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The sugar habit

Just a sweet tooth or a real addiction? Once skeptical, scientists take a closer look at the notion that people can get hooked on sugar as if it were a drug.

November 11, 2002|Shari Roan | Times Staff Writer

In her darkest days, Elena Santaballa painstakingly planned her binges. She surreptitiously purchased her stash. She hid the evidence. Even when trying to resist the temptation to use, she almost always succumbed.

Finally, three years ago, the Culver City woman acknowledged that she was hooked on sugar.

"It's like being an alcoholic," says the 37-year-old entertainment executive, who was extremely overweight when she joined a 12-step treatment program. "There is always the danger I'll go back to it if I don't have some sort of support program. I still struggle with wanting to use sugar as a drug."

The concept of sugar addiction has been popularized in books -- and joked about -- for decades. But most health experts have long maintained that overuse of sugar doesn't meet the criteria of addiction, typically described as an intense desire for a substance (so that it disrupts normal life), great difficulty stopping use of the substance and a severe physiological response upon withdrawal. People who are addicted, they add, lose control over their behavior and use a substance compulsively and repetitively in spite of adverse consequences related to their actions.

Now researchers are finding what many sufferers have long suspected -- the compulsive overeating of sugar does at least share some of the characteristics of more destructive addictions. Their work is shedding light on the neurological response of those who abuse sugar.

In a widely discussed study presented earlier this month, for example, Princeton University psychologist Bartley Hoebel showed that rats will not only eat sugar excessively, they suffer from withdrawal when denied sugar and continue to crave it weeks later.

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Addiction 'plausible'

Most of the studies so far have been in animals. But researchers at Columbia University will soon launch a study focusing on sugar dependency in bulimics -- people who binge (usually on rich, sweet food) and then purge.

"There are people who have pathological, clinical eating disorders who say they are addicted to chocolate and other sweets. And you know what? They may be," says research nutritionist Adam Drewnowski, director of the Center for Public Health Nutrition at the University of Washington. "I think it's plausible."

So does Kathleen DesMaisons. Many of the people she counsels fit at least some of that description. DesMaisons, who calls herself a "recovering sugar addict," is a leading proponent of the theory of sugar addiction and the author of "The Sugar Addict's Total Recovery Program." DesMaisons was managing a treatment center for alcoholics when she began to see similarities between alcoholism and compulsive overeating.

"When you're addicted to sugar, you need more to feel better," says DesMaisons, who runs a Web site on sugar addiction from her home in Albuquerque. "Your life starts being focused on getting a sugar fix. You have symptoms of withdrawal, which is craving. You get antsy, irritable and cranky. To dismiss the experience of thousands and thousands of people who say they feel this way is pretty silly."

The average American adult consumes about 158 pounds of refined sugar a year, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, a figure that has increased 25% in the last three decades as the popularity of high-sugar-content convenience foods grew. Most people simply like sweets. But for others, the desire for sugar becomes extreme, similar to those hooked on cocaine, alcohol or other chemicals, says DesMaisons.

"They lie about how much they use," she says. "They hide evidence, like candy wrappers. They'll go out at 11 p.m. to buy a pint of ice cream."

And they flunk the chocolate-chip cookie test. While many people would eat -- and savor -- a few freshly baked cookies, sugar junkies would embarrass themselves.

"Imagine a plate of cookies just out of the oven. People who are addicts start laughing at the thought of that. They would eat the whole plate," she says.

Terri Walker says her feelings of worthlessness and depression made her realize she had a problem.

"I would say 'I'm not going to eat it,' and the next thing I knew I would talk myself out of it," says Walker, 35, a warehouse clerk in Barstow who was about 20 pounds overweight and, she says, suffered from fatigue, low energy and poor self-esteem. "Then I would kick myself because I had no willpower. I had feelings of shame and failure. A lot of the addictive behaviors that people would attribute to other types of addiction: hiding things, hoarding, being overly upset when someone ate your goods-- I've done all that."

People who call themselves sugar addicts also say the recovery process mirrors drug and alcohol addiction.

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