Sugar and food addiction is not something we talk about enough. That has to stop, this needs to be looked at in it’s ugly face so healing can begin. A few things we need to clarify from the get-go:
1. “Sugar” covers carb addictions of both the sweet and salty kind. Just because you are addicted to carbohydrates with salt on them (chips, pretzels, etc.) and I’m addicted to carbohydrates with sugar on them (cookies, cakes, etc.) – they all have the same chemical make up of being built with sugars. Our addiction is the same, you just put salt on yours.
2. What do I mean by “addict”? Well, addiction is having an intense focus on something to the point that it disrupts your life. I believe there are varying levels of addiction and addiction to sugar might be considered a milder substance problem than alcohol or cocaine, especially as sugar doesn’t usually lead to crimes and serious behavior missteps. I am not tossing around the word addiction lightly or disrespectfully. But, I am trying to call it what it is so change can take place.
Is sugar addiction a THING? I reached out to Melissa Hartwig when I was about to do a Whole30 Instagram takeover on it, and this is what she had to say about it: “While the DSM 5 may not yet classify sugar as a substance use disorder, many medical experts across the globe believe the evidence is mounting: too much added sugar could lead to true addiction. And for those of us who feel truly out of control with sugar and processed carbs, to call our experience an ‘addiction’ feels all too accurate.” (Source: https://www.
Step 1: Acknowledge this habit is disrupting your life
Sugar was definitely something I had “and intense focus on” to the point it disrupted my life. At first, about 10 years ago, it was just something I had *every* meal. Every meal had a treat. I couldn’t make cookies or buy Oreos with out eating them all, and then feeling ashamed and needing to hide it. It became a joke that mommy ate the last of it, even the ones that were supposed to be my kids or husbands. I would hide the chocolate in my sleeping baby’s room to try to keep my hands off it, but it had a siren call for me. I felt out of control and wished I could change.
Fast forward to 4 years ago when that behavior intensified. I tried to keep treats out of my house to prevent my unhealthy binges. That lead to me lying to my husband about an errand I had to run so I could go to the local gas station and buy hostess, milk, and ice cream. I would eat them in my car until I felt sick and then throw away the evidence. I was so ashamed and felt trapped. Every time I swore I wouldn’t do it again, that I would remember the sick feeling. But the cycle continued.
It wasn’t until I saw it for what it was, an addiction – NOT a “sweet tooth,” NOT a casual love for chocolate, but something that was OUT OF CONTROL – that I could start the healing process.
Step 2: Do a Reset (like Whole30)
Once I acknowledged I had a sugar addiction…then what? I tried many forms of self regulation – I would only eat treats once a week. I wouldn’t keep treats in the house. It never worked and I felt trapped and frustrated.
I heard of Whole30 from a friend who highly recommended it. I entered it not confident I could complete it but desperate for change. And I *failed* it miserably. I didn’t read the resources available in Whole30 books like It Starts With Food or any of the resources on Whole30.com. I tried to just not eat the restricted foods. I was scared to tell anyone I was doing it because, what if I failed? No support, no education, and no accountability = slim chance for success.
By week 2 of my first Whole30, I had nose dived hard core back into my habits. The guilt of failing propelled my sugar addiction, making it roar even worse than ever. Finally I picked myself up and threw myself into education – reading allll the Whole30 resources as well as devouring every clean eating resource I could find. To date I have read 47 clean eating books & typed over 150+ pages of notes from them. I had to understand this.
My 2nd and 3rd Whole30’s were successful. It was so liberating to find out I COULD live without sugar for 30 days! I felt invincible after each successful round. But, the old habits came back with a vicious vengeance and the guilt of not being “fixed” by my successful Whole30 rounds was almost crushing, as I had not only done these rounds, I had *coached* them at my gym. I felt like a hypocrite for being the coach who couldn’t coach herself between rounds. Why hadn’t Whole30 fixed me??
Step 3: Starve the sugar dragon, read Food Freedom Forever
Looking back on it now, one big factor was I hadn’t done all the work. I hadn’t changed my emotional relationship with food to the level I needed. My HABITS/relationship with food were the same on my Whole30 – I just used RxBars, larabars, dates, etc as my sugar crutch instead. I didn’t even really think of it – I thought I was so on point by using these clean sugar substitutes. But really I had just switched my “fixes.”
Letting go of my sugar crutches, even the “clean” paleo or Whole30 ones was the hardest break up I ever had. I think I had to get low before I could rise. There were many low nights of tears to my husband, times of anger where I literally shouted at my husband, “SUGAR IS NOT EVIL!” #denial. This kind of change you have to fight for, and I had to get desperate enough to finally FIGHT.
And I wasn’t sure the best way to fight. I looked into various food addiction groups like Overeaters Annonymous. But, that never set right with me, as many of them use complete abstinence from certain foods to get control. That didn’t feel like freedom to me.
Then in 2016 Food Freedom Forever, a book by Whole30 co-creator Melissa Hartwig, was released. I sat on my couch and read it in a day, literally nodding and saying out loud, “Yes!!” If you are struggling with a food addiction on any level and HAVEN”T read that book…you *need* to get your hands on it. For me, it’s the manual to finding your food freedom.
“Discovering food freedom is a lifelong journey of purposeful evaluation, increased self-awareness, and commitment to the process.”
Seriously, go read it, or if you have read it, RE-read it. I just want to put so much of it on a page for you here. But, it pushed me to finally commit to the process. I started my 4th Whole30, but this time, I paid ridiculously close attention to not just WHAT I was eating but HOW. At first I had to do a blanket NO to all my sugar crutches – no RXBars or Larabars, no apples and nut butter. They were always being used as a crutch.
This process took a lot of brutal honesty with how I was using my food beyond fuel and the process was not over when the Whole30 was. I carried it into my food freedom as well. I paid attention to times when I felt like I had no control and took action to change those situations. For example, I told my friends that though I was known as a baker, I would not be baking anything for a while. The tactile experience of making treats, even paleo ones, was too much for me and for about a year I. just. didn’t. Any treats brought into our home or to events were store bought, or my children made them.
Step 4 – Acknowledge food freedom is a process, not a destination
I will always be a sugar addict. Addiction is not something you can quit. The habits and pull will always be there – they’ve had decades of opportunity to root into me. How much influence they have on my behavior is directly related to how much I do the work. I’ve said before that food freedom is a journey, not adestination. You can’t “arrive,” feeling it for a day or a week or a month and think your work is done. As discussed in Food Freedom Forever, it’s a lifetime process.
So, embrace that. I told you at the beginning of this story that Whole30 wasn’t a magic wand. It’s a tool that has to be put to work. I gave a few examples last week of what that “work” is – mindfully eating, removing myself from habits and situations that kept ending in failure (like how I quit baking for a year so I wouldn’t always end at the bottom of a cookie dough bowl), asking myself the two fundamental GAME CHANGING questions “Is it worth it?” and “Do I really want it?” EVERY time.
The left photo is how I journaled my relationship with food in 2016. I called it “Mommy’s Sugar Challenge” and put it on the fridge. My loved ones knew my goals and my tracking sheet was in a public place. Addiction happens in secret, and it was time to end the secrets and the guilt and shame. For many months I observed and took notes – I wasn’t eating Whole30 perfect, I was trying to practice my food freedom. Eating mindfully and asking those two questions. When that went well, I put a sticker on my chart. Yup, my kids stickers on a chart like my then 4 year old. You laugh, but it was strangely very validating! Days that didn’t feel successful and the addictive habits took the wheel, I journaled – what happened, thoughts on why. Melissa Hartwig this an AAR (after-action report). I looked for patterns and tried to course correct anything I could control about the situation.
Step 5 – Do. The. Work.
Then what? To quote Food Freedom Forever, “Commit to the process every single day. Even on vacation. Even when you’re stressed. Even when you are so over the idea of ‘awareness’ and ‘worth it’ that you think ‘screw it.’ Especially then.” Will you always have to give this much energy to your relationship with food? No. Think about how much energy it took to drive when you were a new driver. So many things to think about! Like driving a car, at first it will take a TON of focus to do the work – to track triggers, to ask over and over “Is it really worth it?” “Do I really want it?” But now, I drive my car, hand snacks back to the kids, talk to my sister (hands free of course!)…driving has become second nature. This will too.
Finally, just a note that I was able to get control of my sugar addiction without professional help. But, there are so many amazing therapists and counselors who can be reached out to if you feel like you need the support.
It will be messy. You will mess up. But you can do this. It’s exhilarating to me that the siren call of treats is *mostly* silent. “You will move through the steps and strategies with more fluidity. When you veer off course, you will quickly find your way back. You will experience glorious moments when it’s completely effortless; you will automatically run through the process, make your choice, enjoy the hell out of it, and move on. This will feel amazing.” (Food Freedom Forever.) ❤️❤️❤️
To learn more about what my food freedom looks like as a recovering sugar addict + some free PDF tools, visit this blog. Additionally, check out this blog post on what my food freedom plate looks like.