When Sugar is Your Drug of Choice

November 22, 2021

Have you have ever thought of sugar as your “drug”? I know I sure didn’t, even though I turned to it whenever I wanted to feel better for years. In this post we’re going to explore how it’s possible to use sugar and flour foods as a form of drug (many times without realizing it) and how to make a healthier choice for your body and your life.

Feeling Addicted to Sugar & Carbs

The first thing to understand is that refined sugar and flour foods ARE addictive when we regularly consume them. At first this may sound silly, until you’ve experienced it yourself. I didn’t ever think of myself as a “sugar addict” because I didn’t eat a lot of candy. What I constantly craved was carbs! Bread, muffins, cereal, crackers, granola bars, and especially bakery treats. I knew I felt addicted to carbs because I constantly thought about them, craved them, over-indulged in them, and didn’t feel good when I tried not to have them. I could do it for a little while, but always ended up going back.

What I didn’t understand then, was that refined carbs and processed food IS a form of sugar. So people who think they don’t have a problem with sugar, but constantly crave breads, pasta, potato chips, corn chips or pretzels, are really craving sugar because that’s what it turns into.

When food is processed it becomes extremely concentrated. The natural sugar in an apple is very different from the concentrated sugar in a candy bar, especially when it is void of any fiber or nutrients to slow down the absorption. When we eat this concentrated sugar, it immediately turns to glucose in our bloodstream, spikes our blood sugar and gives our brain a huge release of dopamine. Much higher than our brains were ever intended to have! The same thing happens with flour (even whole wheat), which begins to turn to glucose the minute it hits your mouth. The more processed and refined a food is, the quicker it turns into sugar in your body.

When our brains receive such a big dopamine hit (from any source) our lower brain thinks that whatever is giving us all these feel-good chemicals must be really important and necessary for our survival! So it tells us to eat more and sends us more cravings. As the cravings grow, our consumption grows, and a dependency begins to form.

Buffering

To better understand how sugar becomes like a drug to our brain, let’s talk about “Buffering”. Buffering is any time we reach for something outside of us to change our emotional state because we don’t want to feel it. We don’t like the feeling we have, or are afraid we’ll have, so we do something to put a “buffer” between us and the feeling. We turn to something outside of us to numb or avoid our negative emotion.

This isn’t always a problem, until it becomes one. The more we buffer away our negative emotions, the more we feel less able to deal with them, and the more dependent we become on whatever our “drug of choice” is that helps us escape it.

For some people that drug IS a drug…such as cocaine, alcohol or cigarettes. But for many of us, it’s something more sneaky such as buying things, spending hours on social media, binging on netflix or binging on food. There are many forms buffering can show up in, but at the root of all of them is the desire to change our emotional state with an outside substance.

And it does work! That’s why we keep doing it. Overeating or over-shopping or over-anything makes us temporarily feel better, but afterwards we’re left with a net-negative. 

The Net-Negative

A net-negative means that once the temporary “high” of whatever we experienced wears off, we’re left with whatever negative emotion we were trying to avoid in the first place, but now we’ve piled more negative emotion on top of it with the consequences of our buffer.

For instance, if I’m really frustrated with my husband and I turn on the T.V. and chomp down a big bag of Doritos to distract myself and feel better…I temporarily do feel better. But when the Doritos are gone I’m still left with frustration AND now I feel bloated and fat and disappointed in myself for eating an entire bag of chips. I’ve also reinforced the habit to my brain that we eat when we’re upset.

How To Make A Healthier Choice

So how do we stop doing this? How can we make a healthier choice? Here are 4 steps to get you started:  

1. LET GO OF JUDGMENT

First, let go of any judgment of yourself. It makes total sense that we do this. Of course we want to feel better as soon as possible and, in the moment, reaching for chocolate or a soft loaf of bread works

Also understand that you didn’t purposely create this. Give yourself some compassion. Most of us don’t associate sugar and flour as a form of drug or even realize it’s addicting. Sugar is legal! It’s socially acceptable! It’s fun and happy and served at birthday parties and found in every Easter basket and Christmas stocking! The love affair starts when we are kids and kids are actually sugar’s biggest target market. We’ve grown up with it and it’s a very normal part of life. Most of all, sugar is everywhere and in everything and easy to eat all the time unless we are intentional about changing that. So drop any negative self-talk or shame because this is not something you created on purpose. Addictions never are.

2. BECOME AWARE

Become aware of when this is happening for you. Realize when you’re seeking your “fix” with sugar foods or drinks. At first you’ll catch it after it happens which is okay because that’s the first step of becoming aware. Then you’ll catch it in the middle, while it’s happening. As your awareness grows, you’ll eventually catch it before you eat and give yourself the opportunity to make a different choice…if you want to.

I emphasize want to, because you’re the only one who can decide if this is something you want to change. You won’t change if you don’t think it’s a problem or if someone else thinks you should or even if YOU think you should but don’t really want to. 

Should never changes us. It just creates guilt and beating ourselves up which leads to more eating to feel better. 

The first step to changing anything, is truly wanting to. So ask yourself if how often you’re eating sugar or flour to escape or feel better or to heighten an already happy moment, is a problem for you? What are the net-negative effects this habit is creating in your life? And is this something you want to change? If the answer is yes, then keep reading.

3. IDENTIFY THE EMOTION

 Once you’ve become aware that you’re desiring food to buffer away an emotion, identify what that emotion is. Give it a name. Are you feeling tired? Frustrated? Anxious? Nervous? Discouraged? Overwhelmed? Lonely? Are you just bored? What feeling is it that you’re trying to escape right now?

Once you’ve named the feeling, ask yourself why you’re feeling it? Our emotions always come from our thoughts, so what are the thoughts creating this feeling? Just identifying the thoughts creating the emotion you want to escape is helpful! If you’re able to, take a moment and write them down. Getting them out of your head and onto paper helps you think more clearly and make a clearer decision.

Next, ask yourself why you DON’T want to eat to solve this emotion? Your lower brain totally wants to deal with your stress this way, but a higher part of you doesn’t. Remember the reasons you decided this is something you want to change and WHY you want to change it. What is it costing you when you buffer with food?

4. ALLOW THE EMOTION

What if you were just willing to feel disappointment? Or nervous or worry or desire or whatever emotion is driving you to eat? The only reason we try to escape with food is because we’re afraid of feeling the emotion we’re experiencing or will experience if we don’t give into our craving. We don’t want to feel discomfort.

But if you were willing to feel the discomfort, what would be possible for you?

If you were willing to just allow the emotion to be in you without fighting against it or trying desperately to make it go away, what could you gain on the other side of that?

Because the truth is, our emotions ebb and flow…like an ocean wave. They come, they feel strong, they move through us and then they dissipate. Whatever the emotion is, know that it’s uncomfortable but it can’t kill you. When you allow it, instead of avoid it, it will lessen. It will pass through you. And on the other side, you will be left with one more notch in your belt that you learned how to FEEL an emotion instead of FEED it.

Every time you’re willing to do this, you’ll get a little better at it. Every time you practice, you’ll become stronger. If you’re struggling with allowing the DESIRE to eat just because the food sounds good and you really want it, check out my free guide “5 Steps To Get Through ANY Craving – Starting Today!” HERE. The tips in my guide coincide with allowing any emotion. 

Oatmeal Cookies and Grief

Let me share with you an example from my own life of reaching for sugar to numb my pain and how I processed through that.

My Sophie

A couple of years ago, my sweet, 13 year old dog, Sophie, passed away. It was especially hard for me because I was out of town when she became ill and was taken to the Vet by my son. The Vet called me and told me her kidneys had shut down and she was dying. He said she was suffering and needed to be put down. I begged him to wait until I could be there to say goodbye, but he said she wouldn’t last that long. I had to give him permission to let her go and nobody was with her. This was during COVID and, because of the regulations, they wouldn’t let anyone be in the room but the doctor and assistants who worked there. 

So I drove the 2 hours home knowing she had spent the last hours of her life alone and died without me. I sobbed all the way home and made plans to bury her the next morning. 

My husband was working out of town, so I had the stress of finding someone to dig a grave (she was a large dog) and had to figure out how to get her home. 

My son and I buried her in the best way we could and I had the sweet support of my best friend and sister who came to help.

After everyone said their goodbyes, I was overwhelmed with sadness. I don’t drink or smoke or use drugs…so my drug of choice was baking. I immediately went to the kitchen and made a big batch of oatmeal raisin cookies (my favorite since I was a little girl) while I cried. I ate spoonfuls of dough and an entire pan of oven-warm cookies as I tried to ease the hurt.

But as I started eating the second pan, I realized two things. First, my stomach was tight and distended and starting to hurt. Secondly, forcing myself to eat 12 more cookies was not going to stop my pain. It was only going to make me physically sick.

What I wanted was to numb my emotions and find comfort in the cookies. 

What I needed was to feel my sadness and to grieve.

So I laid on the couch, wrapped up in a blanket, and just let myself cry. I thought of the thousands of miles we’d walked together those 13 years. I thought of her fluffy, yellow fur and her bark and the way she lit up every single time she saw me every single day of her life. She was my friend, and I loved her. 

I let myself just feel that love mixed with the deep pain of missing her. I let myself feel the guilt and regret I felt for not being there when she died. I went outside and sat by her grave and talked to her. I told her everything I was feeling and thanked her and told her I was sorry. I cried and laughed as I looked at little videos I’d taken of her barking at the door until I took her for a walk every morning. I remembered the joy and felt her love and felt my loss. I just allowed myself to feel ALL of it. 

And allowing it to be in me, and work through me, is what allowed it to eventually pass

It took time, as new waves of emotion would come every day. But every day I that allowed them to be with me, without fighting them or running from them or trying to numb them with food…the pain became less. I was able to work through my sadness and guilt without piling more sadness and guilt on top from additional binges. 

This is one example of processing emotion and not all emotions will be this painful. But know that whatever the emotion is you’re going through, the process is the same. Be willing to open up and let it be with you until it’s ready to lessen its grip and move on. And it will move on.

Be willing to have patience as you practice the 4 steps to changing your buffering habit:

  1. Let Go of Judgment
  2. Become Aware
  3. Identify the Emotion
  4. Allow the Emotion

If you’re willing to be consistent, and willing to keep practicing this, your ability to handle your emotions without needing food will change and your ability to eat sugar and flour foods less often will grow

Let me know in the comments below if any of this resonates with you or helps you. I’d love to hear your thoughts!

Xo,

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