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. I can teach how you to stop bingeing on or compulsively eating sugar. But the answer may not be what you think. I explain more below.
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 – 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 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 this relational approach, and with your understanding that sugar is an emotional bond, meeting needs for comfort, connection, and soothing, you also have a different approach to healing - especially in how you relate to cravings.
Our typical approach - once we've recognized that sugar’s a problem - is to try and use control to change. You may try to control your cravings, emotions, thoughts, your environment, your diet, your relationships, other people and more – everything in your inner and outer experience that could potentially trigger your desire for sugar.
When this doesn’t work, you may simply try harder.
But this doesn’t work, it doesn’t heal your relationship with sugar, and leads to frustration, discouragement, and despair. You may 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. To do this, you need to do counterintuitive, radical things like turn towards your cravings and feel your sugar cravings more, not less. Read more about healing sugar cravings without will power here.
To learn more about understanding the pain that drives addiction - and why will power is not the answer - watch this video by addiction expert Dr. Gabor Maté.
Sugar cravings are opportunities to connect
Sugar cravings do not have to be something to be feared: they are powerful opportunities for connection and intimacy. They're how you open to the full range of human experiences and human emotions, and how you deepen your relationship with yourself. They are prime opportunities for healing.
They also connect you to others: for everyone feels the pull of craving, longing, yearning, and desire. Who knew that feeling your cravings could connect you to the greater human family, to our shared humanity.
Rather than fearing cravings, or feeling as if you should control them, I invite you to open to them. Imagine them as a small child, asking for a kind, caring attention. Often, what makes cravings so intense is our resistance to feeling them. This resistance arises as shame and self blame - feelings of guilt that the cravings arise at all.
Resistance also builds as emotional and physical tension - which is highly uncomfortable, and ironically, may compound your sugar cravings. Paradoxically, by feeling your cravings, they soften, release and move, like flowing water. Feeling your sugar cravings is how you drain this build up of tension and emotional energy behind a craving. Go to this helpful page to learn more about softening and working with sugar cravings.
What to do when you're craving sugar
There are some simple, helpful tools that can support and empower you in the heat of the moment, when you're craving sugar. Try them when you're driving home, tempted to swing by the drive through for a treat, or when you're staring at the fridge, feeling an insatiable desire for ice cream:
- Use the Damage Control Tool - If your cravings are at a level 10 intensity, try the Damage Control tool 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.
- Want to learn more about healing cravings? To get more help in working with 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 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.) Feeling supported is much more effective than trying to tough it out by yourself.
Wanting more hands on help?
If you’re wanting to learn more about the why and how of sugar and its potential to be addictive, other experts can explain both the physiological impact of eating sugar and how to support your physical body when healing a sugar addiction. It’s a good place to start if you’re wanting to understand this aspect of healing, as it's not my area of expertise.
- Learn more – a helpful reading list for sugar addiction.
If you want to move to the how – how you move from knowledge into action, into changing your relationship with sugar – 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 trying to control cravings, control your desire for sugar, or manage your behavior, my approach offers support for transformation, how to change your relationship with sugar. If you want to know what this looks like in daily life - and how a change in relationship changes how you eat - read this story about how to say no to sugar when under stress.
Sugar addiction reading suggestions
If you want to learn more about my approach to see if it’s a good fit for you, try these blog posts on growinghumankindness.com on healing a sugar habit:
Sugar addiction videos
- How to tame your sugar binge devil