There’s a slew of controversy about Sugar Addiction. “Is there such a thing?” “How can someone be addicted to sugar – isn’t sugar found naturally in foods?” “People who say they are addicted to sugar are just overindulgent.” And on and on it goes.
I spent my entire childhood, from the time I became aware enough to question my reaction to sugar, wondering if such a thing could exist. Mostly, I spent my time trying to exercise more self control; clearly, I thought, I just really liked cake, cookies, and sweets – everyone must feel the same way – I just need to try harder to not physically crave more and more and more after a portion of sweets.
And then one day, I cut out sugar, and within weeks, my cravings were gone. Not reduced or not less strong, gone. Period.
So as to whether sugar addiction is a ‘real phenomenon’ or not, frankly, holds little relevance to my life experience.
Since cutting out sugar, I’ve met so many others who share similar experiences.
I’ve shared my history with sugar below because like most issues, the more we’re honest and open about our experiences, the more we’re each able to learn, grow and process together.
My Life on Sugar
I struggled with sugar my whole life. As a child I can remember having treats – a cookie or piece of cake – and immediately having an uncomfortable craving for more. I assumed this was normal. After all, sweets taste good. Right? I thought everyone must experience this feeling.
It wasn’t until I lived with roommates in university, and eventually my husband, that I came to recognize two things. First, not all of my roommates experienced the same insatiable craving for sugar that I did. The consumption of even a small amount of sugar would send me into a tailspin of uncomfortable cravings for more sugar, with no end point. Most of the time I used self control to limit my consumption, but it was uncomfortable. The idea of having one, two or three cookies then feeling satisfied and moving on to the next conversation or task, was a foreign concept. Second, others felt fine after consuming sugar, whereas I felt hungover, tired, foggy and generally unwell. Regardless of amount, my mood and energy level was affected after eating sugary foods. I was tested repeatedly and not diabetic, yet viscerally, sugar did not sit well with me.
As an adult I finally began to experiment limiting my sugar intake. The difficulty, though, is that sugar is present in most processed foods. Moreover, it’s enthusiastically offered at nearly every social function. Birthdays? Cake. Dinner party? Dessert. Coffee? Baked goods. On the run? Most every packaged snack contains sugar. I learned to not keep sugar or processed foods at home, but would reluctantly consume sugar at work or social events to remain amicable and avoid questioning. This lead me to feel unwell routinely, and maintain a regular spiral of sugar cravings that would take a day or two to subside, or remain at underlying low level consistently.
Links to Alcoholism and Addiction
Interestingly, my father is a recovered alcoholic and in my late teens and early 20s I spent a lot of time both in learning about alcoholism, to better understand my dad’s experience. In the process, I’ve found remarkable parallels between my dad’s experience of alcoholism and my experience with sugar. I’ve since learned more and more about addiction, as it relates to a variety of substances and behaviours. As I continued to question and struggle with the effects of sugar on my body and mind throughout my early 20s, it finally dawned on me that my experience with sugar displayed traits of addiction. At this time, there was sparse discussion in the media about the effects of sugar on the mind or body, and I found little research accounting for the addictive traits of sugar.
Drawing The Line
In 2007, I cut all refined sugar from my life. At that time, I was struggling with various health issues, due in part to years of undiagnosed celiac disease, and in part to sugar, processed foods, and their effects on my body and mind.
Within weeks of eliminating sugar, I felt better than I could ever remember feeling. The experience quite literally changed my life; my cravings for foods disappeared, my energy stabilized, my acne cleared and my moods balanced. I had a newly acquired ability to focus, concentrate and process clearly. To this day, I do not consumed refined sugar, and I will never go back.
The actual process of eliminating sugar was relatively uncomplicated and the benefits far outweighed any inconveniences. However, the social ramifications of this decision were greater than I ever could have anticipated. I was questioned, mocked, debated and critiqued at next to every turn. I avoided the subject at all costs, but at social events when I’d politely decline sugar-laden desserts, I’d often receive judgemental glares and comments. Often, the dreaded conversation would ensue.
I’d like to think that in 2016, the mood has changed; with all the recent buzz of sugar and it’s health impacts, surely no one would shame others into sugar consumption? We can draw on our experience with alcohol right? Finally, it’s become more socially acceptable to live an alcohol free lifestyle. My dad, and many friends, choose not to consume alcohol for a variety of reasons, including alcoholism and health, and slowly, they’re receiving less questioning at social functions.
Sadly, I’ve put the no sugar philosophy to the test and let me assure you, sugar free shaming is rampant. Maybe I’ll trademark the term? I find it most obvious when it comes to our kids. When we decline sugary foods and drinks at social events, people either push whatever’s on offer harder, or take insult. A simple, no thanks to a cookie tray shouldn’t require a public explanation or apology. Focusing on health in my mind should be encouraged, not shamed.
And let me be clear, I am not judging anyone’s individual food choices for themselves or their kids. I – like every mom and dad – am making the best choices I can, based on my knowledge, experience and resources in the world. And that’s ok. And, I also want to eat my nut & seed snack in peace.
Why I Support Widespread Policy Change
If you’re still reading this far down the page, something in my experience may have resonated with you. You may also be wondering why I advocate for a reduced sugar lifestyle for everyone. Why? Because I want to raise my kids in a food culture that supports and promotes health, vs. harms it.
Although doctors constantly tell us to improve our diets and lifestyles, we’re surrounded by a food environment that normalizes unhealthy dietary habits. For many reasons, our modern food system persists, and our store shelves, cafeterias, and restaurants are filled with sugar and processed foods. Fortunately, in recent years, the negative health impacts of sugar have gained increasing attention by scientists, and finally the media. More and more research has emerged linking the consumption of sugar with many chronic diseases, including Type 2 diabetes, fatty liver and metabolic syndrome.
As our health care systems become increasingly overwhelmed with the treatment of chronic disease, it’s clear that we need to alter our diets and lifestyles. For reference, in the US, chronic disease accounted for 86% of our health care costs in 2010, and these diseases affect up to one in every two people in North America. Heart disease, cancer, respiratory diseases, Type 2 diabetes and other chronic diseases cause 63% of deaths globally. The consumption of sugar and processed foods play a major role in chronic disease.
Research has also finally begun to explore the addictive nature of sugar – a topic I plan to follow closely. I’m very interested in the link between sugar and mental health, as I experienced significant improvements in my own mental health after eliminating sugar.
Some argue that consuming sugar in moderation is fine. For example, consuming fewer than 6-9 teaspoons of added sugar per day, or below 5-10% of daily caloric intake, as recommended by the World Health Organization. But a problem remains. The current average intake of sugar in 2008 was 19 teaspoons. The reality is, we are not consuming sugar in moderation. We are over consuming it. Perhaps it’s because of sugar’s addictive qualities, or sugar’s prevalence in our food culture, or perhaps it’s because consuming sugar has never been socially unacceptable. Whatever the reason, the facts remain: sugar is being overconsumed, and this overconsumption is harming our health.
My background is in climate change education and policy, and I can’t help but notice the parallels between sugar and it’s impact on societal health, and our societal struggle to take action on climate change, or even on cigarettes in years past. It’s clear societal change is in order – but like in many scenarios, change is no small feat!
This is my passion project. I want to support our kids’ health, despite our current food environment, and learn alongside others with similar goals. I’m driven by my personal health history, the social challenges I’ve faced, and my desire to contribute to building health promoting communities for generations to come.
So let’s do this. Here’s to normalizing whole food eating, and to readopting the notion of food as a vehicle to support our health.