Addictions involve automatic behaviours that attempt to return the body to a state of mental stimulation, easing withdrawal symptoms at the same time. So is sugar an addictive substance?
I’ve loved sugar from childhood up until around 2~3 years ago, when I felt dizzy and got a dry mouth and had frequent urination after eating way too many lollies. I consulted Dr. google, who came up with an answer that matched my symptoms perfectly- diabetes! During the time period between this epiphany and getting tested and confirming that no, I don’t have diabetes, I was able to lower my sugar intake, although it was a gradual decrease (over 12-18 months?). It was an interesting journey- I went from taking as many extra fruit bursts as I could, to being the person who rejected any offers for any kinds of simple sugar (I still ate lots of starch in the form of rice/noodles).
There weren’t many withdrawal symptoms (that I could recall), but some effective methods for managing the addiction were:
- Being held accountable. I would tell people around me what I was doing (no sugar, because I might have diabetes), and this meant that it was difficult to consume sugar in the presence of others, because they would call me out on it. This stops the initial urges when there is sugar present.
- Modifying the environment. Sure, I wouldn’t consume the sugar when in the presence of others, but when I was home, wouldn’t the urge have been even bigger? Sugar was everywhere in the house, in the form of lollies, chocolate bars, tea bags, nut bars, cereals, gum, drinks, fruits…. This had to change. So, less chocolate bars and lollies were bought, and new foods replaced them. Gradually, the pantry became less sugar-y and more savoury. Even if there was an urge, I couldn’t have acted on it.
- Linking sugar to harm. I have always thought of sugar as a quick fix for my craving for it, but the fear of having diabetes helped me stay away from it. Whenever I did have sugar, I would feel bad, and there were also some ‘symptoms’, although these might have been present because I thought I had diabetes. After a while, the sight of sugar was associated with harm, and it was easier to stay away from it.
The above techniques will probably also be helpful for other addictions too- just swap out sugar for something else, although some things are much more highly addictive.
I am not proud to say I am on sugar again, but this time the consumption rates are less than a half of what it used to be.
So, is sugar an addictive substance? Yes, but it is probably only addictive for people who easily fall into addiction patterns. Let’s look at the marshmellow test. (If you’ve heard of it, then skip the video)
Although the end result for the children who wait is more marshmellows, which might be worse for them, I still think it is a valid test because it tests the ability to resist instant gratification, which is all that addicts want. It has been documented that those who waited longer to eat the marshmellow end up being more successful later in life, because in today’s society long term goals are more important than short term energy boosts.
It is sad that many aspects of life is designed around pleasing the instant gratification regions of the brain, instead of helping us achieve our long-term goals. Advertisers make their products extremely appealing and/or appear to be on sale, so we get rewarded when we buy their products; Games are amazing although they don’t seem to benefit us in ways other from entertainment; drugs/alcohol/porn can all trigger addictions; we procrastinate only to panic when an assignment is due in 2 days… As people grow older and more mature, they are better at delaying gratification and choosing less risky behaviours. I just wish the environment around us supported these aspects more.
One thing I love about science scholars, is that everyone is addicted to learning. Curiousity is the brain’s way of saying it needs more knowledge, because it feels empty without it. This is why we signed up to science scholars, right? To satiate our never-ending thirst for knowledge? Researchers don’t say “my job is x”. They say “my interests are x, y and z”. There are things we explore in science, and other fields, that don’t have practical uses- and people might ask “why do you do it?”.
Well, we’re addicts. And proud of it.
Relevant video below: