Anatomy of a Sugar Addiction

Sugar Addiction

Yesterday I was jonesing hard for my fix. I hate feeling like that. Today I feel better and more myself. Tomorrow I think I’ll be back to normal. My name is Will Sacks, and I am a sugar addict.  Admitting this to myself has helped me kick the habit. But it's taken 2 years.

Here’s the story of how I got here, and what I’ve learned along the way. A few years ago I started tracking everything that I ate with LoseIt! The awareness and insight I gained into my diet allowed me to drop 10 pounds. I realized that I was eating more food than my body needed and in thinking about why, I realized that I’m an emotional eater.

Sometimes I eat to feel better. If I’m feeling tired, or upset, or sad, the instant rush of a blood-sugar spike numbs away those bad feelings for a little bit. And if I’m feeling lonely or unconnected, the feeling of a big sandwich stuffed into my stomach and hugging me from the inside is somehow comforting. Realizing I am an emotional eater was a huge turning point for me because this realization helped me pick apart the trigger-behavior-reward habit loop that drove my over-eating habit:

Trigger: I feel a negative emotion (sad, lonely, whatever)
Response: I’m hungry! that will make me feel better. Nom nom nom.
Reward: Numbing blood sugar spike and/or hug from the inside. Mmmmm.

Unfortunately the reward only lasts for an hour or so, and after the sugar or whatever food wears off, I feel worse than before, and therefore am likely to eat more (see Trigger above)

Once I became aware of this habit loop I started to watch it, and as I watched it play out over and over I got disgusted with it. I told Kati about it and we would make fun of it. Eventually it became funny to watch myself heading for the fridge after a fight, or sucking down gummy worms after reading a stress inducing email.

And now after watching it for a while, I’m able to interrupt it and say to myself: “Ok Will, you feel sad, and you want to eat because you think it will make you feel better. But it won’t. What do you actually need to feel better?” And I use NVC to pick apart what I really need and what will really nourish me (usually sleep, exercise, or sharing my feelings with someone).

But what does this have to do with my Sugar Addiction? A lot.  

I only really became aware of how much control my insidious sugar addition has over me in the last few months. Notice that the over-eating I call a habit, while my relationship with sugar is actually an addiction. A scary addiction that I have been watching for the last few months, and am still battling with.

If a gigantic turkey and bacon sandwich dripping with mayo is my cocaine, sugar is my crack. I can go around the trigger-response-reward loop rapidly for hours, devouring for example, an entire cake and then a bag of chocolate covered pretzels at world record speeds. And it seems to be getting worse as I get older.

After I characterized my relationship with food in general using LoseIt!, I started to work on characterizing my relationship with specific foods: ie. what foods make me feel good and what foods make me feel bad? I noticed that drinking alcohol made me feel unconnected in the moment, and terrible the next day and so I stopped drinking it save for once in a while (everything in moderation incl. moderation). I noticed that eating dairy slowed down my digestion so I cut that out. And I noticed that wheat made me feel bloated so I cut down on it. These three changes improved my experience of being alive, but I was still experiencing lows that I didn’t like. I started to get interested in sugar and began to track my sugar consumption with Kindara in April of 2013.

My goal was to cut out sugar and see how I felt.

In the first 120 days I went only 2 days(!) without sugar. Usually a cookie, brownie or some candy at lunch or after work. I quickly realized that there is sugar in frickin' everything.

In August 2013 I got on a roll. I went 7 days without sugar and ... felt something new.  On day 4 I noticed an unfamiliar feeling of calm.   For the first time in a long time, I didn’t crave sugar.

And this was significant because I realized that I had been craving sugar constantly for the previous few years! I experienced what it feels like for me to break the addiction (a grounded feeling of calm satisfaction), and realized that my life 'on the sugar train' is significantly worse than living sugar free. I became aware of what it feels like for me to be eating sugar: a temporary high followed by a constant low-level dissatisfaction with my life, and a persistent desire to eat something sweet to make me feel better. For me, that's no way to live.

Replacing the word “sugar" in that sentence above with the word “heroin" shows why I call my relationship with sugar an addiction:

"I realized what it feels like for me to be on heroin:  a temporary high followed by a low-level dissatisfaction with my life, and a desire to do more heroin to make me feel better."

Yikes! Going 7 days without sugar helped me see that my life is different off sugar.  After 4 days without sugar, I notice that the gnawing feeling of dissatisfaction that characterizes my life "on sugar" dissipates and in it’s place is a sense of security with myself and with my life - A grounding feeling that I don’t need anything external to myself to feel good. And that feels good.

And so began my wrestling match with my sugar addiction and my two ways of living:

On the Sugar Train: Temporary highs that numb away bad feelings, followed by a constant diffuse feeling of dissatisfaction with being alive and a gnawing persistent craving for more sugar,


Living Sugar Free: More intense experience of my emotions, but underneath a steady feeling of calm groundedness and of lacking nothing, most of the time.

After observing my experience in both ways of living it became obvious that Sugar Free is the way to go for me. Sure I have to deal with my feelings more, but I just enjoy being alive a lot more when I’m not constantly looking for something outside myself (sugar!) to make life worth living.

And so over the last 2 years I’ve been tracking how many days I successfully go without eating refined sugar. (I’ve generally been avoiding fruit as well as I find it’s a gateway food. After eating an apple, I’m much more likely to eat some of that chocolate in our office pantry. If I stay strong and avoid the Apple for three days, my cravings for the chocolate are non-existent.)

Sugar Free Days per Month

Thanks to the custom data feature in Kindara: here's how often I ate sugar each month for the last 24 months.

In the last 2 years, there have been 3 months where I went without sugar for 20 days or more. My battle continues. Here’s what I’ve noticed about my sugar addiction:

  1. If I eat sugar a few days in a row, I start to crave it constantly, and life becomes less enjoyable.
  2. When I'm on the sugar train I crave sugar constantly it’s hard for me not to eat it. I’ll go into our local coffee shop and buy a cookie even though I know it’s going to make me feel bad after the short lived high. Or if someone offers me some chocolate, it’s hard for me to resist.
  3. When I’m on the sugar train, going without sugar for three days (ie. Breaking the Habit) is an effort. It’s hard. I have to constantly fight the urge to eat sweet things for each of those 3 days.
  4. After three days of going without sugar, my cravings dissipate and I enter into Living Sugar Free mode. My mood improves and I feel happier. Life just seems better and more enjoyable.
  5. When I’m Living Sugar Free I don’t crave it at all, and it’s very easy to resist it - even delicious organic almond chocolate left sitting out seductively on top of it’s package in the Kindara kitchen at 6pm when there’s no one else around (true story).
  6. It amazes me how easy it is to not eat sugar when I’m Living Sugar Free and how impossible it is when I’m On The Sugar Train.
  7. After some number of days of Living Sugar Free, I forget how much happier I am off sugar, and will occasionally feel deprived of the treats I used to enjoy. So I’ll eat something sweet. If I do this 2 or 3 days in a row I’m back on the sugar train (#1 above). 
  8. It's much more likely I'll eat sugar if I haven't slept enough, or if I'm drinking.

And that’s what it’s like to be me and and be in a relationship with sugar. I really hate this relationship. I wish I could enjoy sweet things without it degrading my experience of being alive, and without me craving more and more. But since this isn’t the case, I’ve concluded that my relationship with sugar is indeed an addiction that needs to be managed. I’ve found that if I go without sugar most days, I can indulge in one sweet thing once in a while (never two days in a row) and then stay strong the next day to avoid falling prey to the seductive insidious allure of the sugar train.

I realize I’m using extreme language here, but I’m trying to be as honest as possible in describing my experience. Some of you will think I’m exaggerating, but I’m sure others of you have a similar relationship with sugar. Looking around it’s pretty obvious that sugar addiction is at epidemic levels in North America and so I think it’s important to talk about in language that accurately describes my experience with it.  In a decade or two I predict sugar will be widely recognized as an addictive toxin and will be regulated in foods. We’re seeing the start of this with the efforts to tax soda in San Francisco, Berkeley and New York City.

So that's the truth about my relationship with Sugar. I try to avoid candy, baked goods, chocolate, and fruit (including fruit juice) and this keeps me feeling good and on top of my life.

After writing this post and looking at my data, I'm setting a goal of 23 sugar free days per month. That gives me 7 or 8 days a month to consciously enjoy something sweet, but still enough sugar free days that I'll mostly be off the Sugar Train and not craving it. And I'll try to keep those 7 or 8 days non-consecutive with a couple days in between so my cravings don't begin.

Take that sugar. I'm the boss of you now :)