Sugar addiction: how to beat ‘elephant in the kitchen’

By Marika Sboros

elephantIs there really such a thing as sugar and carb addiction? Some scientists say it’s overblown hype and marketing. Others say solid science shows it’s real.

US paediatrics professor Dr Robert Lustig, a specialist in neuroendocrinology and childhood obesity, calls sugar addiction “the elephant in the kitchen”.

UK consultant cardiologist Dr Aseem Malhotra says sugar is “the single most important dietary factor that is contributing to a worldwide epidemic of obesity and type 2 diabetes”. Malhotra has written a foreword to the new revised UK edition of the best-selling Sugar Free – 8 Weeks to Freedom from Sugar and Carb Addiction (Robinson) by South African author, speaker and recovered sugar addict Karen Thomson. It’s a riveting read. If you still harbour any doubt that sugar addiction is real, here’s why you shouldn’t: 

Thomson’s book includes an introduction by  University of Cape Town emeritus professor Dr Tim Noakes, and a chapter by top US research neuroscientist Dr Nicole Avena. Those are heavyweight endorsements. However, the book’s most compelling power is Thomson’s personal, painful experience. She has documented everything it took to overcome addiction first to alcohol and cocaine, and then to another “pure, white and deadly” powder – sugar. She also gives evidence-based advice on nutrition, based on low-carb, high-fat “real” food to quell cravings for the sweet stuff for good.

Malhotra enjoys a reputation as Britain’s most outspoken cardiologist on matters of optimum diet for health not just to treat and beat heart disease but other epidemics currently plaguing the planet, including obesity and diabetes. He is successfully leading the campaign against excess sugar consumption in the UK.

Noakes is a pioneer in South Africa of low-carb, high-fat eating regimens to beat and prevent those epidemics. He continues to challenge conventional medical and dietetic “wisdom” and especially official dietary guidelines. He and other experts internationally say the guidelines are likely to be “the biggest mistake in modern medical history”.

Sugar Free  Avena  is an acknowledged authority in the fields of nutrition, diet and addiction. She is also author of  the best-selling Why Diets Fail (Because You’re Addicted to Sugar): Science Explains How to End Cravings, Lose Weight, and Get Healthy (Ten Speed Press).

In his foreword to Sugar Free – 8 Weeks to Freedom from Sugar and Carb Addiction, Malhotra doesn’t say one teaspoon of sugar will kill you, just as one cigarette won’t. He does say it’s the consumption of sugar in excess over time that “has the most devastating effect on our bodies”.

He says we are now witnessing the consequences of that consumption “on an epic scale”. It is driven mainly by sugar in various forms being added to almost 80% of all processed foods. As a result, sensitivity to sugar has gone down, and as any addict knows, this leads to “craving and consuming more and more”.

Sugar is “not evil in itself”, Malhotra says, but there’s no doubt that life is “a lot better without it”.

Not surprisingly, he is a vocal proponent of prevention rather than cure. Rather than save people from drowning, “it’s better they’re not thrown into the river in the first place”, he says. Thomson’s book is one way of stopping people from throwing themselves into that raging sweet river. 

Addiction is a disease, Thomson writes in the book. Regardless of the  “drug of choice”, it “eats away at our freedom of choice and wellbeing”.  She believes sugar is an even more dangerous drug of choice that is difficult to overcome because it is “socially acceptable and legal”.

In Chapter Two of the book, Avena and registered dietitian Kristen Criscitelli explain the brain’s mechanisms of action that make sugar and carb addiction real and give all the evidence.  It makes for sobering reading.

She and Criscitelli aren’t saying that everyone who eats sugar and other carbs regularly goes on to become an addict. They are saying that addiction is a multifaceted disorder caused by different factors, that include biology, environment and even culture. Although the concept of sugar addiction has been around for many years, they say studies are showing that it is indeed “very plausible”.

They present the evidence but say that sugar’s contribution to chronic disease and obesity is far more sinister than just providing “empty calories” as was once thought.


And while the evidence is strong, they say there’s no reason to wait for more proof of sugar’s detrimental effects before cutting consumption. 

Thomson gives tools to help beat the “elephant in the kitchen”. It begins with a simple questionnaire to help you identify whether you really do have an addiction to carbs. Questions include whether you:

  • Turn to carbohydrate-rich foods or sugar when feeling down or upset?
  • Eat large quantities of sweets or stodgy foods even though you aren’t physically hungry?
  • Plan to eat a small portion but end up binge eating?
  • Eat sugar and other carbohydrate foods secretly?
  • Have feelings of  self-loathing, disgust or depression about your eating habits?

In his introduction, Noakes says when the messages in Thomson’s book become fully understood, we will “better appreciate the probable role of sugar addiction in the modern global epidemics of obesity and diabetes”.  He describes those twin epidemics as “the greatest challenges to human health ever”.

Unless we understand exactly how the white stuff influences our appetites and food choices, Noakes says, it is unlikely we will ever be able to reverse them.  The extent to which sugar addiction impairs the health of the world’s population is unknown, but is likely to be “a greater order of magnitude than we currently appreciate”.

Thomson acknowledges that it is hard for many people to admit an addiction to something as sweet and ubiquitous as sugar.  She runs the Sugar Free Revolution website for ongoing support and says that living a life in recovery from that addiction could give you a “life beyond your wildest expectations”.