How to Beat a Sugar Addiction

Lady holding a tray full of sweet treats
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Earlier this year, Anne Marie Scanlon finally faced her ultimate addiction, head-on. She shares her demons, and tips for showing your sweet tooth the door.

Let me tell you something about myself: I am an addict. My drug of choice is that fine white powder that’s easy to take, hard to avoid and, once it’s got you in its grip, almost impossible to give up. My drug is the one that some studies suggest is eight times more addictive than cocaine. It’s sugar.

I stopped drinking almost 17 years ago, but unfortunately, like nature, addiction abhors a vacuum, and if you quit one addictive behaviour, there’s usually several others waiting to replace it. For me, alcohol was replaced by sugar, shopping and sex. I won’t say that I’m a sex addict because I never felt compelled to ride random strangers on a daily basis. But I did stay far too long in relationships that, outside of the bedroom, simply didn’t work.

When I gave up the booze, my life took a natural upswing. I got a better job, and they kept promoting me. I had more disposable income, and boy did I enjoy spending it. Sheets, towels, shoes, handbags, scented candles, CDs (the olden days) – there was no end to my purchasing power. The sex and the shopping were reined in when I had my son. During my pregnancy, I gave up cigarettes (they’d been around since my late teens, with a few long-term bouts of smoking sobriety) and broke up with my baby’s father. I no longer had the money for sprees (although that hasn’t always stopped me), and I have enough sense not to inflict a dysfunctional relationship on my child.

With no sex life, no cigs, no booze, I needed something.

And so began a horrible cycle of abuse. After the first blissful year of motherhood, I encountered a major bout of depression. I loaded up on sugar to make myself feel better. And I did. A bit. Not much, but some. Of course, I piled on the weight, which made me feel awful, so I consoled myself with some more sugar. I put on more weight. And repeat.

I’ve been a sugar addict my entire life, but all addictions get worse with time and, apart from the obvious physical side effects, my addiction also started impacting on my life. I lied about how much sugar I was eating. I hid away. I got cranky with my son when he wouldn’t go to sleep because I wanted to binge on chocolate and sweets. I didn’t welcome visitors in the evening because I wanted to be able to load up on sweets. I stopped eating proper food in an effort to offset the high calorific intake.

Addiction is a parasitic illness that doesn’t care about the health of the host; all the addiction cares about is more – more heroin, more coke, more booze, more sex, more gambling, more shopping, more sugar, more, more, more … I knew all that, but as an addict I went ahead and fed the cravings, despite the fact that I was unhealthy, exhausted, overweight and depressed. (Many studies link a diet high in sugar to increased risk of depression and PMS.)

Finally, early this year, I had had enough. In all senses of the word. I was in bed (hiding), halfway through a giant box of chocolates, feeling like puking, but unable to stop eating. Even though my mouth was crammed full and I was actually eating chocolate, I was stillcraving it. I was thinking about my next mouthful before I’d even swallowed the current one. In that moment, I realised two things: I was killing myself (high consumption of sugar leads to obesity, type 2 diabetes, and some scientists suggest an increased risk of cancer); secondly, I could never consume enough sugar to satisfy the constant gnawing craving.

I went cold turkey, which lasted approximately a week. I rid my house of anything containing sugar and placed my child in the care of his grandmother. I cleared my diary, didn’t attempt to deal with any other issue, and stayed in bed as much as I could. It was awful – headaches, narkiness, nausea, flu-like symptoms and massive emotional swings. Although weight loss was not my primary motivation, I was delighted that over the next three months I lost a stone without any effort.

So this is the bit where I tell you that I feel marvellous and all my problems are solved. Yes, I feel a lot better and look better too, but despite never having picked up a drink in over 16 years and knowing everything I know about addiction and sugar, I have fallen off the wagon. I managed to get through Valentine’s Day, and more importantly, immediately afterwards, when chocolate was so discounted it was almost a sin not to buy it. On Easter Sunday, I had a tiny piece of chocolate cake – sure, what harm? That binge lasted a week.

It’s hard to stay sugar-free in a world where it’s pushed at you daily – discounted and dressed up in glittery packets. This will be my first “clean” Halloween, and I know it will be difficult. But it is only one day and like anyone managing an addiction, I can only do so one day at a time. I’m dressing up as a zombie this year, which will be far better than living like one – shambling through life constantly craving sugar.

Five tips for ditching sugar

1 Timing is everything.

Don’t attempt to rid yourself of sugar just before a major celebration like Halloween or Christmas, or just before you go away on holiday, get married or move house. Withdrawing from any drug is difficult, and you need to give yourself the best chance of succeeding.

2 Everything must go.

Before you start your detox/cold turkey, make sure you rid your home (even the bins) and your car of every last particle of the sweet stuff. Cravings can be overpowering, and if there is even the tiniest amount of sugar close by, trust me, you will find it.

3 Just like it says on the tin.

Read ingredients lists carefully. Sugar is everywhere and has many aliases – far too many to list them all here but they include corn syrup, dextrin, dextrose, fructose, glucose, lactose, maltodextrin, maltose, molasses, sucrose, syrup and xylose. Honey may be natural, but it is pure sugar and has no place in your larder.

4 Fat is your friend.

Many low-fat foods are stuffed with sugar (see list above) in order to make them taste nice. Full fat products like natural yoghurt and cheese help fill you up and reduce cravings. The best way forward is to try to eat as little prepackaged food as possible.

5 Don’t go bananas, go nuts.

Fruit is tricky and should be completely avoided while you get off sugar. When you are free of cravings be careful around fruit, like bananas, that have a high sugar content. Nuts, on the other hand, are nature’s gift to the sugar-free. Fill a jiffy bag with a selection, and keep them on your person, as it’s almost impossible to grab a sugar-free snack out there in the real world.

This article originally appeared in the October issue of IMAGE. The November issue is on shelves now.

Follow Anne Marie on Twitter @amscanlon

Check out some healthy paleo dessert options – Lemon TartsSuper Supper Bowl and Cookie Dough Bites.

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