Cravings for sugar are common after quitting drinking. Even if you previously avoided that donut or piece of chocolate, many people in recovery find they’ve now developed a sweet tooth. It can even start to feel like you’ve replaced dependence on alcohol with sugar addiction.
Should you avoid or try to cut down on the sweets after quitting drinking?
The Connection Between Sugar and Addiction
Sugar is notable because it acts on many of the same reward pathways in our brain as other addictive substances. When we consume sugar, dopamine is released in the nucleus accumbens and ventral tegmental area – the same parts of our brain that light up when we drink alcohol or consume drugs. It also acts on opioid receptors that are responsible for regulating pain and pleasure. Several studies have shown that refined sugars are even more addictive than cocaine. (Lenoir, et. al., 2007)
In early recovery from alcohol, the brain is depleted of dopamine and other feel-good neurotransmitters that help regulate our mood. As a result, it’s completely normal to look for any and everything for a boost – whether it’s caffeine, nicotine, sex, or sugar. This is known as swapping or transferring an addiction. Sugar is readily available and easy to become dependent upon during sobriety to give us a quick hit of dopamine.
Should I Cut Down on Sugar?
Staying sober should always be more important than managing your sugar intake. Especially in early recovery, if consuming some sugar helps you get through the day sober, then don’t hesitate to reach for that cookie. Making a major life change like quitting drinking isn’t easy, and it’s important to focus your energy and attention towards that goal. Worrying about or trying to limit your sugar consumption at the same time can make it even harder.
However, ratcheting down your sugar intake is worth considering once you feel more solid in your recovery. High levels of sugar consumption can lead to mood swings and has been linked to depression and anxiety. That can make it harder to stay sober. Strategies to cut back on refined sugar include:
· Switch to complex carbohydrates, such as whole grain bread, oatmeal, and sweet potatoes. These foods can help sustain energy levels, manage your appetite, and prevent large spikes in your blood sugar that leave you craving sweets.
· Start your day off with lean protein. Adding protein to your breakfast such as eggs or Greek yogurt helps you stay full for longer and reduces the urge to reach for that donut at work.
· Eat small snacks throughout the day. Regularly eating nutritious food such as almonds and other nuts can help regulate your blood sugar levels and avoid hypoglycemia.
· Replace desserts with healthier sweets, like fruits, dark chocolate, or those made with coconut oil. These can still satisfy your sweet tooth but have a much lower sugar content.
· Treat yourself once in a while. Setting time each week for the occasional ice cream cone can still be a safe reward during sobriety, when done in moderation.
Lenoir, et. al. (2017). Intense sweetness surpasses cocaine reward. PLOS One. 2(8): 698.
Johnson, P. & Kenny, P. (2010). Dopamine D2 receptors in addiction-like reward dysfunction and compulsive eating in obese rats. Nature Neuroscience. 13, 635–641.