Feeling a little down? Pop a chocolate or scarf a piece of pie. Need a little afternoon pick-me-up? Reach for a soda or highly sweet caffeine drink. Like the taste of sweet foods in general? You’re not alone – nor can you easily escape the sugar that’s present in almost everything you eat or drink. No wonder it’s so easy to become addicted to sugar. And yes, sugar addiction is real. You can also beat it, as Dr. Keith Kantor, CEO of NamedProgram (National Addiction Mitigation Eating & Drinking) offers in this interview where he shares his insights into sugar addiction.

Dangers of Too Much Sugar Consumption

Moderation in everything has long been recommended as a way to stay healthy. With this in mind, it’s OK to consume a little sugar. Just don’t go overboard. As for the dangers of too much sugar consumption, Dr. Kantor says there are a lot of them, including obesity, type 2 diabetes and nonalcoholic fatty liver syndrome, which is liver disease. Alcoholics have alcoholic fatty liver syndrome. This is nonalcoholic.

“The problem that alcoholics have with alcohol deteriorating their liver, the same thing happens if you have too much sugar,” Dr. Kantor says. “It happens in a slightly different way, but it’s the same concept.”

How Sugar Addiction Develops

Why is sugar so addicting? How does a person develop an addiction to it? According to Dr. Kantor, sugar is addicting because we have a dopamine response to it. Sugar releases a chemical in our brain that makes us feel good. “So by consuming even a small amount of sugar, we’re producing a soothing, calming dopamine response,” he says. “Over time, the amount of sugar consumed will need to be increased to keep giving you the same dopamine response. That’s one of the reasons that people take drugs, because they get a dopamine response.”

It’s also easy to become addicted to sugar. “Some research suggests that sugar is more addictive than cocaine,” says Dr. Kantor, “and it’s in almost everything that we eat. So what you’ll see in a lot of the addiction recovery centers is the addicts switch drugs for food addictions, mostly sugar, but also gluten or dairy. They’re just transferring, substituting one addiction for the other to keep their opiate receptors stimulated.”

Sugar Addiction Can Sneak Up

It isn’t necessarily that you have to consume sugar for years in order to develop an addiction to it. The fact is that you can get hooked on sugar rather quickly.

“A few weeks is all you need,” says Dr. Kantor. “Over the holidays you could have cravings for sugar increase and it will give you different fluctuating energy levels and fluctuating blood sugar and there’s emotional ties to it as well, especially during the holidays. It gives you the ups and downs and that changes somebody’s emotions also from fluctuating levels of blood sugar.”

As for emotional issues, Dr. Kantor says that sugar affects people differently. But fluctuating levels of both insulin and sugar, which usually go together, give you highs and lows. “When that happens, it affects your emotions. You get jittery, anxious. Some people are affected differently and they get depressed. But sugar can definitely take over time an emotional toll.”

Fortunately, sugar addiction is not hereditary. There’s no genetic component to it as there is with alcoholism. “If a child grew up in a home that uses food as an emotional crutch or as a reward system, they’re more likely to develop food disorders or a sugar addiction as an adult, but it’s not really hereditary,” says Dr. Kantor.

Younger people, although that’s when they may get into the habit, are active, so they’re burning up a lot of the calories in sugar. But as soon as you reach middle age and older, says Dr. Kantor, the risks rise dramatically because you are less active. It builds up and you start gaining weight, which causes things like type 2 diabetes and other diseases. “Sugar, and being overweight, increases almost every disease there is, even cancer,” says Dr. Kantor.

Signs of Sugar Addiction

Can you recognize signs of sugar addiction in others? How can you tell if you have sugar addiction? Dr. Kantor says it varies. In some people, they seem very calm after consuming excessive amounts of sugar, while others, especially children, appear to be bouncing off the ceiling. Other signs include:

  • Constant craving for sugary snacks and drinks.
  • Consuming certain foods because of the craving even though you’re not very hungry.
  • Worrying about cutting down on certain foods without doing so.
  • Feeling sluggish or fatigued from overeating.
  • Having health or social problems because of food issues that affect school or work, yet you maintain bad habits.
  • Needing more and more of the foods you crave to experience any pleasure or to reduce the negative emotions from it.

If you crave sugar and caffeine — and Dr. Kantor says these frequently go hand-in-hand — then a sugar addiction may be present. “The best thing to do is to go cold turkey and avoid what we call the opiate receptor triggers,” he says. By avoiding things like simple sugars, gluten and dairy, you can help reduce the physical addiction.

The good news is that physical addiction to sugar can usually be broken in about three days. “A diet that incorporates complex carbohydrates (such as a baked sweet potato), healthy fats (like guacamole) and proteins (lean meat, chicken or fish) is ideal for that.”

Other Harms of Sugar Addiction

Besides being extremely addicting, sugar can cause other harms. “I think sugar makes it easy to get addicted to drugs because the opiate receptors are stimulated,” Dr. Kantor says. “It’s something you really want to watch and it’s a huge problem in America. It’s what’s caused the obesity and diabetes epidemic.” More than 78.6 million U.S. adults are obese and more than 29.1 million have diabetes.

Being addicted to any substance is unhealthy and can lead to depression, anxiety, weight gain, and reduced quality of life. There is a way to beat sugar addiction, though. According to Dr. Kantor, you have to modify your diet, which is easy. Have low-sugar foods, vegetables, quality proteins and healthy fats. Read the labels on foods more to find out how much sugar is in what you eat. Dr. Kantor also recommends meeting with a therapist to establish a game plan for the behavioral modifications that you need. There are psychiatrists and psychologists that specialize in food disorders or food addictions.

If you’re trying to cut down on sweet drinks, do what is recommended for tapering alcohol consumption. In between, or every other soda, drink a full glass of water. Add a little lime or lemon to make it a slightly higher pH that will slowly taper you off sodas. “And your therapist can work with you on behavior modifications. Exercise is a good way to do it, but there are other things as well, even meditating, that helps,” according to Dr. Kantor.

Pastries photo available from Shutterstock