Everything You Need to Know About Sugar and Early Recovery

By Olivia Pennelle 11/06/16

Upping your sugar intake isn't uncommon—and sometimes it's even encouraged—while getting sober, but what really happens when you indulge your sweet tooth?

Lou Lebentz
Lou Lebentz isn't a fan of sugar. Olivia Pennelle

Have you ever wondered why you suddenly have an issue putting down the doughnuts at the meeting? Why you are experiencing greater cravings for sweet foods, even though you didn’t have a sweet tooth in active addiction? Or why you have suddenly gained weight having put down the drugs? In this interview, The Fix speaks to Lou Lebentz, a sugar and addiction expert, who seeks to provide some clarity to those who struggle with sugar, and helps provide a better understanding of your body so that you can enjoy a healthy recovery.

I was encouraged to replace alcohol with sugar in the early days. What is your opinion of that advice, and, as an expert in sugar addiction and the addicted brain, what would be your advice to someone in early recovery?

I would advise not to replace alcohol with sugar, because alcohol is sugar; it hits the same part of the brain (ventral tegmental area) as alcohol. Excess sugar will make you crave more, rather than dampen down the reward center in the brain.

Some people are more prone to addiction to different substances. I have known people who can handle a moderate amount of sugar, others whose brains cannot and crave sugar in exactly the same way as they do alcohol or drugs.

I think it’s unhelpful to suggest that type of replacement. If anything, replace with good nutrition, not more things that aren't good for you.

Picture this, you head to a meeting and the first thing you encounter is people outside smoking, you walk through the clouds, fix yourself a strong coffee and help yourself to cake or cookies, and take your seat. What is your view on that picture?

My view is that it isn't brilliant because we are taking something instead of alcohol or drugs to fuel the same system. However, for some people, it is not always possible to put everything down at once. So, I would say put down what is going to kill you first to start. Also, be aware that your addictive process will try and cross-addict to other substances or behaviors. You will have to deal with it later on, so best not start in the first place.

Some people have a staggered approach, because they can't handle putting everything down at once. The trend is that drugs and alcohol go first, then people look at their relational and process addictions (co-dependency, sex and love), then food and money. As our esteem and self-worth increases, we start to look at where we are in terms of intimacy and all of our relationships.

What are the effects of sugar on brains wired for addiction? Are recovering alcoholics/addicts more sensitive to it?

Probably, yes. Their susceptibility to liking sugar is higher than those who don't use any substances, because neurobiologically, they are already wired in the reward center in the brain to search for different substances, like sugar—which we now know hits the same part of the brain. So we will always, biochemically, want to try and alleviate a brain that is in downregulating from drugs and alcohol. Sugar has the same effect as drugs, albeit a milder effect. Its potency is not as strong as heroin or cocaine, but for some people it is, depending upon their primary addiction. For example, some people may be addicted to one substance, but their brain doesn't light up for another substance. In my experience, I know many food addicts who do not touch alcohol or drugs, and plenty of alcoholics who have an okay relationship with food and don't overuse sugar. You need to have an individualized approach based upon sensitivities and behavior. Most people can tell when they eat something if it is going to act fast on their blood sugar, based on whether or not they are able to put it down.

Sugar is not beneficial in any way—it is a non-nutrient, it is toxic to the body, in any form. Also, because it is half glucose and half fructose, we are unable to process the fructose part—other than in the liver. If you're an alcoholic and already have an overworked liver trying to process alcohol, the last thing you want to do is to put a further strain on the liver trying to process sugar. Globally, we have an epidemic of Non-Alcoholic Fatty Liver Disease (NAFLD), because of our consumption of sugar. Particularly in America, where sugar is replaced by high fructose corn syrup (because it is cheaper to mass produce), which can only be processed by the liver. It is practically in everything in the U.S., but has been banned in the U.K. NAFLD can cause cirrhosis, which is irreparable. However, NAFLD can be reversed by taking action.

I'd like to pose the following scenario: A person in recovery has had a stressful day and wants to treat themselves with sugar. What are your observations on that scenario?

They are still ingesting or taking a substance outside of themselves to either reward or change the way that they feel. They are trying to give themselves a treat by replacing something with something—for example, take away the wine and replace with sugar; it’s the same process, just a different substance.

When hungry, eat. Occasionally eat on reward. You don't have to be 100% perfect with food all the time. I am not saying that. People can have that odd thing they like, but they need to be mindful of any emerging patterns.

If seeking reward with food, I would ask what other things I could do, such as going for a walk, having a bath, learning meditation, phoning a friend or getting a massage. I’d advise trying to resist the craving and ride the wave. Sit with yourself for ten minutes, focus on the body—come into the body—and see if there is anything that you are trying to avoid. Breathe. Focus on sensations and making friends with the body. Ask that voice again: what do you really need or do you need something else?

Is there a trend in those with a propensity to overeat? Are they trying to soothe themselves or avoid difficult feelings?

It depends on their previous eating history. It could be a stimulus response to a habit they have. If they are overweight, they could have hormonal issues with their hunger hormones such as ghrelin and leptin raging out of control. Or they could be trying to self-soothe. The urge to overeat or binge on sugar isn't always due to a feeling, it could be an old association from packaging for example, or a friend which has triggered a memory. So it might not always be seeking to escape an emotional feeling. But whatever it is, it is wise to break that pattern of conditioning.

Tell me about the significance of good nutrition in recovery? What does that look like?

The significance of good nutrition in recovery cannot be underestimated. It is essential. You are trying to get nutrients into a brain and a body that has been depleted. Brain health is fundamental to who we are. The brain works, chemically, on the food that we give it and the right balance of nutrients delivers those chemicals to the brain. So, if we are not feeding the brain properly, we will get depressed, or more anxious, and we will suffer with cravings because we are not ingesting the right raw materials.

You should start with the premise that food is medicine, food which is naturally grown. Anything in a packet or with a shelf-life or labelled is not naturally grown, and, therefore, the nutrients will be debatable.

That food looks like anything that lived 1,000 years ago, and anything that man hasn't touched. When shopping in the supermarket, avoid the middle aisles and shop around the outside, buy: fruits, vegetables, meat, fish, pulses, nuts, seeds, beans, dairy, eggs. Do not buy refined carbohydrates, like white pasta and white rice or bread. If it grows in the ground, it’s absolutely fine. But bear in mind that foods that grow in the ground are high in starches, so they are okay for early recovery but not ideal if your aim is fat loss.

Practically, it means that we need to learn how to cook and organize ourselves. For example, cook in batches, freeze, make soups and stews, casseroles and juices. Juice is great, so long as it isn't high in fruit. Forget fruit juice, because it is too much for the liver to digest in one sitting.

What advice would you give to someone in early recovery whose primary focus has been dealing with putting down their drug of choice?

You don't have to become a perfect clean eater, as well as giving up your drug of choice—because again, in early recovery, that is too severe an approach. Aim for an 80/20 rule, unless you are a food addict with food as your primary addiction. It's important to not feel overwhelmed by this advice or have the expectation of perfection. Rather, just be mindful of the potentially harmful effects of sugar, especially in a brain with a propensity to overuse substances in a brain wired for reward.

Sweet Enough is the brainchild of Lou Lebentz, a well-known Addiction and Eating Disorders Psychotherapist who spent 10 years working at the Priory Rehab in the UK. Alongside Lou’s experience in helping others, she’s also battled her own demons with addictive substances and health issues, her last dependency being sugar of which she is now thankfully free! And now she wants to show you how she did it and help you too.

Follow these links to find out more about Lou's 8-week online sugar reduction program: Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, YouTube

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Located in Portland, OR, Olivia Pennelle (Liv) is an experienced writer, journalist, and coach. She is the founder of the popular site Liv’s Recovery Kitchen, a site dedicated to helping people flourish in their recovery. Liv is passionate about challenging limiting mentalities and empowering others to direct their own lives, health, and recovery. You can find her articles across the web on podcasts and addiction recovery websites, including Recovery.org, Workit Health, Ravishly, Recovery Campus, and The Recovery Village. Liv was recently featured in VICE. Find Liv on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn

Liv also co-hosts a podcast — Breaking Free: Your Recovery. Your Way. Listen here.