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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.”

That was Jack’s experience. “In the morning, I have a bowl of sugary cereal, and then I have two mini-apple pies, and that’s before I even start my day,” he confesses. “I consistently have the argument with myself, promising myself that I will quit the next day, and then I don’t. The longer I’m from alcohol and drugs, the more I realize how similar both addictions are. I understand the physical allergy of alcohol because I realize how powerless I am over sugar.”

Mary Foushi, a co-founder of ACORN and a recovered food addict, offers, “Alcoholism is simply another form of sugar and grain: it is just being drank as opposed to eaten. People we work with say that putting down the alcohol is nothing compared to putting down the food, and the dangers of sugar addiction can be just as bad if not far worse: obesity, diabetes, some forms of cancer, high blood pressure, degeneration of bones and joints.”

You can recover from sugar addiction, just like you can with alcohol and drugs, but first you have to be willing to admit and accept that it’s a problem.

Adds Werdell, “A major reason people don’t see their relationship to sugar as unhealthy is that most of the culture and the medical community doesn’t see that food is addictive in the same way as drugs and alcohol. Most of the food we are sold is contaminated with foods that are highly addictive, and this is why many people become sugar addicts at much younger ages than they become drug or alcohol users.”

Sugar addiction has been in Jack’s family for many generations. “My great-great grandmother was a diabetic with high blood pressure,” he says. “Growing up, we had healthy food but then at the same time, we were eating a lot of sugar. Soda, candy, sugary cereals and other sweets—we were never checked by our parents because they were just as addicted to sugar, and now they’re both diabetic.”

The good news, according to McCarty, is that since alcohol and sugar problems are so similar, so are their solutions. “You can recover from sugar addiction, just like you can with alcohol and drugs, but first you have to be willing to admit and accept that it’s a problem,” she explains. “The consequences from sugar addiction are different. With alcohol, it’s legal or family or financial problems. You’ll have some of that with the sugar addiction but it’s usually more the medical problems that will bring someone to their bottom.”

Cat, a freelance writer who battled her weight and sugar addiction for the first five years of her sobriety, had to come to terms with what was driving the addiction. “I used sugar to deal with people,” she admits. “I used it when I was lonely. I used it in all the ways I had used alcohol and drugs. When my weight continued to increase, I started remembering a friend who had decided to relapse so that he could lose weight through drugs. I began to wonder if that was a good idea, and that’s when I knew something had to change. I decided even though I didn’t go to rehab for my alcoholism, I needed it for my sugar addiction.”

According to Foushi, “If someone is addicted to sugar, they need to detox from it. They can be at all different stages of the addictive cycle, and still require detox. Afterwards, they have to decide what level of abstinence they need to stay healthy. There are some people who can have zero levels of sugars and they need to be very careful about what is in their food. Some people are so severe that they can’t eat fruit. Others might just have to say no to desserts. But people with severe sugar issues are going to need ongoing support through an out-patient or 12-step program.”

Cat’s trip to a treatment helped her to begin working on those underlying issues that she was eating over. “I realized that sugar was helping me cope just like alcohol once had, and I needed to start learning how to cope without any substances,” she says. “I have been able to eat sugar in moderation but any time I start overdoing it, I have learned to stop myself and see what is going on in my life and ask: what emotion or issue am I trying to avoid by eating sugar?”

Says McCarty, “If people are searching for something to medicate the feelings, they will continue to do that until they look at what they are using over. It’s about quality of life. Not everyone needs to use something. People live their lives, they deal with the issues, and they can recover…from all of their addictions.”

Kristen McGuiness is a freelance writer and regular contributor to The Fix who wrote previously about the 13th step and dreaming about drinking, among many other topics. She is a former intern for High Times and the author of 51/50: The Magical Adventures of a Single Life

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