“It’s one of the worst days for me,” says Maureen, a young mother. “I want my kids to enjoy Halloween, but I just hate it. I can sum it up in one word — chocolate.” While the jury is still out on whether sugar is addictive, there is no question that the psychological aspects of addiction, emotional cravings for sweet treats like chocolate, do exist. For self-proclaimed “chocoholics” like Maureen, and those with eating disorders, holidays like Halloween, can be very difficult.
Is sugar an addictive substance? Proponents of this theory say that sugar affects opioids and dopamine in the brain, in much the same way as drugs such as painkillers, cocaine and methamphetamines. Opioids are analgesics that act to reduce a person’s perception of pain, producing the sensation of relaxation and euphoria. Dopamine is connected with pleasure and reward-seeking. According to the sugar addiction folks, when you eat chocolate you get a big dose of feeling good and reducing pain.
In addition to the physiological responses, those who believe in sugar addiction say that sugar produces many of the same responses as other addictive substances, such as craving the sugar, binging on sugary treats, and withdrawal from sugar if a person stops eating it.
While the idea of physiological addiction is hotly debated, most people in the field of eating disorders do believe in the idea of psychological addiction. One of the components of emotional or psychological addiction is conditioning, the association of sugar to a certain time or activity. For example, many people have chocolate to get through a difficult time of day, such the afternoon slump. There is also the factor of secretiveness (we all know that some people sneak-eat chocolate), and well as binging on chocolate and other sugary sweets. Some people use chocolate to soothe themselves and reduce negative mood states, such as boredom, sadness or anxiety.
If any of these things seem familiar, or if you relate to Maureen’s story, you may need to work on this. Here are some tips:
• Identify ways that you use chocolate or sugar habitually
• Assess whether you are using chocolate or sugar to soothe yourself; if so develop other self-soothing techniques
• Work on the problems at the heart of the craving
• Keep sugar or chocolate away from your home, or in very limited qualities but allow
• Use other ways to feel good, such as walking, stretching, reading or music
• Expect that you may feel “tense” as you reduce your chocolate intake
• Do not substitute sugar for another bad habit