pleasure, and self soothing
Are you addicted to sugar? Do you find it impossible to stop eating it once you start? Do you crave 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.”
A sugar addiction can lead to health problems as well as the emotional and psychological 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 bulimia, binge eating disorder, body dysmorphia, and sugar addiction.
There’s hope: there is a way out.
It all starts with relationship: change how you relate to change how you respond
The first step to healing: how do you relate to sugar?
It’s human nature to avoid looking at things that are difficult or painful. If you feel guilty or ashamed for struggling with sugar, it can make it hard for you to seek help or to admit that sugar is controlling you.
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 suffering. And yet to do that without getting bogged down by 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 or viewing it as a personal or moral failure, I invite you to tend and befriend – to take up a relationship with it. By creating a compassionate relationship with yourself, you can paradoxically say no to the impulse to sugar binge.
Why you need to explore both the emotional and physiological aspects of sugar
There's a lot of acknowledgment today about how sugar affects you on a physiological level.
Kathleen des Maisons was one of the first people to say that sugar can be addictive. 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 exploring how things like mineral 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 can be a physiological component to a sugar addiction.
Yes but how?
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 may need to stop eating sugar or reduce how much you’re eating.
There are many good folks who focus on the nutritional aspect of healing a sugar addiction - what to eat, sugar free recipes, how to clean up your diet or do a sugar detox, and more. I invite you to explore their work. If you want to know what I eat, here are some examples of meals from my own dinner table.
Healing your emotional relationship with sugar builds strength and resilience
Healing your emotional relationship with sugar
Healing the emotional component of your relationship with sugar is what supports change "up on the surface" in your daily life - new behaviors, habits and changes in what and how you eat, including sugar.
It also supports a different response - new ways of responding and relating to sugar cravings, the urge to binge, emotional longings for sugar, and more. Through sugar, you're growing your emotional tolerance: your ability to feel, integrate and temper a wide range of emotions.
This emotional development is how you move from both poles of a sugar obsession - bingeing, sugar addiction and overconsumption on the one hand; and fear, avoidance, and obsession with never eating sugar on the other - into the middle, nurturing a conscious, peaceful, and mindful relationship with sugar.
Here's why the emotional work is so important: while sugar can be addictive, and addressing any physiological issues can help provide relief, it's also important to ask: why am I seeking out sugar in the first place? Why is sugar my go to for stress relief, comfort, pleasure and soothing?
If you only address the physiological component of your sugar addiction, it can be a way of subtly avoiding the emotional healing. Don't be afraid of feeling, of walking through the journey of emotional healing: for it's where the power is. It's how you unwind what's driving you to seek out sugar in the first place and how you build the inner resilience of knowing: I can handle life's slings and arrows without relying on sugar.
This is called "the heart that's ready for anything." As my mentor in developmental psychology, Vancouver psychologist Dr. Gordon Neufeld says, "The essence of self esteem is, 'Come what may, I can handle it.'" And that is exactly what you develop through the emotional healing process.
When sugar is an emotional bond
A sugar addiction is not merely a "bad habit," compulsion, or a response to brain chemistry.
It's an emotional bond. When you're emotionally bonded to sugar, sugar is your primary relationship: where you turn for stress relief, comfort, soothing, and pleasure. It's how you manage stress, care for painful emotions, numb out overwhelming emotional pain, and feel safe and secure.
What an emotional bond with sugar looks like
You may wonder, how can I tell if I'm emotionally bonded to sugar? Here are some signs:
- When you're feeling stressed, pressured or overwhelmed, is sugar your primary source of relaxation and stress relief?
- Do you feel anxious when you're separated from sugar, when you're not eating it? Does the thought of not eating sugar or having access to sugar (like going on a sugar detox or not eating sugar for some time) fill you with anxiety or panic?
- Do you eat sugar when you're feeling scared or trying something new? Does eating sugar help you feel safe, calm and relaxed?
- Do you think of sugar as your mother or best friend?
- Do you eagerly look forward to being reconnected with sugar after you haven't eaten it for a while?
To learn more, watch this video below to see a talk I gave at Paleo f(x) about the emotional bonding power of sugar:
How an emotional bond with sugar develops
Seeking out sugar is an attempt to feel safe in the presence of discomfort or overwhelming emotional pain. The safety is found in the sugar itself – the chocolate, brownies, or ice cream. Eating the sugar brings relief from pain and arouses feelings of warmth and connection, which is why you return it again and again.
There is often trauma, isolation, or some form of loss underneath this pull for sugar - either in the past, or in the present. I talk to many people who speak of painful times in their lives - a death of a parent, child or spouse, divorce, bankruptcy, financial loss, and more - as a time when their "love" for sugar began or developed.
In the face of loss and pain, the sugar becomes a "home," a secure base.
Over time, you may become bonded to the sugar – what you turn to repeatedly in order to feel safe, soothed, and secure. In psychological terms, the sugar is a secure attachment – an emotional bond.
There is hope - the emotional bond with sugar can be healed.
You heal this emotional bond with sugar through connection, compassion, and imagination. The bond with sugar needs to be grieved so that it can be let go. And you replace the bond with sugar with other, deeper bonds, with true refuge – loving relationship with yourself, with Life, and with others.
The answer to addiction is connection, not sobriety.
These relationships grow to replace the emotional attachment to sugar, and become your secure base. You're not cutting out the sugar as much as you're outgrowing it: replacing it with more nourishing sources of connection, comfort, and care.
As Johann Hari, the author of Chasing the Scream, says, "The answer to addiction is not sobriety, it's connection." Watch this video below, a TED talk by Johann Hari, to learn why connection is so important to healing addiction.
Why will power is not the answer
With the understanding that sugar is an attempt to meet our physical, relational, or emotional needs, we have a different approach to healing - especially in how we relate to cravings.
When we feel overwhelmed and our behavior feels out of control, we often try to gain control. We try to implement structure or use will power to change. We may try to control our cravings, emotions, thoughts, environment, diet, relationships, meal times, and more – everything in our inner and outer experience that could potentially trigger a desire for sugar.
When this doesn’t work, we often try harder.
But when our attempts to 'fix' our sugar habits don't work, we often feel more and more helpless with sugar as our “will power” gives in. We can feel discouraged, frustrated, ashamed, and can criticize or attack ourselves.
There’s a way to unwind the drive for sugar. But it's not through control. To unwind the drive for sugar, we build counterintuitive skills like turning towards our cravings, feeling, caring and supporting them in real time, in the body.
To learn more about understanding the pain that drives our compulsive habits - and why will power is not the answer - watch this video by addiction expert Dr. Gabor Maté.
Sugar cravings are opportunities to connect
Our cravings and hooks - all the ways we feel driven to soothe with sugar, or to soothe ourselves in other ways - are often things we fear and things we try to control or minimize.
But from a relational perspective, cravings don't have to be something to be feared. While they can be uncomfortable and vulnerable, and while we may need support to care for them, they're also powerful opportunities for connection and intimacy. They're one way we deepen our relationship with ourselves.
Every time we feel the tug of overwhelm or anxiety and feel the craving to eat, we have the opportunity to bring empathy, warmth and care to these overwhelmed placed within us. A second at a time, we practice staying with the abandoned parts of ourselves.
Cravings also connect us to others, for everyone has experienced anxiety, overwhelm, or pain at some point in their lives. And everyone has their own strategies and ways they try to soothe that anxiety when it overwhelms their inner resources.
Cravings can become another doorway to self compassion, something that connects us to our shared humanity. Every time we bring kindness towards the overwhelmed parts of our being and to our painful experiences, we bring kindness to our collective experience of suffering.
Rather than fearing cravings, or feeling as if we should control them, we gently, second by second, begin to open to them. You can imagine them as a small child, asking for a kind, caring attention. Often, what intensifies cravings is our attempt to push them away, to numb their presence. Sometimes we feel shame and self blame - guilty that cravings are arising in the first place. This is especially true if we're conscientious or sensitive: we may think that we 'should be over our cravings already.'
I find it helpful to trust that our cravings, like the waves in an ocean, have wisdom. We may not know why cravings are arising, but there's a reason, some movement or awakening in our nervous and sensory systems, underneath. It's hard to welcome these waves because we feel badly that we haven't 'managed the cravings better.'
Asking ourselves these questions:
What if the craving isn't proof that there's anything wrong?
What if there's room for this craving to be here?
What if I can meet this craving with gentleness?
can help soften the anxiety about 'failing,' and help us take a more neutral attitude towards the inner parts that long for sugar.
When we resist or try to suppress our feelings and cravings, it builds as emotional and physical tension in the body. This tension is uncomfortable, and ironically, can compound cravings, making them more intense. It's a bit of a paradox, but by feeling our cravings, they soften, release and move, like flowing water.
Feeling sugar cravings is how we drain this build up of tension and soften the emotional energy behind a craving. To learn more about softening and working with sugar cravings, you can try this page here.
What to do when you're craving sugar
Sugar cravings can be tough, emotionally, physically and spiritually.
There are some simple, helpful tools that can help you when you're craving sugar. These tools help by softening stress and replacing a felt sense of isolation and overwhelm with a feeling of support and empathy.
One of the most helpful ways we can support ourselves when we're craving sugar is to reach out to another person - a friend, room mate, partner, sponsor, healer, or listening partner (see below). As teacher and therapist Bonnie Badenoch reminds us, our brains are built for co-regulation: it's much easier for the brain to soften stress with other person rather than trying to manage stress on our own.
- Use the Damage Control Tool - This is my favorite tool to use when cravings are really intense, say at a level 8, 9 or 10 on a scale of 1-10. This tool is from EBT, Emotional Brain Training.
- "Rock your cravings to sleep" - When you rock a baby, you're soothing and holding the infant when it's in a distressed state. Your comfort and warm presence soothes the baby, bringing its nervous system to rest. When you rock your cravings, you're doing the same thing - it's an emotional practice of “holding” or containing your emotions with a warm, attuned, compassionate presence. This containing allows them to be witnessed, to be felt, and then to drain and move. Learn how to do this practice here.
- Try meditation - Meditation and any mindful activity can greatly help in creating a greater capacity to sit with intense feelings (like wanting to binge on sugar) without acting on them. Tara Brach is my favorite teacher on this topic, although there are many, many more and from many spiritual traditions, like Centering Prayer.
- Use a listening partner and schedule a listening session - Listening partnerships are an idea from Hand in Hand Parenting. Designed for parents, where parents take turn listening to each other in order to receive emotional support for parenting, they're also an excellent tool for softening sugar cravings. It's another way to soften the build up of emotion that feeds a sugar craving. Learn more about listening partnerships here.
- To learn more about caring for cravings, explore this page here.
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 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.) Feeling supported is much more effective than trying to tough it out by yourself.
Wanting more hands on help?
If you want to learn more about what to eat, how sugar can be addictive, and how sugar impacts your body physiologically, you may like this helpful reading list for sugar addiction. It’s a good place to start if you’re wanting nutritional support, as it's not my area of expertise.
If you want help in changing your relationship with sugar, you may like what I offer here at growinghumankindness.com. You can try these articles to see if my approach is the right fit for you. I also offer a free video course that you can sign up for below.