Am I addicted to sugar (and what can I do to help?)

As with anything, moderation is key. But how can we know when we’re having too much sugar, and is having more than your recommended daily allowance really a bad thing? We explain more about sugar addiction – and ways you can try to cut back on sugar if you’re worried about your health or habits.

In our weight-conscious world, a lot of us can get hung up on what we’re eating. It’s not surprising; figures estimate that around one in four adults and one in five children in the UK are affected by obesity. When we are clinically overweight, we can be at a higher risk of different conditions, including type 2 diabetes, heart disease, certain types of cancer (including breast and bowel cancer), and strokes. For many, it can also have a psychological impact, leading to issues such as low self-esteem, low confidence, and even depression.

While those who are worried about their weight may focus on certain aspects of their diet, such as saturated fats, calories consumed, or even trying to cut out certain food groups such as carbohydrates, we can overlook our sugar intake. According to the NHS, most of us eat too much sugar each day, putting both our health and teeth at risk. Adults are recommended to have no more than 30g of ‘free sugars’ (sugar that is added to food or drinks, or found naturally in honey, syrups, juices, smoothies, and purees) a day, and yet many of us admit to not fully understanding what we should be eating. Do you know how to recognise how much sugar is too much?

Identifying the source

Sugar can be found in a lot more foods and drinks than we might realise. While we expect to find sugar in biscuits, fizzy drinks, chocolate, and sugary breakfast cereals, we can forget just how much sugar other foods can contain, including:

  • flavoured yoghurts (including fruit yoghurts and fromage frais)
  • unsweetened fruit and vegetable juices
  • alcoholic drinks
  • sauces and condiments (ketchup, stir-in sauces, salad cream)
  • some tinned foods (baked beans)

As explained by nutritionist and Nutritionist Resource member Karolina Lukaszewicz, sugar delivers ‘empty calories’ – meaning there is no fibre, vitamins, minerals, or other nutrients that are good for us.

While tips to help cut back on sugar and focus on a more balanced diet may help some people, simply being told to cut back on sugary drinks, processed foods, or fast food isn’t always that helpful. Regardless of if you struggle with your weight or not, people can develop unhealthy habits that link their food and behaviour. For example, using food as a way to comfort themselves after a stressful or emotional week; as a reward for eating healthier or completing a hard task; as a bribe to do a chore or task that they really don’t want to; or even as a habit that may slowly spiral out of control (such as fortnightly takeaways becoming weekly, becoming twice a week, or more).

What is sugar addiction?

There’s been a lot of debate about whether or not sugar really is addictive, with some studies likening it to cocaine. Whether it is as addictive as other substances people may struggle with such as tobacco, alcohol, or drugs, it’s important to know that we can still develop hard to break habits surrounding what and how much we eat.

Some experts believe that we can develop an emotional or psychological dependence on sugar-filled foods and drinks, thanks to the short-term ‘high’ or boost in energy they give us. This can mean that, when we’re feeling tired or stressed, we might reach for something sugary to give us a short-term boost, as the release of endorphins can temporarily make us feel more energised. For some people, this can become a comforting habit and can lead to unhealthy patterns.

Signs and symptoms

As with many addictions, there are signs any symptoms you can keep an eye out for. These can include (but aren’t limited to):

  • hiding your eating habits
  • making excuses or deals with yourself to justify unhealthy choices
  • an increasing need for more to satisfy your cravings
  • eating sugary things when you’re not physically hungry (purposefully or compulsively)
  • feeling a constant craving for sweet things
  • constant cravings for salty foods (this can be your body’s way of trying to counter too many sugary foods)
  • headaches, feelings of lethargy, nausea, or trouble sleeping when you decrease your sugar intake
  • relying on food for comfort (when stressed, bored, tearful) or needing certain types of food to celebrate
  • feelings of guilt about eating sugary foods
  • frequent breakouts of spots or poor skin health
  • dulled taste buds (the more sugar you eat, the more you need to taste that same level of sweetness)
  • periods of lethargy or low energy after eating (common symptoms of a sugar crash)
  • weight gain
  • trouble sleeping (particularly when eating in the run-up to bedtime)

If you have recently reduced your sugar intake, you may also feel a variety of physical and psychological symptoms, including:

  • feelings of anxiety or depression
  • cravings for ‘junk food’ or carbohydrate-heavy foods
  • fatigue
  • nausea, light-headedness, or dizziness

How can I overcome my sugar addiction?

There are a number of different ways you can help combat your sugar cravings. Simple dietary changes such as increasing your protein or fibre intake can help you to feel fuller for longer and give your more energy – both of which can be helpful if low energy levels are one of your main reasons for reaching for a sugary treat. Ensuring you are drinking enough water can also help, as it can become easy to confuse thirst with hunger over time.

Making the switch from regular fizzy drinks or sweet snacks to diet versions can be tempting, but can actually cause further problems. Research has shown that artificial sweeteners can encourage our sugar cravings and dependence, rather than helping wean us off of them.

Getting a handle on your stress levels can not only help you to decrease your sugar cravings but can also improve your overall sense of well-being. When we feel overwhelmed and unable to cope, we often fall back on negative habits to help soothe ourselves in the moment.

When stress becomes a constant, rather than the exception, we can rely on these habits to help us cope. We may not even realise that how we’re feeling emotionally (anxious, easily irritated, angry) or physically (trouble focusing, difficulty making decisions, racing thoughts, exhaustion, headaches, changes in appetite, problems sleeping) are actually caused by our stress levels. Increasing your exercise levels, practising relaxation techniques such as mindfulness or meditation, hypnotherapy for stress, or making time for self-care can all be good ways to help you manage your stress.

Working with a counsellor can be another way to help you better understand any factors that may have lead to you eating for comfort or boredom. Or working with a qualified nutritionist or dietitian can be a good way to start introducing healthier foods and more balance to your overall diet.

How can hypnotherapy help with sugar addiction? 

If you are worried that you might have an unhealthy relationship with food, working with a hypnotherapist can help you to:

  • recognise unhealthy patterns, habits, or behaviours you may have developed over time
  • help you to recognise signs of emotional eating and introduce different, healthier habits that can address any underlying issues
  • challenge unhealthy behaviours and replace them with more helpful, sustainable ones
  • help introduce you to new ways of managing stress and emotional overload
  • work with your subconscious to change negative thoughts, habits, behaviours, or connotations
  • help you to become more self-aware and mindful about what, when, and how much you eat
  • learn self-hypnosis techniques to reinforce new habits or suggestions outside of your sessions

To discover more about hypnotherapy, what to expect from a session, and how working with a hypnotherapist could help you, check out ‘What is hypnotherapy?’. If you’re ready to find help now, use our advanced search to find in-person, online, and telephone hypnotherapists who can support you.

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Written by Bonnie Gifford
Bonnie Evie Gifford is a Senior Writer at Happiful.
Written by Bonnie Gifford
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