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Why Alcoholics Crave Sweets

When we put down the bottle and the blow, we often reach for the cookies and candy. But when does that last pint of Ben and Jerry's become just one pint too many?

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By Kristen McGuiness

08/03/11

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“My sugar problems started immediately after I got sober,” says Marie, a 35-year-old schoolteacher with long curly hair and a gymnast’s frame who has been sober over three years. “Before I really started drinking, I had the most enormous sweet tooth, but then by the end, the sound of anything sweet sounded disgusting to me. I was getting all the sugar I needed from booze. But then when the booze was gone, the sugar came back.” 

Marie wasn’t allowed to have sugar as a child “so once I could finally access it in all its glorious formats, it was on,” she says. “By the time I could eat it, I had a full-blown eating disorder. Last night, I left a meeting early and went and bought a Danish and a donut and a cinnamon roll and a brownie and Skittles and an ice cream bar. I have been known to buy an entire pie and eat half of it for dinner. I eat really healthy otherwise, but then I go on sugar benders. It’s an emotional balm.”

"I tell myself that I’m going to abstain from processed sugar and limit my natural sugar intake—and then along comes a cupcake, and there I am, diving right back into it.”

According to Tennie McCarty, the founder and CEO of the eating disorder treatment center Shades of Hope, Marie is not alone. “Often we will see addicts switch off from one drug to another, whether that other drug is nicotine or sugar or other foods,” McCarty says. “Not everyone will take it to the depths that they have taken their primary addiction.”

McCarty mentions a man she treated whose addiction to sugar made him sicker than the one he had with alcohol. “Jim was a football player and a Gulf War veteran, and in general, was a healthy, athletic man, but then he started drinking and became an alcoholic,” she says. “Thankfully, he got sober but then he started smoking. He was forced to quit that for his health, and ended up gaining 150 pounds from eating sweets. If you ask him if he’s a sober, yeah, he’s sober, but he’s dying from the effects of sugar. And that’s the sad part of people not looking at the other addictions they might face.”

Forty-year old Jack, who is eight years sober after years of addiction to alcohol and crack, relates. “I battle my sugar intake every single day,” he says. “It’s demoralizing because I tell myself that I’m going to have a healthy and sober lifestyle that I see others having—that I’m going to abstain from processed sugar and limit my natural sugar intake—and then along comes a cupcake, and there I am, diving right back into it.”

According to Phil Werdell, the co-founder of ACORN Food Dependency Recovery Services and director of ACORN's professional training program, it isn’t surprising that alcoholics transfer into food addiction. “All the research has shown that when people binge on carbs and sugar, and then restrict, the body creates an endogenous opioid. It is released in the body much like the chemicals released when people are doing other narcotics. The PET and CAT scans of food addicts look almost identical to that of alcoholics and drug addicts, showing that sugar creates a physical addiction. In addition, sugar addicts carry the same D2 dopamine receptor, the gene that identifies addiction, as alcoholics and addicts. In those ways, biochemically, food addiction is just like addiction to drugs and alcohol. When we talk to recovering alcoholics and addicts who are finding their way to Overeaters Anonymous, we find a very common refrain: I started using sugar or food just like I was using alcohol.”

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