I’m a sugar addict

Picture of Dr. Jen Kerns

Dr. Jen Kerns

I’m a weight loss “success story,” weighing more than 150 pounds less than my highest weight and currently maintaining a normal BMI. But I don’t FEEL successful. Because I am still obsessed with food. With sweets, to be exact. When I spoke with Gina Kolata of The New York Times a few years ago, I described my experience of weight maintenance as me having to have an “iron grip” on my diet. I told her that my weight fluctuates because each time I relax my guard, the pounds return. Today I’m 55 pounds lighter than I was that day that they photographed me with a 4-day-old Graham, and the truth is, I STILL feel like I have no control — whenever I “relax” and eat what I want, I regain. Since early December when I restarted sugar binging on Graham’s birthday cupcakes and Christmas cookies, I’ve been telling myself I’ll stop eating sugar “tomorrow” and having one last sugar fix today. This past week alone I ate 3 slices of yellow cake, Valentine’s chocolates from 2 separate heart shaped boxes, gelato (several times), two microwave mug brownies (yes, I know how to make a single serve brownie in my microwave using sugar, flour, cocoa powder, and oil) and icing-coated cookies. I have gained 5 pounds or so since Thanksgiving as a consequence, and am now up to 150 pounds this morning. I have really noticed recently more than ever that my behavior around sugary foods is akin to an alcoholic or a drug addict: I experience cravings for my substance, I have made repeated attempts to control or quit using my substance but have been unsuccessful, I’ve started to use larger amounts, and spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about when and where I will get my next fix. I continue to use it despite negative consequences. I have a lot of mental chatter surrounding sweets and feel powerless against them, trying to avoid sugar for a few days (and seeing my weight start to drop again), only to ultimately give in to my primitive brain and eat it again – just “one last time.”

I’ve been calling myself a sugar addict for a few years now, but only recently have I really started to look into this phenomenon as a scientifically proven disorder. Although food addiction is not yet included in the gold standard manual called the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (the most recently published edition being the DSM-5), it has been widely proven in the scientific literature to exist. A year ago, I cut all added sugars and flour out of my diet for a full 6 weeks. The first few weeks were rough and required a lot of willpower and white-knuckling, but by the end, I felt a sense of peace around food that I had maybe never felt. Like, no cravings. Even when I was around sweets, I could see them and not feel compelled to eat them. One of my residents at work even went so far as to ask me to “at least smell” his homemade brownies when I refused to eat one or just taste one (at 8am, by the way!)… and I smelled the brownies, but didn’t feel that irresistible urge to eat one. It was perhaps the most peaceful I’ve ever felt. I ended up going back on sugar over Mother’s Day weekend 2019, and since then have been fluctuating between white knuckling and avoiding sugar vs. feeling out of control and eating sugar seemingly against my will. It’s like, once I’ve made the decision to eat a sweet treat, my prefrontal cortex (the part of my brain with executive function, planning abilities, and self control) goes offline and my primitive brain takes over. Like I’m not even there.

In “Food Junkies,” Dr. Vera Tarman compares food addicts to drug addicts and says, “{addicts} often refer to their drug as their lover or best friend.” (I flash back to the book I’m writing: in my intro to the chapter I wrote about my month on a very low carbohydrate ketogenic diet, I described my trepidation about losing sugar, which I described as a secret lover with whom I had continued trysts.)

“To a food addict, eating even just a little bit of sugar, or any other trigger food, will set off the phenomenon of cravings that leaves her wanting even more. Just one cookie is enough to act as a trigger. Like a lit match to kindling, it inflames a highly volatile reward pathway. It’s just waiting to be set ablaze — an inferno that consumes willpower and makes it impossible to rationally moderate portions after that first taste.”

Yeah, that’s me. So. Now I am in the middle of an existential crisis: do I keep living this way, which allows me to eat sugar periodically and barely maintain my normal weight by losing and regaining and losing and regaining (and suffer with the mental angst that goes along with that), or do I give up sweets forever and practice abstinence to really address my addiction (and maybe even consequently achieve my dream goal weight of 135)? It probably seems obvious, but to an addict in the throes of a passionate tryst, the thought of losing my secret lover forever is almost unthinkable. Especially when that substance is one that is available all around me all the time, cheap and socially acceptable, and even pushed on me by well meaning friends and family. My prefrontal cortex wants me to be abstinent, but my primitive brain wants what it wants, and wants it now. The question of my life: Who will win this battle?




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