Sugar Addiction: A Nation In Need Of Rehab

By Guest Blogger   |  28Comments|

Imagine how American society would function if drug dealers pumped 150 to 175 pounds of heroin per person per year into the veins of the elderly, the middle-aged and the young alike. Legally.

Well, sugar, an addictive substance that speeds along the same brain pathways as heroin, enters the food supply in those quantities. The result of this sugar surge is that more than one in three adults now has either Type 2 diabetes or its harbinger, pre-diabetes. Include those under age 18, and 105 million Americans are harboring a life-threatening blood-sugar disorder.

As with any addiction, the sugar situation will only worsen barring drastic intervention and widespread lifestyle changes. Consuming too much sweet stuff is lighter fluid for Type 2 diabetes, and U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that by 2050, the disease, in its full form, will inhabit as many as one in three U.S. adults. Add in the far more numerous pre-diabetics, and you may be hard-pressed to find anyone with healthy glucose metabolism by the middle of the 21st century.

Many of these blood-sugar cripples won’t be capable societal contributors. They may be little more than sugar smack-heads. They’ll bankrupt our healthcare system with their chronic fatigue, dialysis treatments, amputations and the numerous other diabetic complications. A society with such an overwhelmingly diabetic population will no longer be viable economically, a much scarier prospect than that predicted in the dystopian novel, “Brave New World”, where addicts merely crave the comparatively less harmful Soma and then go do their assigned tasks.

Most Americans keep right on eating and drinking boatloads of sugar because, after all, they’re sugar junkies. I witnessed this phenomenon when I saw my father for the first time in 20 years in early 2008. He was lying in a hospital bed looking nearly cadaverous. His entire right leg had been amputated; his teeth had disintegrated amidst swollen gums. Despite this wretched condition, his mood brightened only when orderlies wheeled in a meal of mashed potatoes (along with chicken) and fruit, both of which quickly convert to glucose in the bloodstream. His fix had arrived. He was dying of diabetes, and yet his “caretakers” were still pumping him full of diabetes-friendly carbohydrates.

What’s more, my father openly longed for the bottle of root beer that was stashed away in a cabinet across the room, a scene I describe in “Sugar Nation”: He still indulged this diabetic’s poison even knowing that too much sugar cost him part of his body. This scene reminded me of a drug addict who has seen his life destroyed by the substance he can’t refuse. Only the worse off he becomes, the lousier he feels, the more he craves the very thing that sentenced him to this hell on earth.

How can the white stuff that kids and adults alike sprinkle on their cereal have this narcotizing power? Researchers at Princeton University have studied the effects of sugar on the brain chemistry of rats, and what they’ve found is that their subjects exhibit all the effects of heroin addiction. Sugar does this by triggering the release of the feel-good brain chemical dopamine in the section of the brain normally associated with addictive behaviors. The dopamine release produces a drug-like “high.” Yet the brain adapts. So it takes more of the substance—in this case, sugar—to produce the same effect.

According to lead researcher and Princeton psychologist, Bart Hoebel, PhD, “Our evidence from an animal model suggests that bingeing on sugar can act in the brain in ways very similar to drugs of abuse.”

Lessening the sugar stimulation only makes the body want more dopamine. Remove the substance altogether, and the sugar abuser experiences physical and psychological withdrawal symptoms. The body is addicted. Twinkies aren’t classified as a controlled substance, but for the glucose intolerant, perhaps they should be.

But there’s more to it in the case of my father and the rest of us who have reactive hypoglycemia, an underreported pre-diabetic condition in which blood sugar spikes in response to a heavy carb load. Then the pancreas overreacts by secreting too much insulin, too late, like an over-eager rookie cop coming across a crime scene after the fact. This insulin response drives blood sugar below 70 milligrams per deciliter, making your body crave quick-energy sugar not just for pleasure but also for survival. At this point, it’s not just your brain that’s craving glucose; cells throughout your body demand it, too.

I’d challenge anyone to find a drug whose effects are more powerful than a blood sugar drop from 160 to 50 in half an hour—the scale of my descent on a glucose tolerance test when I learned that I was pre-diabetic. Before I learned to avoid the sugar trigger, fatigue didn’t set in gradually; it hit with a whoosh. I felt as though I’d been shot by a tranquilizer capable of taking down an elephant in the wild. I’ve never taken narcotics recreationally, but I have used Vicodin after surgeries, and the feeling of that drug reminded me of a carb-induced blood-sugar crash. If that prescription pain med came in the form of a jelly doughnut, rather than a pill, you’d have some idea of the hold sugar had on me during childhood and throughout much of my adult life.

The good news is that there are simple rehab solutions to sugar addiction. I know, based on personal experience. Breaking the cycle means avoiding crashes. To do this, you need to eat protein, healthy fats, and fibrous vegetables for breakfast, a meal normally stocked with simple sugars and other fast-acting carbohydrates. Know the code names that are used to disguise sugar on food labels: dextrose/maltodextrin, fructose, fruit juice concentrate, glucose, high fructose corn syrup, honey, maple syrup, molasses, sucrose and xylose. Avoid the foods whose packages list them. Better yet, switch from packaged to whole foods. Exercise daily, which not only helps usher sugar out of your bloodstream, but also produces good-vibe brain chemicals of its own, called endorphins.

So, we can change our fate. We know what to do to prevent this epidemic that will cripple us as individuals and as a society. But the question is: Will we take action before it’s too late?

Jeff O’Connell is the editor-in-chief of Bodybuilding.com and the author of “Sugar Nation” (Hyperion, 2011).

Photo credit: Dave Hoffman

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28 responses to Sugar Addiction: A Nation In Need Of Rehab
  1. You present a good, solid argument for sugar addiction, however in this economy people can’t afford fresh foods. I live in Appalachia where Mountain Dew has caused three generations of dental and diabetic catastrophe. The problem is that things like potatoes, beans and frozen pot pies are cheap and filling. People have no teeth, or ones that are weak and breaking. Don’t get me wrong I fully endorse a healthy diet and have done so for three decades in my writing and lifestyle. Being newly disabled with cancer and a host of other serious diseases I have no paycheck and live on a budgeted $40 a week, when I’m hungry I reach out to cheap peanut butter (sugar and salt) and only occasionally treat myself to an apple or banana (carb). Please present some compelling solutions addressing poverty, and the upcoming American financial meltdown. Not all of us fans of the (most awesome) Kris Carr can afford anything resembling what she proposes. Thank you for any information you can get out there.

    • thats so true! Also there are some poor places in america that dont even have grocery stories that sell fresh fruit and veggies and those that do have really bad fruit and veggies like moldy, squishy, and just gross.

    • The best thing people in those situations can do is grow their own food. It does take some resources, but it’s the cheapest way to buy healthy products. And there’s nothing wrong with eating beans, but buy them uncooked and either in bulk or just the bags they sell at the supermarket. All you have to do is cook them and you have no worries about added sugars or BPA from cans.

      It takes time to cook your meals, but if you aren’t eating healthy because you don’t have time, then that’s just lazy. Everyone has busy schedules, but you have to make your health a priority. If you cut out all of the processed foods and learn to make things yourself, it will end up saving you money.

  2. Can you provide us with more insight as to how to break the addiction?

  3. Would like more info on how to stop, COLD TURKEY……what can i do?
    Is there some flush that would help get it out faster? TY

  4. If you can’t afford to buy fresh produce, grow your own. All it takes is a few pots, or ground, seeds, soil and water. Our ancestors didn’t have a dollar menu, or cheep junk food to feed them and they managed just fine. There are a lot of excuses you can use to stay addicted.

  5. I think that if people stopped buying things they don’t need, they would have enough to buy fresh, healthy food. But I can understand that families that don’t have a lot of money wouldn’t be able to buy fresh foods. I like what Cheryl says about growing your own. My family would definitely benefit from that.

  6. On the path of cutting back on my sugar slowly, don’t think cold turkey will work for me. Slow and steady wins the race in my case anyway. Wonder if the so called healthy ice creams count as healthy
    I mean really healthy. My gut says it is not healthy but wouldn’t it be nice if it were.

  7. I have to agree that the idea that eating healthy is always more expensive is a myth. Frozen green veggies are no more expensive than “twice-baked” potatoes or french fries. Beans (not canned) cooked without animal fats are very healthy and dirt cheap. Tap water is cheaper than soda and juice filled with corn syrup. A little research, a little effort, and even those of us on very limited budgets can eat properly. I know from experience:)

  8. Many years ago, I decided I couldn’t control my sugar addiction and went “cold turkey” on New Years Day. It took a full six months for me not to crave — I mean CRAVE — something sweet. Very, very difficult.

  9. “If you can’t afford to buy fresh produce, grow your own.” – Cheryl

    I agree wholeheartedly and many folks already do that. In my case I barely have the energy to make it through the day, much less tend an organic garden, can, freeze and maintain a stock. In my own case, I am struggling with blood cancer, fibromyalgia and seronegative reactive arthritis, it would literally kill me to grow my own food.

    Jeff’s article is compelling, I’d like to see a reasonable, affordable solution to getting out of the sugar addiction cycle. Overeaters Anonymous is a really great organization that helps sugar addicts. Unfortunately (again) if you are in rural America these don’t exist. It really works.

  10. This blog post is extraordinary, it nails the problem on the head: millions of us are unwittingly addicted to a potent extract we erroneously think of as “food.” For those looking for help, I recommend the Sugar Addiction Awareness Day website, Resources page:
    Of the books listed, perhaps start with any of the books by Bennett, Escher (yours truly) or Harcombe to figure out a workable recovery strategy, and also books by O’Connell (he of this brilliant blog post), Taubes, Appleton or Eades to learn more about the broad physiological and policy issues. If you have diabetes or pre-diabetes, run, don’t walk, to get your hands on O’Connell’s book “Sugar Nation,” and Dr. Bernstein’s “Diabetes Solution.”
    There are lots of ways to approach our white-stuff problems, but in the end there’s only one cure for sugar addiction, and it’s called not eating sugar.

  11. Please give me some suggestions for what to eat for breakfast. I can manage the rest of the day, but have trouble with the morning meal.

    • Breakfast is tricky – you want good energy from it. Eggs with tomatoes, onions, spinach, kale, mushrooms, broccoli, or any other veggies you like is a good start. Yogurt works for some people. Oatmeal is another option, but don’t load it with sugar or too much fruit. You can have leftovers from dinner, really. There’s no rule you have to have anything in particular. But the stomach is sensitive when it’s been empty for a while. You might discover you have food sensitivities if you can’t have them first thing. A lot of our food is unhealthy.

      This article brings up a good point about the addictive nature of processed sugar, but having researched it myself for several months now after being diagnosed as ‘pre-diabetic’, I have to mention that this is NOT THAT SIMPLE. Our metabolism is a really complex system. Too much protein at once is converted directly to glucose. Your liver is involved, as is the thyroid, adrenal glands, as well as the pancreas, the brain, and as the article mentions, the entire body, really, on a cellular level. People who have imbalances in any of these areas, such as a liver disorder, will crave glucose. And we cannot completely cut glucose from our diets. Nearly all vegetables have carbohydrates, and certainly fruits do. The author does not offer much advice than to cut junk. I bet most people here have done that and found they still have problems.

  12. Pam, here are some breakfast suggestions (they’re all high in good fats to keep you sated and nourished, but low in carbs):
    –Frittata: eggs, cream, butter, parmesan cheese, veggies, onions, mix in dish, bake for 25 min at 350
    –Berries in heavy cream
    –Fish and sauteed greens or spinach
    –Leftovers from lunch or dinner
    –Eggs and bacon
    –Melon and full fat plain yogurt or cottage cheese
    Get out of the cultural rut of cereal, toast, and juice and a whole world of easy culinary possibilites opens up.

  13. Diabetes is more prevalent than ever and 95% of cases diagnosed are type 2 diabetes.

    Although for some the development of diabetes is inevitable, perhaps due to heriditery and other factors, for the vast majority it can be prevented by taking these 7 simple steps …

    You might wanna have a look.


  14. Pam:
    I would say reach out to fresh produce for breakfast. Go for heavy smoothies that are laded with great nourishment to keep you going until lunch! These whole foods will give you such power and energy, I´m telling you! A love boosted life for your body and your soul!

    Check these to recipes out and see what you think! The ingredients are so versatile and please ask if you want more tips & tricks on staying loaded with energy and all crazylicious things!



    Pure vanilla
    Hempseeds (or pure hemp protein)

    This smoothie will rock your world

  15. Although I love the idea of breakfast ideas to break sugar addiction, I don’t think this site would every approve of eating eggs and bacon for breakfast or berries with heavy cream, or a frittata with eggs in it and butter? These foods totally go against everything I have learned from Kris Carr’s writings or book.

  16. I agree with Michelle. Raw/ vegan ideas are more helpful considering overall health. Right now I make a mixed berry, banana and kale smoothie along with Sunwarrior raw vegan protein powder. Its delicious! It is important to get that protein in in the morning. However I still struggle with my cravings for sugar but I believe that for me its also a psychological/emotional thing. Good luck to all who struggle along with me:)

  17. Its so funny how people talk about if others just cut back on buying other types of unhealhy food like frozen french frays twice baked potatoes precooked meals. Then they could buy healthy foods. Poor is poor a1.29 for a head of lettice or a avacado wont fill you up like an 99cents of frozen potatoes.I prefer fresh food .May be I wont pay the water bill and have fresh string beans all month long. Oh I forgot people like me are just making up an excuse for not eating healthy. Some times people speek as if it were fact Kathryn

  18. Hi my mame is Chalynda and I am a sugar addict =( I’ve gotten better with it but just yesterday I bought some ice cream (its low fat calories and sugar but its still bad) I wish I can completly kick the habbit but its so stinking hard!

  19. Wow, someone willing to state it like it is! I agree that the (ill) health of our nation will impact the economic power of our country, and think it is also a national security risk. It’s rare to see someone come right out and say it though. Giving up sugar is doable – just start by replacing it with fresh fruit so you won’t feel deprived of sweetness. Also, I agree that you can eat healthy on a limited budget: rice, dried beans, frozen veggies aren’t too expensive. For breakfast, try steel cut oats or 7-grain cereal with a little fruit and a non-dairy milk. You can even make your own soy, almond, rice milk and save money.

  20. Thank you for posting this! It came at the perfect time. As I come off a two week sugar binge, my body aches & I am extremely moody. My next few weeks of detox should be very interesting.

  21. I appreciated your article and it is very well written in explaining what sugar and diabetes is doing to people. As a parent of a child who was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes at 12 months of age and having absolutely no control over her getting this disease it angers me to see so many people who can prevent themselves from getting Type 2 diabetes and don’t. My daughter had no choice. Giving her 6-7 needles a day and fearing the complications of a life with this disease and knowing that their are people who can actually reverse or stop diabetes in its tracks but don’t because they crave sugar makes me sick! Put the crap down and get healthy. You do have options but all Type 1 diabetics do not have the same luxury of choosing weather or not they want this disease.

  22. I’m a diabetic. I’ll die without sugar it’s as simple as that. I follow a healthy lifestyle and am a believer in eating healthy, natural, unprocessed foods however sugar is necessary to keep my body at a regular blood sugar level.

  23. You do realise that T2, same as T1, is very often caused by genes? Plenty of thin, non-sugar addicted T2s out there to verify that. Please do homework before stating false facts.

    • Agreed!

      • Believe me folks I have done my homework on diabetes! There is NO history of Type 1 or Type 2 in my family (so much for your gene theory). Sometimes it is just random like many other diseases out there. I know there are many thin healthy Type 2 diabetics (with adult onset) I get it! What I am talking about is the obese people who live unhealthy lifestyles and can actually stop themselves from being diabetic by changing their habits. That is not a false fact it is the truth.