Sugar Fairy’s Last Stand: Wrestling with Sugar Addiction

donuts, pile of donuts
Is your sweet tooth out of control? (photo © Juliet Jarmosco 2015)

The story goes (as my mother tells it) that when I was two years old, I would wake up in the middle of the night, inconsolable and impossible to get back to sleep without a glass of “pete duice.” Eventually my mother figured out that I was waking up specifically to get that nightly ration of peach juice, and she began bringing me water instead.

Ten years later, I was back at it, only this time I was sneaking downstairs in the middle of the night to snitch cans of Mountain Dew from the pantry. My mother caught on to that, too, and the stash of pop promptly disappeared.

You can only imagine the complete joy and freedom I felt when I got to college and discovered I had unlimited access to the cafeteria soda fountains. For the first time ever I had a constant supply of sugar. I started going to sleep with a glass of pop on my night stand. Those were the days!

The Rise of the Sugar Fairy

Then I married a man who’s always reading and tucking away useful bits of knowledge. In 2002, he brought home the first article on what eating sugar does for your health, how it (and its alter ego, high-fructose corn syrup) rack up the calories and cause obesity and insulin resistance. More articles followed, studies linking the consumption of sugar to moodiness, diabetes, inflammation, cancer, and heart disease—an endless list.

For the sake of domestic bliss, I made half-hearted attempts to cut back, such as putting my can of pop on the other side of the house. The idea was that if the pop was out of reach, I would drink less. Instead, I got more exercise as I continuously went back for another sip. “You’re a sugar fairy,” my husband told me one day after watching me flit back and forth between the couch and the kitchen table. That’s when the first articles on sugar addiction started showing up on our coffee table.

The Beginning Battle

Eventually I folded beneath the onslaught of data and conceded that the sugar had to go. I still remember my first real attempt to quit sugar, and I’m pretty sure my husband remembers it, too—tears, headaches, restlessness, and cravings for days. It wasn’t just pop and cupcakes that had to go. Processed grains such as white bread, crackers, and pastas, and white potato products, including baked potatoes, chips, and fries, act just like sugar when they hit the blood stream. And then there were all the foods with hidden sugars, such as packaged tomato sauces, condiments, and salad dressings. I didn’t even know what to eat, so I ate very little. I was depressed, angry, hungry, and physically hurting. It was the worst. I made it for a while, only to eventually give up and go back to sugar once again.

The Addictive Powers of Sugar

I’ll admit, sugar and I have an on-again, off-again relationship. I count it as progress, however, that now it’s more off than on. For me and others like me, quitting sugar is an epic feat. It’s not just that sugar was a large part of my formative life—evidence is coming out that sugar really is addictive. Scientific studies are finding that sugar releases opioids and dopamine in the brain, mimicking the classic effects of other substances of abuse. Quitting sugar also produces signs of withdrawal that seem to be due to opioid modifications—essentially, quitting sugar involves a stage of withdrawal similar to that of opioid withdrawal. As one group of authors put it (N. M. Avena, P. Rada, and B. G. Hoebel, “Evidence for Sugar Addiction), “The overall effect . . . is mild but well-defined dependency.”

The Final War

So what are we to do in the face of all this? Persevere. The sugar fairy and I have been battling for years, and I’ve learned some really useful things along the way. For me, it’s easier to quit sugar cold turkey. The crashes are inevitable but bearable now that I know to expect them. Also, the sugarless state is a pretty amazing place to be. I know that if I can just get there, the cravings will go away and I’ll be able to look at sugar again without eating it. I’ll feel even-keeled and clear-headed. My energy levels will go up and stay up. My workouts will be better and my days will be more productive. My palate will be sharper and the world will be a more vibrant place to live.

It helps to know that this other world is waiting, if I can just skip the sugar long enough to get there. I’ve learned that I need to respect sugar’s addictive powers, and treat getting off sugar as a real project. I write out the goal and the reasons for getting to the goal. Then I set aside time to plan my food intake and cook. I list things I can do to distract myself whenever sugar cravings hit. And then I write, in advance, little pep talks I can give myself in times of trouble. Although sometimes I feel silly resorting to such measures, I’m not above doing what it takes to send the sugar fairy packing.

Don’t be too hard on yourself if you fall off the wagon. You’re human. It’s not the end of the world. Instead of crying over eaten sugar, make immediate plans to get right back at it!

Helpful Tricks for Quitting

•       Never quit on a Friday. Or on a holiday. Or when a big work project is due.

•       Purge your house of sugar.

•       If you’re used to drinking your sugar (as pop or sugary teas), replace it with a green or herbal tea. Likewise, if you’re used to eating your sugar, have a backup food you can eat. Mine is cashews.

•       If you use sugar as a personal reward, find something else equally rewarding.

•       Drink lots of water and eat lots of protein. These will help keep your stomach full and your blood sugar levels even.

•       Work out.

•       Plan what you will eat and set aside time to cook your food.

•       Be aware of your sugar-bingeing triggers and have a plan for what you will do when facing them. I chew gum.

•       Write out your reasons for quitting and read them repeatedly.