comments_image Comments

I Was Addicted to Sugar

Experts say that sugar affects brain chemistry and contributes to cancer, alcoholism and depression. It was also my first addiction—and it's still hanging on tight.

Continued from previous page


I waited until I was in my early thirties to really begin looking at how sugar related to my mental health. I’d given up alcohol, which in college I’d started to rely on in a similarly escapist way. Sober and attending 12-step meetings, I began meeting women like me—women who used external substances (drugs, cigarettes, food, sex) to treat their internal symptoms. I heard these women talk with conviction about how they learned—through both simple faith and diligent practice—to sit with their uncomfortable feelings instead of blindly rushing to numb them. I related to these confessions, and began to make confessions of my own. I was forced to acknowledge how I’d compulsively used sugar as a balm for my depressed brain. Each time I shared about it in a meeting or talked about it with a friend, I felt a tiny bit less alone.

A few years ago I began meeting with Annie, a nutritional counselor who firmly believed that refined sugar was the devil. She emphasized the connection between what I was eating (crap) and how I was feeling (crap). A recovered alcoholic who once stuffed herself—and her feelings—with pizza, pasta, cookies, and gallons of Diet Coke, Annie had been off the white-sugar sauce for years. She seemed airy and glowy and (gasp!) happy. As they say in 12-Step-Land, I wanted what she had. So I began taking her suggestions and trying, as much as possible, to do as she did. I learned to cook fast, easy meals for myself at home, instead of constantly relying on take-out or frozen fare. I started experimenting with vegetables (a huge feat in itself—I was one of those rare vegetarian anomalies who didn’t like vegetables). I began avoiding refined sugar, but I still allowed myself a "healthy" dessert every night (I usually opted for fruit-sweetened soy ice cream). Slowly I began to feel a little less out of control around sugar. 


I can’t claim that cutting back on refined sugar was a panacea for my depression. I only wish mental illness were so simple to treat.  But I can say that I started having fewer mood swings, and I felt a bit better about myself, self-esteem wise. Just learning how to feed myself in a nourishing fashion – vegetables, me? -- was something.   

Now 35, I’m still on meds. My depression goes through peaks and valleys. Some weeks it takes center stage; some weeks it retreats to the background of my life. I may not love it, but I’ve come to accept—at least somewhat—that it’s a part of me, and it's here to stay. My love affair with sugar is still around, too. I dabble in phases of being entirely off the refined stuff, usually for a month or two. Then I'll go back to allowing myself the occasional bag of gummy goodness. Sugar still tastes deceptively like comfort, but I understand now that when it comes to my self-love-sized hole, gummy bears are just never going to cut it.  

Laura Barcella is a former associate editor at AlterNet and a freelance writer and the editor of Madonna & Me: Women Writers on the Queen of Pop (March 2012, Soft Skull Press).

See more stories tagged with: