Sugar Addiction and Mental Health: America Needs Rehab

Solo cups filled with sugarIs it slow brain functioning? Is it denial? Are we really beginning to talk about the “elephant in the room”? Do things have to get worse before we get real?

“It’s like watching a train wreck in slow motion,” says Laura Schmidt, PhD, a researcher at the University of California San Francisco. Research is piling up higher than ever with evidence that too much sugar destroys the liver, metabolism, brain function, and contributes to heart disease, diabetes, and cancer, in addition to causing obesity.

It was only a year ago that CBS’ 60 Minutes aired a segment about this very topic. Correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta asked researchers, “Is sugar toxic?” Dr. Robert Lustig, a pediatric endocrinologist at the University of California San Francisco, is a pioneer in what is becoming a war against sugar. Motivated by his own clients—too many sick and obese children—he has concluded that sugar, more than any other substance, is to blame.

Step 1: Admitting We Have a Problem
Eric Stice, PhD, a neuroscientist at the Oregon Research Institute, has used fMRI scans to conclude that sugar activates the same regions of the brain that are activated when a person consumes drugs such as cocaine. He also found that heavy users of sugar develop tolerance (needing more and more to feel the same effect), which is a symptom of substance dependence. Nora Volkow, MD, a psychiatrist at the National Institute on Drug Abuse, has done similar research using brain imaging techniques to show similarities between the brains of people who are obese and those of people who abuse drugs and alcohol.

Most people already know that too much sugar isn’t good for them, just as most people on heroin know that shooting up isn’t good for them, but you’ll see addicts go to great lengths to get their fix, justifying their habit until the consequences are painful enough to consider making a change. Let’s face it: We’ve been in denial.  The average American eats 130 pounds of sugar per year, which is approximately 17 cans of Coke per five days, a significant increase from our intake in the 1800s, when it was the equivalent of one can per five days. The truth is, America is high on sugar, and our lives are becoming unmanageable!

Denial of sugar addiction is enabled by excuses such as, “Everyone else is doing it”—from donuts at the office to candied yams at Thanksgiving. How could it be so wrong? There’s also the genetic excuse: “It runs in my family.” Many people want to attribute their diabetes, heart disease, brain fog, and whatever else is going on to genetics. The consequences of eating too much sugar are not as obvious as those of alcoholism or heroin addiction. Symptoms are often wrongly attributed to other sources.

The Dealers
Our national sugar addiction is a complex problem to address, as the culture-wide influence is far-reaching and widespread. The truth is, we are worse off than a person addicted to alcohol in a bar or a person addicted to heroin who is living with a dealer. Our “sugar dealers” are massive corporate conglomerates rather than the illegal drug dealer down the street. They get free reign in our society, with 80% of the food supply containing sugar. Advertisements function as repetitive, hypnotic suggestions beginning from a young age, normalizing and playing up the appeal of sugary products.

Remember the fight to get advertisements featuring Joe Camel banned because the cartoonish figure was particularly appealing to kids? What about Trix, Cocoa Puffs, Skittles, Twizzlers, sugary “juice drinks,” and an endless stream of products advertised during prime after-school and Saturday-morning kid time? Can you imagine advertising cocaine to children in the form of a candy bar?

The Link to Mental Illness
As I was doing research for this article, I came across an article titled “Dietary Sugar and Mental Illness: A Surprising Link” written by Dr. Stephen Ilardi, author of The Depression Cure and associate professor of psychology at the University of Kansas. My initial reaction when I saw the title: Really … a surprising link? Then I thought of our cultural history of ignoring psychological problems as though the head were, somehow, disconnected from the body. So this could be breaking news to many people.

The article goes on to describe the research of a British psychiatrist, Malcolm Peet, revealing a strong link between high sugar consumption and the risk of depression and schizophrenia. Sugar suppresses activity of a key growth hormone in the brain called BDNF which promotes the health and maintenance of neurons in the brain and plays a vital role in memory function. Hmm. What was I talking about?

I remember having a session with a mother and her 8-year-old son basically doing an intervention. The child was in therapy to address his anxiety, focus issues, and compulsive picking. He was taking medication to try to address these symptoms, with no real success. After discussing his eating habits, it became increasingly clear that the boy was hooked on sugar. And the more we talked about it, the more he sounded like someone who was addicted: “I don’t have a problem with sugar. I can quit; I just don’t want to.” His mother said she has attempted to cut back on his sugar, but gives in when he throws a tantrum (a clear withdrawal symptom, in my opinion). I’m sure the difficulty is made worse by the fact the mother has her own sugar addiction.

Food addiction is frequently connected to unresolved emotional patterns. More and more drug treatment centers are looking at dietary changes to help people maintain long-term health and sobriety. I work with clients in my practice and at Inspire Fit Resorts (Park City, Utah) to identify and resolve the thinking patterns connected with their eating and exercise habits. And what a tangled web we weave! Fortunately, we know how to untangle these thought patterns.

My Own Addiction
I got a handle on my own sugar addiction only a couple of years ago, and it certainly wasn’t easy. My addiction goes back to at least when I was 8 years old. I remember eating handfuls of Froot Loops straight from the box while watching Saturday-morning cartoons. I also remember climbing the countertop in the kitchen, when no one was looking, to get the Hershey chocolate milk powder and eat it out of the canister by the spoonful.

I got serious about eliminating sugar when I was looking at how I was outgrowing yet another pair of pants. I started counting calories, even the sugar ones, and became aware of just how much the sugary calories added up. So, instead of starving, I began to cut out more and more of the sugary foods and, after a while, I was mostly off sugar. The interesting thing is that when I ate a sugary dessert one day, it wasn’t long after that I began to feel quite congested and achy. It felt like I was having a moderate allergic reaction. This was eye-opening to me. I’ve been motivated ever since to keep excess sugar out of my diet as much as I can. My cravings, which used to have me running to the cupboard on a regular basis, have been greatly diminished.

The social pressure is interesting. At gatherings, I’m asked if I’m sure I want only one scoop of ice cream. “Are you sure?” Yes. And for my 7-year-old, I’m teased for “depriving” him of Twinkies, candy, and soda. That’s right. My parents did the best they could with what they knew, and I survived all right. With my understanding of addiction, I look at my good-natured, well-behaved son and I protect his brain with everything I’ve got!

What Can You Do?
Most people know sugar is a problem. The addiction is what keeps you eating it. I will address how to handle kids on sugar in my next article. For now, take care of yourself first and include your kids as you can. Here are a few suggestions to help you break the habit:

  1. Admit to the problem over and over. Denial is strong and it will surface regularly. Watch how often you joke or find reasons to justify the habit.
  2. Get support from health-minded friends and family. It helps to have someone you’ll be accountable to.
  3. Track every item you eat, even the small Tootsie Roll that seems to be “no big deal.” Often when people start counting calories, they leave out the treats like it didn’t happen. (Denial again.)
  4. Eat fruit to satisfy cravings. Fruit is healthy, since the fiber slows down the release of insulin into the bloodstream. Eat up!
  5. Try natural alternatives, like stevia or xylitol, that won’t cause the inflammatory insulin spike in your body that sugar does. Avoid Splenda, asparatame, sucralose, and other artificial sweeteners, as they trick your brain into wanting more sugar.
  6. Cut sugar in recipes by half and add cinnamon or extracts for flavor. They do this in French bakeries and you can’t tell the difference!
  7. If you must indulge, don’t deprive yourself. Have a small snack made with real sugar, and eat slowly. Add fruit or yogurt to feel fuller and prevent a crash.
  8. Get therapy. If you’re stuck, chances are your thought patterns are working against you.
  9. Reward yourself. Buy a new shirt. Get a massage. You deserve to feel good, and that’s one of the reasons we justify eating sugary treats!

© Copyright 2013 All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Shannon McQuade, LCSW, LMT, Addictions and Compulsions Topic Expert Contributor

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Jeanie Pendleton

    January 22nd, 2013 at 8:14 PM

    Excellent article! Looking forward to the next one. I’d like to show research to my kids’ school, church, our bank’s drive-thru window, and the grocery store bakery. All of these everyday institutions are constantly handing candy and sweets to our kids, without even asking mom or dad! Of course they mean well, but it’s a constant battle for us who know better. Thanks for addressing this crucial problem.

  • Tony Hazis

    January 23rd, 2013 at 3:40 AM

    I think I need help…….. I never realized it was such a bad thing. I don’t have trouble with weight probably due to a high metabolism but I pretty much live on sugar and drink about a six pack of soda per day. My memory has been terrible lately and I have been feeling like I have lost touch with reality and I feel like I can’t leave my house or don’t want to. I’ve been off work for quite a while and I fear I might lose my job. I don’t know what I need to do, or if I can get better on my own………

  • Kelli

    January 23rd, 2013 at 3:51 AM

    This was great. I hope that more therapists and physicians will start addressing patient dietary practices and think hard about how they could play a large role in the health issues that they are encountering.

    Medication is great and serves it purpose, but often it is not the only answer. In fact there are a whole host of physical problems that can be cured by just changing one’s diet, from diabetes and obesity to so many others. So it goes almost without saying that there are mental issues that it influences as well, but I think that as a whole many have been hesitant to study it until now. I think that this is a wonderful step in the right direction.

  • Shannon McQuade, LCSW, LMT

    January 23rd, 2013 at 8:12 AM

    Jeanie and Kelli – you’re both absolutely correct. This is a problem that’s going to require intervention at many levels. Chances are if patients aren’t responding to medication that it’s because sugar is the culprit. I’m already compiling more information for the next article (which is looking like it could turn into a 20-part series!). And Tony, you’ve already taken the first step right now. Step 1 is becoming aware and admitting there’s a problem. The consequences you’re experiencing will increase your motivation to do whatever is necessary to get better.

  • Cate

    January 23rd, 2013 at 12:05 PM

    I’d love to see links to the basic research. Could you post some?

  • Shannon McQuade LCSW, LMT

    January 25th, 2013 at 5:57 AM

    Cate, I hope you saw my post further down in response. For some reason, I didn’t notice the direct reply button.

  • Noel

    January 23rd, 2013 at 10:04 AM

    It is so hard to think about not eating things with sugar in them. I almost start to panic mid-morning if I think about not eating something with sugar in it mid afternoon. It’s like I need to know that I’ll have that one great moment in order to mentally be able to handle knowing I can make it through the rest of the day. An addiction indeed!

  • Opel

    January 23rd, 2013 at 10:05 AM

    I would love to get off of sweets, but here is my question what can I do instead for stress relief? we all have to have stress relief so waht is a good substitute for eating sugar since it does the job so good?

  • Paula

    January 23rd, 2013 at 10:08 AM

    One tip I can offer that really worked for me: when I would have a craving for something sweet, I would eat something dairy high in protein like cheese or yogurt. I didn’t worry about how much fat or calories it had in it because I only had to do it short term. Within three or four days, cravings were almost gone. It was like my brain was like, this stuff again? Whatever, it isn’t worth it! Good luck, everyone!

  • Rhonda

    January 23rd, 2013 at 10:11 AM

    I totally know what you mean about looking like a mean parent for not giving my kid sweets. It’s kind of like I am with nap time. No negotiating! There are exceptions though. When we go out, I do let my son pick whatever he wants to drink and I just look the other way. The funny thing is, a lot of times, he picks water!! He says that his food tastes better when he drinks water. And, since he drinks milk at home, I guess maybe water is a treat for him? LOL!!

  • Shannon McQuade, LCSW, LMT

    January 23rd, 2013 at 1:28 PM

    Cate, here’s a link to the 2011 UCOP/COAST Obesity Symposium, just copy/paste this url: There are copies of the entire Power Point presentations and videos of the lectures. May be more information than you want, but it’s extensive research.

    Paula, good suggestion, protein definitely helps as this is what your body makes dopamine and serotonin with.

    Rhonda, water can definitely be a treat, especially if you add some lemon (a blood cleanser by the way). It’s okay to have an occasional treat, I do the same with my son.

    Noel and Opel, I hear you! Stress and sugar go hand in hand. Use the anxious energy and get moving to release the stress. Exercise stimulates your endorphins and can be a great reward if you’re doing something fun that doesn’t feel like exercise. We’ve forgotten how to have fun!

  • Virginia S. Wood, Psy.D.

    January 23rd, 2013 at 5:58 PM

    I’d like to see some (primary-source) evidence that lemon is a blood cleanser, that sugar damages the liver or causes heart disease, that there is a “national addiction” to sugar, or that insulin spikes are inflammatory. Got links?

  • Alan

    January 23rd, 2013 at 6:39 PM

    It staggers me to hear people say, use sugar as a “treat”. It’s a POISON, how is giving someone a poison a treat? Eat like our ancestors ate, high fat moderate protein and some green leafy vegetables, ditch the sugar.

  • Alistair

    January 24th, 2013 at 12:42 AM

    Most of our foods now serve as drugs that one can get addicted to.The advertising is no less than letting drug dealers advertise as you have rightly pointed out.

    One question I have is – just how much of this problem exists due to the high-fructose corn-syrup sugar that we use?Would the effects be minimized with traditional sugar? Because I recently read an article about how high-fructose sugar affects your brain differently than traditional sugar and that may well be the reason for obesity in our country. More fructose -> no feeling of being full ->more food consumed -> obesity -> host of other health problems including heart issues!

    Is this true?If yes,then it seems like it is a well-meditated plan to get us hooked and into health problems by switching to high-fructose sugar in the first place!

  • Mary Spencer

    January 24th, 2013 at 5:29 PM

    Just be careful with stevia. For some people it causes whole body aches, insulin issues, etc. Just look it up to learn more.

  • Shannon McQuade LCSW, LMT

    January 24th, 2013 at 11:23 PM

    Always good to be cautious about sweeteners. Stevia has passed the safety test in most studies so far. Many cultures including Japan have used it with no trouble. There are other factors to consider as everyone is different in sensitivity.

  • Shannon McQuade, LCSW, LMT

    January 24th, 2013 at 9:39 PM

    Dr. Wood, I can appreciate the need for evidence and, while I don’t have direct links readily available, I’ve referenced trusted sources in the article and in a previous response that will lead you to a primary source.

    The benefits of lemons are quite extensive as they’re high in citric and ascorbic acid aiding in digestion, which aids everything in the body. I’m sure there’s a primary source you could track down.

    The national addiction to sugar is more of an observation of mine (and many others) based on the high consumption of sugar in spite of the many consequences, a characteristic of addiction.

  • Shannon McQuade, LCSW, LMT

    January 24th, 2013 at 9:49 PM

    Alistair, so far there’s insufficient evidence differentiating high fructose corn syrup from natural sugar, but given a choice, I might lean toward a natural form versus synthetic. Best thing is to minimize excess sugar as much as possible in any form.

    Alan, good point about our ancestors. Our bodies haven’t really evolved to a point of being able handle our modern diet (or the fast paced lives we lead, but that’s another article).

  • Jannina

    January 24th, 2013 at 10:06 PM

    Excellent post Shannon! Thank you.

    I do not recommend using sugar substitutes (splenda, equal, etc.), these don’t really fix the problem, which is your self-identified sensitivity to sugar. Sugar substitutes are many thousands of times sweeter than sugar, and can in fact make a bad problem worse.
    Eat whole fruit (not dried, juiced, blended, or anything else). This is a great replacement for sweets, the sweetness is generally lower, and actually has a dietary benefit vs. plain sugar.
    I just finished the whole 21 days of the 21 Day Sugar Detox with some great effects on my daily energy level. Do you have any experience with it?


  • Shannon McQuade LCSW, LMT

    January 25th, 2013 at 5:51 AM

    That’s great, congratulations! I haven’t heard of the 21 day Sugar Detox. Sounds like it worked great for you. You’re absolutely right about the artificial sweeteners. There’s also some evidence that aspartame causes tumors in mice. Even though we’re not mice, I’d rather not take my chances !

  • Chuck Jones, CSN

    January 25th, 2013 at 5:25 AM

    Respectfully Shannon, there is no shortage of evidence against the use of HFCS. First, fructose itself is preferentially processed in the liver. This is usually not a problem with with fructose from fruit as it occurs in smaller amounts and absorption is slowed by the fiber content. However, HFCS provides a massive rush of fructose to the liver, and once liver glycogen becomes full, ALL remaining fructose is converted by the liver into triglycerides (fat). That is the mechanism whereby HFCS contributes to elevated ldl particles.

    Next, there is ongoing research that shows how HFCS blunts your leptin production/ response. So basically you will ALWAYS overeat when consuming something containing HFCS because your brain just will not receive the signal from leptin to tell you that you are full.

    Bottom line: fructose is generally bad. High fructose corn syrup is toxic–avoid it like the plague.

  • Shannon McQuade, LCSW, LMT

    January 25th, 2013 at 8:03 AM

    I want to be sure I’m responding to everyone here and I’m not seeing the replies I’ve posted via mobile phone so I will post them again.

    Mary, good point about stevia. It is important to be mindful of anything you put in your body and notice how you respond, as we are all different.

    Jannina, I don’t have experience with the 21 Day Sugar Detox, but it sounds like it worked well for you, good job! Often, it comes down to being sick and tired of being sick and tired before we take the difficult steps toward change.

  • AliT

    January 25th, 2013 at 8:51 AM

    You realize that for sugar rehab then all of us pretty much a complete dietary overhaul.
    The way our diets are structured and composed today, we need to get backliterally to our roots and start doing more eating of only those things that occur naturally and from the earth.
    And that pretty much means starting over and doing an entire overhaul of the way most of us shop, live, eat, prepare our foods and live our lives.
    Whoa, that’s a tall order but one that is necessary if we want to continue living lives that are productive.

  • kim

    January 25th, 2013 at 9:43 AM

    fantastic post!!!!…i was sad to see that rehabs are only now looking at the link between addiction and diet…we need to pick up the pace…thanks for the great read!!!

  • Shannon McQuade, LCSW, LMT

    January 25th, 2013 at 2:28 PM

    Thank you Chuck! I appreciate your input, and I agree with you. I should clarify. The research doesn’t show HFCS to be any less healthy than other sugars consumed in excess (outside of eating the fruit whole). I found this interesting as HCFS seems extra toxic to me. I retrieved this information from a Mayo Clinic article written last Sept. Link is here

    Frankly, I’m not sure how people determine when there’s “sufficient” evidence. It’s like the tobacco/lung cancer connection, with the direct link not verified until the 90s. I suppose the societal denial runs deep. What does it hurt to cut out excess sugar to see if you feel better?

  • Roselyn

    January 25th, 2013 at 1:45 PM

    Almost all my snacking consists of whole fruits. And no sugary food is any competition to the natural goodness. And guess what? Fruits are not just harmless but beneficial when it comes to their content. So the next time you pick up that snack tastes oh-so-good due to the tons of sugar it has, ask yourself if you’d rather satisfy yourself with a fruit!

  • Shannon McQuade, LCSW, LMT

    January 25th, 2013 at 2:38 PM

    Yes, AliT…a complete overhaul!! Unfortunately it happens one day at a time, one person at a time. But as Kim mentioned, we need to pick up the pace! I guarantee you that if every healthcare professional would address this with their patients, it would make a significant difference. It has with tobacco.

    Roselyn, you’re absolutely right. Once we make the switch to fruits, sugary foods don’t taste quite as good.

  • Mental Health Rehabilitation Centers

    December 18th, 2013 at 9:49 PM

    The rehabilitation process begins by setting goals with the patient and their family. These goals help to shape a treatment plan designed to improve the patient’s physical, perceptual, and communication abilitie.

  • Crystal

    October 16th, 2014 at 3:46 PM

    Wow you just described me and my family. Thank you for the Great insight!

  • Ralph

    October 28th, 2014 at 6:32 PM

    Thanks for the helpful article. I’m 58 years old now and am thankful for good and wise parents who recognized all of this years ago. Not so thankful for in-laws who persecuted these good people (and their children) for these many years. I suppose, in their defense, that their addictions made it difficult to be objective thinkers.

  • Dr Basim E.

    November 14th, 2014 at 4:34 AM

    Excellent article! Looking forward to the next one i think that more therapists and physicians will start addressing patient dietary practices and think hard about how they could play a large role in the health issues that they are encountering.

  • Elliot Gounder

    October 19th, 2015 at 3:50 AM

    The greater number of I read, the more intrigued I become. I thought I used to be fairly current on current trends, nevertheless i have never heard of brainwave entertainment. The mix of audio visual components with electro stimulation seems unreal to me. I am not sure how I feel about trying this myself. I do believe I am too much of a worrier.

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