19

votes

Sugar's role in compulsive behavior

Answered on September 12, 2014
Created December 25, 2011 at 4:08 AM

This is an idea that has been slowly developing in the back of mind over the last year or so of my experiences with diet and various addictions. I'd appreciate thoughts, feedback, personal experiences, or relevant science that anyone can offer.

Basically, I've been thinking about the relation of sugar addiction to overall compulsive behavior. I know most of you will know what I'm talking about when I refer to the sense of calmness, control, and solidity that a couple weeks of strict paleo will provide. The first time I experienced this I was really impressed with the overall implications it had on my life - and the first time I fell off the wagon into a full on sugar binge, I was amazed how long it took me to pick up the pieces of all the areas of my life that were affected by it.

What I've noticed when I eat sugar these days is an increase in dangerous/compulsive/addictive behaviors in all areas of my life, binge eating included - but it also extends to alcohol and substance use, poor/irrational judgement, selection of partners, sex, social behavior... everything, really. Its like my ability to think about things rationally and make an informed decision just never kicks in.

Does anyone else see this in themselves? Is it due to the action of sugar/insulin on one's neurochemistry? Do you think there is a genetic predisposition and sugar "flips the switch?" Is it simply a cognitive/personality disorder that should be addressed via therapy? Do you have any other theories?

Cbb1134f8e93067d1271c97bb2e15ef6

on December 28, 2011
at 02:02 AM

+1 - Nice one with great links!

D31a2a2d43191b15ca4a1c7ec7d03038

(4134)

on December 26, 2011
at 11:16 PM

Amber, thanks very much for this information. It's a big help.

E5c7f14800c5992831f5c70fa746dc5c

(12857)

on December 26, 2011
at 01:49 PM

My mom says your mom sucks

0d0842381492a41b2173a04014aae810

(4875)

on December 26, 2011
at 06:57 AM

Interesting, thanks for the links.

100fd85230060e754fc13394eee6d6f1

(18696)

on December 26, 2011
at 02:12 AM

Fixed it to be more precise.

100fd85230060e754fc13394eee6d6f1

(18696)

on December 26, 2011
at 01:59 AM

Touche. It's not controversial to me.

3b7e6c77a5412587152c9e3f22b41c2a

(434)

on December 26, 2011
at 01:57 AM

I voted this up because it has interesting relevant assertions, with citations and quotations so people can follow up on where they cam from. But is it really true that it is not controversial? I'll bet it is hotly debated by someone, although that's just a guess.

664efb0a77ab70435f580d6867afa0fa

(544)

on December 26, 2011
at 01:14 AM

I AM THE GREAT CORNHOLIO!! http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Beavis#Cornholio

A15af22bd729ec030e8f47d1189b6eaf

(774)

on December 26, 2011
at 01:01 AM

@Rose Yes, that is what i am saying. I think is it all about how much attention you are willing to give to sugar – or – not eating sugar. As long as you have to repress an urge, it gets your attention, big time. And usually, the urge will win.

0d0842381492a41b2173a04014aae810

(4875)

on December 25, 2011
at 09:44 PM

Good point - my budget falls apart with high sugar consumption as well, mostly due to compulsive buying. I didn't think about that aspect when I posted originally.

Ce41c230e8c2a4295db31aec3ef4b2ab

(32556)

on December 25, 2011
at 09:41 PM

Also, I don't look at sugar as a "treat" or a "cheat". It's just a part of my diet--one that is self-limiting, fortunately!

8be7a492e2844e2ad5595a6c73974f99

(891)

on December 25, 2011
at 07:27 PM

loving this.....

8be7a492e2844e2ad5595a6c73974f99

(891)

on December 25, 2011
at 07:25 PM

+1 totally to the max. great great question.

64433a05384cd9717c1aa6bf7e98b661

(15236)

on December 25, 2011
at 07:21 PM

Exactly! The common part is the brain though, which I take to mean anything that is rewarding/stimulating can have far-reaching effects.

96bf58d8c6bd492dc5b8ae46203fe247

(37227)

on December 25, 2011
at 06:52 PM

I followed his series of posts with interest, but what I've learned this year is that "reward" can be changed from one type of foods to another. So it's not permanent.

96bf58d8c6bd492dc5b8ae46203fe247

(37227)

on December 25, 2011
at 06:51 PM

Yes, maybe I should've said it's about having reached a deep acceptance and comfort.

96bf58d8c6bd492dc5b8ae46203fe247

(37227)

on December 25, 2011
at 06:21 PM

Yes, that. Boredom is fun in this case.

Ce41c230e8c2a4295db31aec3ef4b2ab

(32556)

on December 25, 2011
at 05:40 PM

I don't know if I can make *that* generalization, Nance. Judging from some of the posts over on MDA, from folks who have been Primal longer than me, but are still binging, there seems to be a deeper psychological component, too. I think it has to do with feeling deprived. I don't feel deprived at all!

96bf58d8c6bd492dc5b8ae46203fe247

(37227)

on December 25, 2011
at 04:40 PM

@Rose, I think resisting the sugar and failing have something to do with the compulsive response, yes.

96bf58d8c6bd492dc5b8ae46203fe247

(37227)

on December 25, 2011
at 04:38 PM

I think you and I are saying similar things and I think it's about having eaten ancestral foods for more than a few months, don't you?

96bf58d8c6bd492dc5b8ae46203fe247

(37227)

on December 25, 2011
at 04:36 PM

Sounds like you're thriving now and that's great!

3aea514b680d01bfd7573d74517946a7

(11996)

on December 25, 2011
at 04:32 PM

Yes, we have an innate urge to eat sugar, and yes, we're surrounded by much more -- much more! -- of it than we ever would have been in the EEA. But are you saying the compulsiveness noted by the OP isn't caused by the sugar, but by the act of resisting the sugar?

685e3c967e63b4eacccf02628fd9a3ac

(1026)

on December 25, 2011
at 04:12 PM

My father gets angry for ridiculous reasons when he eats high-glycemic foods, but he won't listen to me. Every time he eats dried fruit, high-sugar stuff he gets mad at everyone.

685e3c967e63b4eacccf02628fd9a3ac

(1026)

on December 25, 2011
at 04:11 PM

Bullshit. My mother stopped eating sugar two years ago, she is still eating gluten, PUFA oils etc, but she told me multiple times she feels calmer. She has never been angry for two fucking years.

A15af22bd729ec030e8f47d1189b6eaf

(774)

on December 25, 2011
at 09:42 AM

Or as a means to comfort yourself when you're sad/hungover/exhausted etcetc

0d0842381492a41b2173a04014aae810

(4875)

on December 25, 2011
at 09:19 AM

The back and forth seems to be part of the ongoing nature of turning paleo into a permanent lifestyle change. Each time I find my effortless groove it seems to last a little bit longer than the previous stretch. And every time, it doesn't last forever. That is an interesting observation on hyperpalatability. I was raised on home cooked meals, but candy was a regular treat - in fact, through my dietary elimination, I came face to face with the fact that I didn't know how to reward myself other than with food.

9759643ce5d97ab8fa649ae954656c4c

(3325)

on December 25, 2011
at 04:18 AM

This is me exactly. I don't have time for a full answer this minute, but I just want you to know how closely this mirrors my own experience! I'd vote this up a 100x if I could.

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9 Answers

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11
100fd85230060e754fc13394eee6d6f1

(18696)

on December 26, 2011
at 01:47 AM

This doesn't surprise me. Eating sugar causes blood sugar swings, and low blood sugar causes lots of problems, including impulsivity and alcohol cravings.

On impulsivity, see for example: The Physiology of Willpower: Linking Blood Glucose to Self-Control

Past research indicates that self-control relies on some sort of limited energy source. This review suggests that blood glucose is one important part of the energy source of self-control. Acts of self-control deplete relatively large amounts of glucose. Self-control failures are more likely when glucose is low or cannot be mobilized effectively to the brain (i.e., when insulin is low or insensitive). Restoring glucose to a sufficient level typically improves self-control. Numerous self-control behaviors fit this pattern, including controlling attention, regulating emotions, quitting smoking, coping with stress, resisting impulsivity, and refraining from criminal and aggressive behavior. Alcohol reduces glucose throughout the brain and body and likewise impairs many forms of self-control. Furthermore, self-control failure is most likely during times of the day when glucose is used least effectively. Self-control thus appears highly susceptible to glucose. Self-control benefits numerous social and interpersonal processes. Glucose might therefore be related to a broad range of social behavior.

and Sweet Future: Fluctuating Blood Glucose Levels May Affect Decision Making

On sugar and alcoholism, see for example Does a Sweet Tooth Mean Alcoholism?.

Participants with a paternal history of alcoholism were 2.5 times more likely to enjoy sweets. Also, they were more likely to dislike the most diluted sugar solutions. Kampov suggests that the opioid system -- the part of the brain impacted by both sugar and alcohol -- is oversensitive in these subjects.

Alcohol creates a feedback loop, since low blood sugar can cause alcohol cravings, and alcohol can cause low blood sugar. This parallels the feedback loop from eating sugar itself, which can cause low blood sugar, and low blood sugar then causes sugar cravings.

Thus, it appears that the best strategy for impulse control and good judgment is to have steady blood glucose levels. The best way I know to achieve this is to eat such a low level of carbohydrates that you body makes its own glucose by gluconeogenesis on demand. That way you always get exactly enough and not more, which in turns prevents the hypoglycemic swing.

100fd85230060e754fc13394eee6d6f1

(18696)

on December 26, 2011
at 02:12 AM

Fixed it to be more precise.

100fd85230060e754fc13394eee6d6f1

(18696)

on December 26, 2011
at 01:59 AM

Touche. It's not controversial to me.

3b7e6c77a5412587152c9e3f22b41c2a

(434)

on December 26, 2011
at 01:57 AM

I voted this up because it has interesting relevant assertions, with citations and quotations so people can follow up on where they cam from. But is it really true that it is not controversial? I'll bet it is hotly debated by someone, although that's just a guess.

0d0842381492a41b2173a04014aae810

(4875)

on December 26, 2011
at 06:57 AM

Interesting, thanks for the links.

Cbb1134f8e93067d1271c97bb2e15ef6

on December 28, 2011
at 02:02 AM

+1 - Nice one with great links!

5
96bf58d8c6bd492dc5b8ae46203fe247

(37227)

on December 25, 2011
at 04:02 PM

In the past I might have said, "This is me!" I still do, but in a different way. Now I'd say it's all about anxiety, guilt and/or fear. It's both good and important that you're thinking about this, because it probably means you are thinking your way to a breakthrough that will make things easier for you.

Yes, I have body chemistry or a personality that is vulnerable to obsession/addiction. It took me a long time to realize that had very little to do with sugar and a lot to do with me. When I did realize it, I found I could maintain my calm and serenity even when I chose to have some sugar.

Take this week, for example. I started with shortbread, which didn't work out well at all because I had an allergic reaction to the wheat. Okay, then I had some ice cream with lots of sugar--no problem at all. Sweet eggnog? No problem. No anxiety, no guilt, no binge. For most SAD treats this year, I had a "not food" reaction; for those I enjoyed, they were just treats and not enemies.

The bottom line is, I used to transfer my addiction/obsession with sweets to other things like hopping on the scale many times per day or a constant dread of eating something sweet "because then I'll have to binge and I'll gain all my weight back." Self-fulfilling prophecy there.

Now, however, I realize that I am free to have a little sugar and there will be no consequences if I remain calm and serene. I simply return to my normal way of eating whole foods and I'm no different than I was before the sugar. I may skip fruit for a day or so, or skip my morning coffee with cream and honey. But even if I don't change anything, there are no consequences from a day or so of holiday eating if I don't explode and eat everything in sight.

If you indulge as I did this week you can expect some bloating or stomach discomfort which will pass through and be gone. Again, no long-term consequences. A few days of ancestral eating and the body is happy again and whole foods taste better than ever because they don't cause bodily upsets.

8be7a492e2844e2ad5595a6c73974f99

(891)

on December 25, 2011
at 07:27 PM

loving this.....

5
Ce41c230e8c2a4295db31aec3ef4b2ab

(32556)

on December 25, 2011
at 02:51 PM

I think some people may have neuro-chemistry that gets triggered by sugar. I don't think this is necessary genetic (though it could be for some Native/Aboriginal folks who have trouble dealing with alcohol physiologically.) Maybe epi-genetic?

What I've noticed personally is that I actually want LESS sugar after a year of eating a fairly low-carb Primal diet (50-80 gm/day average.) I was at a party last night with some cold cuts,cheese, nice-looking cookies & a huge plate of fudge. I ate the meat & cheese and a little bit of the fudge, but I wasn't tempted at all to eat the cookies or over-indulge in the abundant wine or whiskey.

Unlike a lot of folks on this forum, I eat small amounts of sucrose daily since I don't digest most fruits or starchy carbs well. Since it isn't "forbidden" to me, there is no psychological craving and my body is so sensitive now that I feel sick if I have more than a few teaspoons worth at a time.

I used to be a sugar-aholic, but no more...did my physiology change after being low carb for so long?

Ce41c230e8c2a4295db31aec3ef4b2ab

(32556)

on December 25, 2011
at 05:40 PM

I don't know if I can make *that* generalization, Nance. Judging from some of the posts over on MDA, from folks who have been Primal longer than me, but are still binging, there seems to be a deeper psychological component, too. I think it has to do with feeling deprived. I don't feel deprived at all!

D31a2a2d43191b15ca4a1c7ec7d03038

(4134)

on December 26, 2011
at 11:16 PM

Amber, thanks very much for this information. It's a big help.

96bf58d8c6bd492dc5b8ae46203fe247

(37227)

on December 25, 2011
at 04:38 PM

I think you and I are saying similar things and I think it's about having eaten ancestral foods for more than a few months, don't you?

Ce41c230e8c2a4295db31aec3ef4b2ab

(32556)

on December 25, 2011
at 09:41 PM

Also, I don't look at sugar as a "treat" or a "cheat". It's just a part of my diet--one that is self-limiting, fortunately!

96bf58d8c6bd492dc5b8ae46203fe247

(37227)

on December 25, 2011
at 06:51 PM

Yes, maybe I should've said it's about having reached a deep acceptance and comfort.

4
B0fe7b5a9a197cd293978150cbd9055f

(8938)

on December 25, 2011
at 04:28 PM

On a high-sugar diet, I :

  1. lost 5000 euros in 7 months. Earned all that back in 4 months on a paleo diet. You can say what you want, I attribute it to my diet.
  2. lost all my friends in 7 months. Spent all my time in a small room, doing nothing basically.
  3. failed all my exams. Never ever happened before.
  4. had lots of angry episodes. I would just start screaming for no reason.
  5. cried something like 6-8 times. Before the diet, I hadn't cried for more than 3 years.
  6. avoided contact with EVERYONE, including family. I was just afraid of everyone for some reason.
  7. did nothing else than watching movies, series (saw Seinfeld completely in 3 weeks)

It was the diet. Believe me. As soon as I started paleo, my life turned upside down. I became my old self again. Wanted to have fun again, went to France, went to the beach, went to the university, started studying and working like a lunatic to earn all the money back.

96bf58d8c6bd492dc5b8ae46203fe247

(37227)

on December 25, 2011
at 04:36 PM

Sounds like you're thriving now and that's great!

0d0842381492a41b2173a04014aae810

(4875)

on December 25, 2011
at 09:44 PM

Good point - my budget falls apart with high sugar consumption as well, mostly due to compulsive buying. I didn't think about that aspect when I posted originally.

4
F4a6fc9f0b701e12cdf2ad5dadaeb2dd

on December 25, 2011
at 07:54 AM

Wow! My paleo experiences have been almost exactly like yours. I was perfect for two weeks, then I got my hands on some pecan pie for thanksgiving. Ever since, I've only had a few true paleo eating days. For about 5 days in a row, I resisted the temptation of refined sugars by stuffing myself with fruit. My acne cleared up and I felt awesome. Then my unhealthy relatives visited. Everything has been upside-down since then. I believe that people who were raised on junk food stay skinnier than people raised on semi-healthy food, because the bad eater's taste buds think that sweetness is the norm and they never overeat because nothing tastes "amazing" to them. The people raised on good food, not necessarily paleo, have taste buds that see all flavors; bitter, sweet, and spicy, as the norm get absolutely crazed by how "amazing" the refined sugars taste. With this awesome taste, they overeat greatly, gaining fat and weakening their sense of self-control. That sums up what happened to me.

0d0842381492a41b2173a04014aae810

(4875)

on December 25, 2011
at 09:19 AM

The back and forth seems to be part of the ongoing nature of turning paleo into a permanent lifestyle change. Each time I find my effortless groove it seems to last a little bit longer than the previous stretch. And every time, it doesn't last forever. That is an interesting observation on hyperpalatability. I was raised on home cooked meals, but candy was a regular treat - in fact, through my dietary elimination, I came face to face with the fact that I didn't know how to reward myself other than with food.

A15af22bd729ec030e8f47d1189b6eaf

(774)

on December 25, 2011
at 09:42 AM

Or as a means to comfort yourself when you're sad/hungover/exhausted etcetc

3
Medium avatar

on December 25, 2011
at 04:45 PM

What you're describing is a certain primacy in sugar's capacity to initiate a downward cascade of deeply discouraging proportions. Sugar thus becomes something of a prototype for compulsivity per se. Which is why I have come to steer clear of sugar. At this point I eyeball "sweets" of various types, it doesn't trigger the "gotta have it" response. Key: transform your food choices so that you teach your body to burn fat not sugar. Thus you'll teach your mind to be bored replaying all kinds of speculations about why people who eat sugar crave sugar thus eat more of it.

96bf58d8c6bd492dc5b8ae46203fe247

(37227)

on December 25, 2011
at 06:21 PM

Yes, that. Boredom is fun in this case.

1
E5c7f14800c5992831f5c70fa746dc5c

(12857)

on December 25, 2011
at 01:20 PM

You think sugar is bad so when you eat it you think "well I'm eating sugar so I might as well drink some beer and eat some chips etc. etc."

E5c7f14800c5992831f5c70fa746dc5c

(12857)

on December 26, 2011
at 01:49 PM

My mom says your mom sucks

685e3c967e63b4eacccf02628fd9a3ac

(1026)

on December 25, 2011
at 04:12 PM

My father gets angry for ridiculous reasons when he eats high-glycemic foods, but he won't listen to me. Every time he eats dried fruit, high-sugar stuff he gets mad at everyone.

685e3c967e63b4eacccf02628fd9a3ac

(1026)

on December 25, 2011
at 04:11 PM

Bullshit. My mother stopped eating sugar two years ago, she is still eating gluten, PUFA oils etc, but she told me multiple times she feels calmer. She has never been angry for two fucking years.

0
64433a05384cd9717c1aa6bf7e98b661

(15236)

on December 25, 2011
at 06:45 PM

Yeah, sounds like it's tied heavily to Stephan Guyenet's food reward theory of food affecting on brain. If you haven't checked it out I think you'll find it fascinating.

http://wholehealthsource.blogspot.com/search/label/Food%20reward

96bf58d8c6bd492dc5b8ae46203fe247

(37227)

on December 25, 2011
at 06:52 PM

I followed his series of posts with interest, but what I've learned this year is that "reward" can be changed from one type of foods to another. So it's not permanent.

64433a05384cd9717c1aa6bf7e98b661

(15236)

on December 25, 2011
at 07:21 PM

Exactly! The common part is the brain though, which I take to mean anything that is rewarding/stimulating can have far-reaching effects.

0
A15af22bd729ec030e8f47d1189b6eaf

(774)

on December 25, 2011
at 06:38 AM

I tend to think that sugar, with "sweet" being one of the basic tastes, has a profound role in the evolution of humans, and the desire to eat sweet stuff might be deeply ingrained in our behavioural patterns, something that we cannot ween ourselves off (like, for example, smoking).

As we tend to, in our minds, demonize sugar to the point where it is the culprit for literally everything bad happening to us, a natural urge is therefore not only repressed, but in doing so, inflated. Not to be politically incorrect here, but a fitting analogy would be a homosexual person that is allegedly "cured" of his/her sexual "misorientation". At some point, repressed urges will erupt back to the surface (-> Ted Haggard).

Lets say a hunter-gatherer happens to get his hands on a few bites of delicious, oozing honeycomb. He would probably have devoured it straight away. No long-term negative effects just a big bunch of calories stored, making long-term survival a little more likely. Now, say a modern human walks down a street in any of the worlds big cities. How many modern representations of honeycombs do you think he/she encounters? :) We humans like sugar, no doubt, and resisting the primal urge to splurge on the sweet stuff is, with constant exposure, mos likely a serious strain on our psyche.

Does that make sense?

3aea514b680d01bfd7573d74517946a7

(11996)

on December 25, 2011
at 04:32 PM

Yes, we have an innate urge to eat sugar, and yes, we're surrounded by much more -- much more! -- of it than we ever would have been in the EEA. But are you saying the compulsiveness noted by the OP isn't caused by the sugar, but by the act of resisting the sugar?

A15af22bd729ec030e8f47d1189b6eaf

(774)

on December 26, 2011
at 01:01 AM

@Rose Yes, that is what i am saying. I think is it all about how much attention you are willing to give to sugar – or – not eating sugar. As long as you have to repress an urge, it gets your attention, big time. And usually, the urge will win.

96bf58d8c6bd492dc5b8ae46203fe247

(37227)

on December 25, 2011
at 04:40 PM

@Rose, I think resisting the sugar and failing have something to do with the compulsive response, yes.

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