Why Sugar Is So Crack-Like (& What To Do About It) – Part I

This is the first in a series of posts exploring sugar and the sweet sensation. It explains how they impact the brain, and in turn, our behavior. In a sentence, they leaving us wanting more, and send us foraging for more, because they trigger our reward center – the same one targeted by cocaine, heroin, and other addictive drugs. Part II details the mindset changes and perceptual shifts needed to change your relationship with sugar. The rest of the series will will give you actual strategies to implement and offer a 21 day challenge we can do together to experience life without them. You can scroll to the bottom for a table of contents to the series.


This series arises out of what readers have written lately on Mark’s Daily Apple about sugar, artificial sweeteners, and their effects on behavior. Specifically, people have written that sweeteners – both real and artificial – cause hunger, cravings, binging, or other regressions in their eating habits. Let’s look at some of the discussion:

  • Andrew wrote that tasting anything sweet, whether it real or artificial, makes him hungry. When he was experimenting with intermittent fasting, he ran two sub-experiments. In one of them, he rinsed his mouth with sugary iced tea and spit it out without swallowing any. Within 20 minutes, intense food cravings kicked in. In another exeriment (which he ran several times), he did the same thing with artificial sweetener mixed with water. He got the same result.
  • Nicole wrote, “I gave up Stevia because any added sweeteners mean big trouble for me.” Others concurred in the comments to her story: Shary (“replacing sugar with artificial sugar doesn’t eliminate the cravings”); Carrie (“Stevia might be healthier than sugar, but for some of us, replacing one type of sweetener with another doesn’t eliminate the cravings. It was much too easy to rationalize my way right back into eating sugar and junkfood until I eliminated all sweets”).
  • In the comments to this post on artificial sweeteners, person after person reported hunger, cravings, overeating, or binging brought on by them. See e.g. Bryce (“I used to use sweeteners like Splenda all of the time, tons of sugar and diet soda. And I would always say ‘I don’t know why I never feel full.'”); Alyie (“If I chew gum that has artificial sweeteners, or eat sugar free candy, I just start to want real honest to god sugar.”).

What’s going on here?

When you taste something sweet, does it make you want more sweetness? Does sugar make you crave more sugar? When you stop eating sugar for an extended period, do you stop wanting sugar? What about artificial sweeteners – is their effect on you the same or different?

I need sugar like five times a day. – Kim Kardashian

Why does the mere taste of sweetness send us over the edge? We might think the answer is insulin, but we would be only partially right. It would depend on whether it’s real or artificial sugar we’re talking about. And then we’d still be missing a huge part of the answer. To find it, we’d have to look to the brain’s reward center.  Which we’ll do right now, in this post.  Keep reading and you’ll find out why sweets make us want more sweets, pursue more sweets, and eat more sweets.

Quick note: By “us” I mean everyone except the rare outliers who can stop eating sweets after a bite or two and not think about it or get triggered in any way by it. This post isn’t about them. It’s about everyone else (which includes me).


From your tongue to your brain

For starters, sugar is a palatable food. In everyday language, the word palatable refers to food that tastes good. Scientifically, palatable means more than that. It’s used to refer to food that has the capacity to stimulate the appetite, prompt us to eat more of it, and motivate us to pursue it.

You can never get enough of what you don’t really need. – U2

For most people, sugar has this capacity. Artificial sweeteners do as well (as we see from the reader statements above). This study shows that they can make us eat more of the sweetened food, because it’s less satisfying than real sugar (so we eat more of it to get the same effect).

What follows is a working distillation of a fairly complex process. From it, you’ll see why sweets (real and artificial) are crack-like. They’re highly salient stimuli that target the same region of the brain as crack (and alcohol and heroin and other highly salient substances). Here’s the gist of the process:

  • Neurons are transmission cells in the brain.  When we taste sweetness, we activate certain neurons in a primitive region of the brain called the VTA (the ventral tagmented area). The neurons produce a neurotransmitter called dopamine and send it along thread-like axons into the nucleus accumbens, the brain’s reward center. When that happens, the taste gets our attention and we start liking it.
  • At that point, certain structural changes in the brain start happening that set the stage for addiction. Specifically, the VTA neurons send dopamine into the prefrontal cortex (which controls judgment and planning), which in turn instructs the hippocampus (involved in memory) to remember the sensation and the cues surrounding it. Dopamine is also sent to the dorsal stratum (where habit learning occurs), so a sugar habit begins to form, triggered by the surrounding cues. Emotion comes into play as well, because dopamine is sent to the amygdala and anterior cingular cortex (our emotion centers).
  • From this process, liking becomes wanting and wanting becomes doing. That’s because wanting is the motivational state where we’re willing to work for something. This “work” is what scientists call pursuit and acquisition behavior. It’s the stuff we do to recapture and experience the liking sensation again and again.
  • Key point: It’s not just the reward itself and our memory of it that leads to wanting and doing. The surrounding cues we’ve remembered do as well, because they cause a dopamine release too – right into the nucleus incumbens – like the actual reward does. So cues themselves take on salience and lead to a dopamine-fueled craving that make us work hard to obtain the reward. For example, the cues surrounding the sweet taste of chocolate – like the time of day when we have it, the people we eat it with, or a place where we buy it – lead to a dopamine release that makes us want chocolate and set about going to get some and eating it.

Thus, we go from tasting sweets to liking and wanting them to actually doing things to get them. Each taste and the cues surrounding them flood the system with dopamine, reinforcing memory, overriding choice, and continuously guiding us and our behavior in the direction of the reward.

This isn’t what the brain’s reward system is there for. It evolved to give us the motivation to learn and do behavior that brings us what we need. It’s a survival mechanism. Highly salient rewards (like sweets, drugs, and other things we can get addicted to) trick the system into believing that they’re needed for survival. They capture too much of our attention and push what’s actually necessary and useful into the background.

The takeaway

All the foods we like can lead to our wanting them (and to cueing and doing behavior to get them) because the brain’s reward system evolved to reinforce behaviors that benefit the species (like eating and sex). But sugar hijacks the system to an unnatural degree, the same way addictive drugs do. It exaggerates the process to the point where we keep seeking out the reward again and again. This is why tasting sweets make us want more sweets, take action to get more sweets, and eat more sweets.

Next up in this series: The mindset changes and perceptual shifts needed to change your relationship with sugar.

OVER TO YOU: What’s your experience with sugar – real and artificial. Is sweetness a big part of what you eat or drink? Is there anything you’ll only have if it’s sweetened (like coffee, for example)? Have you ever paid close attention to how you experience tasting sweets, and what flows from there?

Why Sugar Is So Crack-Like (& What To Do About It)
Part I How dopamine drives us <= This post
Part II Why perceptual shifts are key
Part III Tools #1 and #2
Part IV Tools #3 and #4

John J. Ratey, M.D., Spark at 50-54, 170-72.
Gary Taub, Why We Get Fat at 142-43.
David J. Linden, The Compass of Pleasure at 15-20.
David A. Kessler, M.D., The End of Overeating at 10-12, 35-38.


  1. Love this post. Great information and topics for discussion. I will definitely be sharing with some of my clients. Looking forward to the “what to do about it” post…

    • Thanks so much, Dai, for your good comment and for sharing the post.

      I’m already working on “what to do about it” and it’s interesting stuff – all of it. Because it’s not just a little sugar we’re talking about. It’s everywhere out there – with a lot of liking, wanting, and doing arising out of it!

      I hope you’ll keep me posted on what your clients have to say.


  2. Oh thank you for this! I know I constantly sabotage myself with sugar… or sweeteners. Am very much looking forward to the what to do AND the Challenge. That is what annoys me so much – I will likely do very well at the challenge because when I set my mind to it, I can do without, but then I fall off the wagon, so to speak, can’t get enough sugar and find it very difficult to get my mind set again!

    • Hey Marilyn:

      Thank you so much for writing. It’s great to know you’re looking forward to the rest of the series.

      For now, I’ll share this with you: It’s the information in this post that’s made all the difference for me, personally, when it comes to sweets. It shows me I can’t win with them – they take over my neural circuitry in a way that self restraint can’t compete with. So it’s rarely worth getting started. I say “rarely” because I’ll have something sweet when it’s really important – like a piece of my daughter’s birthday cake. To me, that’s worth it, because I know it’s important to her that I be a part of her cake ceremony. Off hand, I can’t think of another situation where sweets are worth it to me – because of what it might trigger.

      It’s that thinking that drives my sweets-free living. I don’t feel deprived because I know I’m happier and calmer and better off (and leaner) without sugar. I look at others and I don’t think they “get to have sweets” and I don’t. I look at them and I think they’re likely addicted, or at the very least caught up in a habit they probably don’t recognize as one.

      I hope this helps, Marilyn, and I hope to see you around here a lot. :-)


  3. Hi Susan,

    What an interesting and informative post. I think you should ask Mayor Bloomberg to check it out, given at least you would be pushing at at open door in terms of someone who holds office that is willing to try and do something to address the problems, and your analogy to crack is right on the money here, and begin to change the casual consumption of this product. As you point out there are evolutionary and chemically based reasons why we like this stuff but it is also about awareness, or lack of, and your post is positive push in the right direction – more power to your elbow!

    Thanks Susan,

    Julian :-)

    • Hey Julian! Thank you. Seriously, what a great idea to share this post with Mayor Bloomberg. I think I’ll Tweet him the link right now. :-)

      We hear a lot of joking about getting a “sugar fix,” and there are the usual cliches, like “sweet tooth” – but few people know what’s actually going on in their brains when they taste sweets – much less that the reward center it hits is the same one targeted by addictive drugs.

      So yes, awareness is key. Hopefully just knowing these things will prompt some people to change their behavior.

      It’s always good to see you here, Julian. :-)

  4. Thank you for this informative post, Susan. I have such a conflicted relationship with sugar; I enjoy chocolate especially and it’s hard for me to imagine eliminating it from my life forever. I don’t drink sweetened drinks, I don’t sweeten my coffee or tea and I can even live without pastries. But a life without a little chocolate every day makes me anxious even to think about…which is precisely your point. Clearly, chocolate has me captive and that doesn’t feel good. I am learning more about the dangers of too much sugar in our diets, the inflammation it causes, which, in turn, cause all kinds of illnesses. Perhaps it is time for me to make an effort to break that pattern. I am looking forward to your follow up posts on the topic.

    • Thanks so much, Ginny. It sounds to me like your “little bit of chocolate every day” isn’t problem for you. I think it’s for the individual to decide what’s a problem and what isn’t. A while back, I got to where I deemed chocolate problematic, when my “little bit” turned into a lot and I felt the pull of it on a daily basis, in an addicted-like way. That was when I decided to stop – even though I didn’t really want to. It just got to where I knew I’d have to one day, so I decided to get it over with. It turned out being easier than I’d thought. You might have seen the post I wrote about it.

      I’m working away on Part II, so stay tuned. So good seeing you here.


  5. Madelain Burgoyne says:

    Soooo looking forward to the next post.

    Sugar is truly my cryptonite! Makes one think about how we are turning our children into addicts!
    Makes sense that conventional stores stock products that have sugar in the to 1) enhance flavour to 2) promote the selling of more of their products. WOW… Hows that for a thought… Legal drug dealers in the form of stores.

    I believe that this is largely a part of me shedding the last few pounds around my hips. ;)


    • Hey Madelain:

      Thanks you for writing. It does make sense, doesn’t it? Most people don’t have any idea how sugar effects them. Even the nutritionally savvy think it’s mostly about insulin. Insulin plays a big role, but so does neurology. So rare (even in savvy circles) is the discussion about that. Hence this post.

      You’re so right about stores. They sell what sells. The other (huge) part of it is the food manufacturers. They have highly skilled (highly paid) food scientists on board whose job is to create what the industry calls the “bliss point” of food. They do it by combining sugar, salt, and fat in optimal ways, so people can’t stop eating. In other words, there’s a conscious effort on the industry’s part to cause addiction for the purpose of making money. There’s even a new book out now called just that – Salt Sugar Fat. Have you heard about it?

      Even combining 2 of these 3 ingredients (sugar and fat, for example) will hit the brain’s reward center harder than just one on its own. Which is part of what explains the addictive nature of chocolate. Chocolate is a fat source. By itself, without sugar, it tastes pretty awful. It’s only good when it’s sweet. Fat and sugar team up and make dopamine run in our brains – and they’re extraordinarily good at it together!

      It’s interesting what you wrote about the last few pounds. Some might say it’s homeostasis. But you’re right – it may (as you say) be the cryptonite.

      Great seeing you here, Madelain.


  6. As a Mountain Instructor working in Outdoor Education (in scotland) and also a paleo/primal eater, I’m finding your site very interesting. I spend a lot of time teaching parts of your model to the young people I work with already, especially mindset and your ‘motion’ parts (although we refer to it as the plan-do-review learning cycle). We also use other models related to learning and changing habits such as how to deconstruct a big task (how do you eat an elephant?) and creating support networks to increase chance of success among others.

    As a primal eater working with young people in Glasgow, I’m constantly amazed at the amount of sugar that they consume over here. I believe the average Glasweigian teenager consumes over pound of refined sugar a day (not including anything from the usual starchy food that they eat on top of that), and I have personally witnessed teenagers drink 4 litres of Irn Bru (a bright orange soda drink similar to Coke) in one sitting. Quite often their packed lunches provided by parents are full of sweets and fizzy drinks, with not much else.

    What you mention here is so true, I know that as soon as I have some sort of sugar/wheat based junk, it’s like opening floodgates, and all I want is more. I’ve actually started just accepting it, and so whenever I have the rare urge to eat somethig sugary, I’ll just turn it into a cheat day, and stuff my face to the point of feeling sick, that way I always associate this ‘food’ with feeling really bad, and means I don’t do it very often!

    Keep up the good work!

    • Hey Paul:

      Thank you for writing. Really good work you do with the young people you teach. Your plan-do-review learning cycle seems to nicely parallel the “try-learn-rework” motion loop of app4Mind.

      The observations you’ve shared are troubling indeed. Most people have little awareness of how their food and drink affect them. Nor do they seem to care. The focus is on taste and immediate feel. Few realize that they’re physically and neurologically addicted to what they consume every day. It’s not really a matter of choice – it’s a matter of continued consumption to keep the feeling going (because the feeling is short-lived and requires continuous refueling).

      I experience “floodgates” as you do – and I’ve dealt with it in exactly the same way – with the same ultimate result (not opening them very often). Some people grant themselves one cheat day per week. That would be way too often for me. I eat grain all of once a year (a piece of my daughter’s birthday cake). It tastes delicious and ends up making me feel so bad that it’s enough of a deterrent to last the whole year. As for chocolate, I went from having it every day to only rarely. Thankfully, it doesn’t even seem that great to me anymore.

      Excellent comment, Paul. I’d be interested to know whether you’ve tried plan-do-review in connection with teaching kids about nutrition. When it comes to what they eat and drink, if they learn to “review” what they “do” (i.e. feel the feeling and pay attention to it), might it lead to behavior change? I wonder.

      Look forward to seeing more from you here, Paul.


      • Hi Susan,

        Most of the work that I do revolves around personal and team development, giving young people life skills to help them make changes and face challenges. After getting really interested in diet and lifestyle, I quickly came to realise that, as you’ve mentioned, most people know that the food they eat is bad for them, but they don’t realise just what a difference it makes, and don’t really have any interest in trying.

        I’m sure you’ve noticed yourself, if people aren’t interested in change they will hold onto their paradigm that there’s no problem, or if they believe that their diet is healthy (following the standard government issue diet advice) that they often aren’t open to a debate about it.

        That said I’ve had a few people over the last couple of years take an interest, and my general advice is similar to some of the advice you have here on this site. “Try it for 30 days. Even if saturated fat is bad for you, and wholegrains are essential, 30 days of your life is not enough to have any long term negative effects. Just track how you feel and compare the difference, After 30 days you can decide where to go from there.” If I’ve spent time on the plan-do-review model then the links become obvious to leaning or changing anything.

        I’m currently directing course based around the links between healthy eating and exercise, to around 144 teenagers across scotland, It’s incredibly difficult to do as the message I’m supposed to deliver is the usual ‘low-fat-wholegrain-balanced diet’ message. So I’ve had to find the middle ground in the message, and focus on encouraging nutrient density and variety and cooking from fresh as often as possible. It’s easy to show someone that they eat too much wheat when they’ve had toast/cereal for breakfast, sandwiches for lunch and pasta for dinner. Showing them that change is possible is the next step.

        • Hey Paul:

          Sounds like do indeed have your work cut out for you! You’re so right about people sticking to their paradigms. I see it all the time. Just a few weeks ago, I suggested to my brother (who wants to lose weight) that he cut out grains for 30 days. He was on board with the idea immediately – and I was floored – because I’ve never had someone be so receptive so fast!

          I like your 30 day approach and rationale. It’s too bad that you’re expected to convey the conventional (low fat, whole grain) message. It’s good you’re trying to find middle ground. Actually, as I think of it, perhaps the middle ground should be the real focus. Perhaps the real question is: What are the things most of us can agree on? Actually, I think it’s quite a lot – my list is below, which I’ve written off the top of my head in no particular order …

          Things most of us can agree on:

          1) Eat fresh, unprocessed food that’s as close as possible to how it’s found in nature.
          2) Don’t eat refined sugar – except as a rare treat.
          3) Don’t eat highly processed oils – ever. There’s no reason to. Eat only healthy fats. See #4 below.
          4) Eat healthy fats – like avocados, minimally processed oils, and some nuts.
          5) If you’re not comfortable eating saturated fats, don’t. Stick to healthy other fats (like monounsaturated olive oil) and you’ll be fine.
          6) Eat animal protein without any breading or flour coating.
          7) If you’re not comfortable eating animal protein, don’t – but be sure to get enough protein from plant sources.
          8) If you really believe you need whole grains, eat them in their most basic form, without any sweeteners (e.g. plain steel cut oats).
          9) Figure out how many grams of carbs your body really needs and stick to that amount, most of the time. Same with protein and fat.
          10) If you need to boost your carb count for some reason, do it with nutrient dense food, like fruit and sweet potatoes.
          11) Drink water; don’t drink sweetened beverages.
          12) Have some coffee, but only if you can drink it unsweetened. If you can’t, then you don’t really like coffee. Switch to tea, preferably green.
          13) Drinking alcohol isn’t “healthy” – despite some claims to the contrary. If you really want some, stick to once a week.
          14) Make your own choice about dairy, but remember – it’s high in carbs and can spike your insulin, so treat it like sugar.
          15) Legumes contain a lot of phytic acid, which impede mineral absorption. Find another source of protein (and carbs) that won’t hurt you like this.

          You’re so right about change. Showing people it’s possible takes some doing – and how we present it makes all the difference in whether they’re are open to it or not. With paleo, I think an effective way to present it is by telling people what’s actually true – which is that no one commits to paleo without trying it out first. (I saw this over and over in the research I did for my guest post on Mark’s blog.) People either try paleo for a specific reason (like weight loss or to address a health problem), or they try it just to try it – out of curiosity or on a lark. At some point, they get to where they feel better in some way. They lean out, or a malady subsides, or they find they have more energy – or some combination of things like that. So they decide to go long term with it – 80/20 or 90/10 or whatever they devise for themselves. Almost no one goes paleo 100%. Here’s what drives it: they find they like paleo better than their old way. It becomes a matter of preference, not willpower.

          I’d love to know your thoughts, Paul.


          • Hi Susan,

            Thanks for your reply, that’s a good list, I’ll try to incorporate them into the courses I run. A couple do still look on the ‘Primal’ side of middle ground, I think it would be hard to convince a lot of people that seed oils and legumes are in fact not great for you!

            I especially like your comment on the bread coating, that could also probably just include ‘reduce or eliminate processed meat’ (go for meats that look more like a straight cut of animal, rather than a mashed and reformed version)

            When it comes to finding out the number of carbs your body needs, I’d probably simplify so it’s easier to accept…

            1) Starchy carbs provide energy for exercise, so when you have days where you don’t do as much exercise, don’t eat as many carbs.

            2) Food types all have a sliding scale of better to worse, with carbs it roughly goes something like this… fruit – sweet potato – potato – rice – oats-legumes – corn – wheat/soy

            also I talk a bit about what a balanced diet actually means

            3) A balanced diet quite often becomes an excuse to eat whatever you want, but in reality it’s about not having a too large proportion of any one food to ensure a good range of nutrients. Something like half of all calories in the US and UK come from just three foods, corn, wheat and soy. This isn’t balanced. Replace some of these with more meat, veggies, eggs and other nutrient rich foods.

            4)fruit juice is high in sugar and lacks fibre to slow down the damage, if you want to drink the stuff, go for smoothies instead.

            At the end of the day, even the standard low-fat wholegrain diet is an improvement on the Macdonalds and Pizza SAD diet, I’m just hoping to plant a few seeds, and maybe spark enough interest that they might do a bit of research on their own and discover it for themselves. Sometimes, though, it takes a real problem to occur before people start to take things seriously. My wife went for over a year of my primal life trying to ignore me, until I pestered her into a 30 day no dairy trial to cure her acne. Which worked, and then she started to listen to everything else too. My Step Dad has recently been diagnosed with type 2, until that point he used to joke about my weird diet. Now he has asked for all of my books and documentaries.

            You were bang on in your guest post with Mark, it’s either dealing with a problem (and usually a last resort at that), or try it ‘just to see what it’s like’.

          • Hey Paul:

            It looks like between the two of us, we might just come up with a reasonable list that some folks might actually try out and follow, all or at least in part.

            To your #1, I would add that it takes a bit of self-experimentation to figure out how many carbs we need for our exercise level, and we generally don’t need nearly as many as we might think.

            Given that it’s so ingrained in people (pun intended) that grains are necessary, I think it’s helpful to have a concise, credible, and easily graspable explanation for why they aren’t. The best mini-explanation I know of is thisL All the nutrients you can get from grains can be gotten from foods that don’t have as high a carb count – and – if you eat less (or no) grain, you won’t run a fiber deficit, because you’ll have more room for fiber dense vegetables.

            One hugely important thing for people to know is that most of the bread supply is sweetened with something – whether it’s sugar, honey, molasses, dextrose, or something sweet tasting that’s a form of sugar. (At least that’s how it is in the U.S. – has it gotten as bad in the U.K.?)

            Is there a book you generally recommend to people? I especially like Gary Taube’s Why We Get Fat. The research is solid, it’s well presented, and Taubes isn’t a paleo zealot – so he doesn’t come off as trying to advance the movement.

            How great it would be to add some visuals to your words, so people can see what food should look like laid out on their plates (most of the time). Eating paleo is a skill that takes learning and practice – because most of the food out there is either not paleo at all (i.e. grains), or it’s embellished with non-paleo ingredients (as breaded meat is). So if one is looking for paleo food, it can take some doing to find it. Often, when we’re out and about (and especially when traveling), it can be near impossible, so pre-planning and packing come into play. As I said, it’s a skill that takes learning and practice.

            It’s great work you’re doing – planting seeds and sparking interest. For many, as you point out, it will take a real problem for them to take notice. Some will try out of curiosity, though. I think the key is how it’s presented – so it’s good you’re focused on that. I wrote a paleo primer a while back, trying my best to make it understandable. Perhaps you’ll find it helpful.

            It’s interesting what you wrote about your wife’s experience. An acne clear up is the first thing I noticed when I went paleo. It’s good for quite a lot of things, on the surface and well below.

            Thanks, Paul.

  7. I want that 20 minutes.
    I read the sugar blog while drinking a frappacino, but it was my first frappucino, ever. Is it “a” or “u”? It’s a sugar bomb.
    I need to make all types of changes. I think your site can be a genuine mover. Thanks.

    • Hey Craig:

      Good to hear from you! Really, your first ever Frappuccino – while reading this post? What an interesting confluence of events.

      How did it make you feel? Could you feel the dopamine rushing around your brain? Did it leave you wanting more? Will you want another one tomorrow?

      I take it you were at a Starbuck’s (since Frappuccino is their trademark)? I’ve been thinking about Starbucks in connection with this post. It isn’t just about the coffee or the caffeine. For most people, it’s about the combination of those things WITH sweetness. In one form or another, most people are there for a jolt and a sweet taste – whether it’s sprinkled from a packet (real or artificial), or added by the barrista from one of the syrups, or the caramel, or chocolate or mocha in some form or another.

      Stated simply, Starbuck’s is wildly popular because it’s really good at hitting the brain’s reward system. There used to be a pamphlet available on Starbucks’ counters called “Nutrition By The Cup.” It listed the “nutrition” info of all the drinks. I haven’t seen it around in a while, but I’ve always thought it would be better named “Reward By The Cup.” Along with all the numerical data, it could rate each drink by how much dopamine it delivers. :-)

      Then there’s all the sugary food Starbucks offers, right where everyone is standing in line. Like I said, it’s about more (way more) than the coffee and caffeine.

      It’s good you’ve written, Craig. I hope app4Mind is a “genuine mover” for you. I’d love to hear your thoughts and experiences.


  8. You mentioned there are people who aren’t affected by sweets and can stop after a small amount. Thank you for calling them “rare outliers.” I call them freaks! (just kidding).

    The rest of us have to develop coping mechanisms. One of mine is to keep it out of the house. Outside of my home, however, I find it hard to resist temptation. The cookies, candies and other treats people bring into the office…the friends who order dessert and unwittingly influence me to do the same.

    I quit smoking more than 20 years ago. In a way, that was easier, because I cut it out altogether. But in this instance, I want to be able to partake, just stop after a reasonable amount of satiety. I don’t want to give up sugar altogether. It’s unrealistic.

    I know preparation is key – having other choices handy at work. Looking at the menu online and planning out my meal in advance before ever heading to the restaurant. It sometimes helps, but I still “give in” more often than not. Your next post cannot come soon enough!


    • Jill:

      Great to hear from you. You’re right about coping mechanisms. There are lots of them out there. It takes self-experimentation to find one (or a combination) that works for the individual. It’s impossible these days to avoid the supply, as you point out. It’s everywhere, from the offices to right there on the table, ordered by whomever we’re with.

      My coping mechanism is fourfold:

      1) I don’t let the sweet sensation touch my tongue in any form (except on the rarest occasions) – so I’ve lost the wanting that goes with it.
      2) I wholeheartedly acknowledge that one bite will lead to many more bites, which in turn, will lead to feeling badly.
      3) I differentiate between pleasure and enjoyment, and I’m clear with myself about the downside of getting too much pleasure from food (and the upside of getting what I’ve found to be the right amount of pleasure from from it, for me – and no more).
      4) I let myself feel micro-mastery from not partaking.

      This isn’t for everyone, but it’s it for me. Like you, I’d like to be that minimal partaker, but I’m not. I’ve accepted it. My brain isn’t wired for it, and I’ve never managed to rewire it accordingly. So I’ve grown to be O.K. with how I am.

      I’m writing Part II of the series now. I’ll keep you in my mind. If there’s anything else you want to fill me in on, please do!


      • Funny you should mention quitting smoking Jill – I was thinking yesterday about this sugar addiction and the fact that I quit smoking in 1994 and perhaps have to start thinking about sugar the same way I thought about nicotine. It wasn’t the first time I had quit but finally convinced myself that ‘one drag’ was no longer possible and have been thinking that I am going to have to apply the same analogy to sugar. So now that this thread has convinced me of that I guess I just have to pick the date (that is what I did when I quit smoking)…

  9. Tom Schibler says:

    Great post. Another great resource on this topic is Stephan Guyenet.

  10. Mmm, sugar is the biggie, that’s for sure. I’ve done a ton of research into it especially in relation to mental health/diabetes correlations (which are statistically significant). The whole dopamine-triggering action really links in with the basis of many mental health conditions.

    I’ve blogged about this a lot over my 3 plus year Primal/evolutionary journey. I went cold-turkey from added sugars/grains/legumes after reading Good Calories Bad Calories in November 09 and went through 36 hours of the most pronounced withdrawal symptoms; shaking, sweating, raised heart rate, the works. After that I felt fine, in fact I couldn’t get over the fact I could eat eggs and bacon for breakfast and literally forget to eat till mid afternoon! I had been a vegetarian, high carbohydrate IM triathlete training around 20 hours a week constantly inhaling carbs.

    3 years later I don’t add any, I avoid products that have it added and my ‘treat’ sweet is 85% plus chocolate (so pretty low on the carbs). I don’t eat any grain-based foods, or legumes. My carbs come from what is naturally present in meat and vegetables and fruit (I keep fruit low, fructose is a problem). I do include some dairy in the form of a little whole milk in black tea and in coffee (although I keep my overall caffeine intake quite low), I also have some cheese (the artisan type and unpasteurized when I can source it). I have experimented with dairy-free; it no doubt spikes my insulin which can trigger the sugar quest I’ve noticed but if taken with protein the effect is much less. I probably do best with no dairy but it depends, it isn’t black and white and much depends on what else is going on in my life, which I find interesting. Coming from an eating disordered background (athletics-induced) and being on the naturally ‘control-freak’ end of life I am wary of being too strict, and doing too much tracking any more.

    This year I’ve tried a few small pieces of cake and some battered fish in order to feel more socially ‘acceptable’ but never feel well afterwards so have stopped!

    The biggest issue with sugar is the effect of lack of sleep IMHO. Disrupted sleep screws the appetite hormones (among others) and that is the biggest driver for me of sugar-craving. Fix the sleep and stress-management and sugar isn’t an issue. The last few weeks my sleep has been disrupted and guess what, my drive to eat industrial quantities of chocolate has returned.

    As is always the case it isn’t a simple ‘one solution fits all’ scenario.

    I’m interested to note you provide birthday cake for your daughter even though you wouldn’t feed it to yourself?!?

    • Hey Kelda:

      I read with interest about your past practices, and your transition. I commend you for reading Good Calories, Bad Calories. Anyone who gets through that book deserves special recognition. It’s a game-changer, for sure – but such a dense read. Taub’s next book, Why We Get Fat, is much more reader friendly and graspable. I think it’s a good one to recommend to people Taubes isn’t a paleo zealot – he’s a researcher (and an excellent one at that).

      From your paragraph beginning “3 years later …” I see that we have much in common. I eat much like you (but no cheese, chocolate, of milk), and despite my bent toward tracking, I’m trying to get comfortable doing less of it when it comes to nutrition because after a while it can become a source of stress. I’ve learned to listen to my body and go by feel as to which macronutrient(s) it needs and when.

      I’m quite sure you’re right about the sugar-sleep link. I’ve noticed it too.

      I didn’t raise my daughter paleo because I didn’t know about it at the time she was little and I was teaching her about food. The good news is that grain, sugar, and processed foods always have been a small part of her diet – because they were a small part of mine in my pre-paleo days. Now that I’ve chosen to give them up completely, I didn’t mandate the elimination for her – because I don’t think it would be fair to impose my decisions on her. On the whole, her food choices and preferences are pretty sound and they’re probably about 85+% paleo anyway, so I’m good with it.


  11. GC BC is a tome. I have read Why We Get Fat as well and that’s much more accessible and the one I recommend.

  12. Wow, I am really impressed at how awesome this post is Susan. To the point, powerful, technical enough but not too technical, great references – awesome.

    Very interesting insights into sugar alternatives! I’ve spoken with some others about this before and it seems pretty consistent – sugar alternatives seem to be a “gateway” to eating more sugar. I am curious if fructose acts this way also? And if so, is the impact dulled or altered when combined with proteins or fats?

    I love learning about how our brains work especially when it comes to food and how food affects our brain chemistry. Thank you for making this so easy to understand. Knowledge is power! Can’t wait for the next in this series!

    • Thanks so much, Tim. I tried hard here to make the point that sugar causes a neurological malfunction. My hope is that when people see exactly how it happens, they’ll be more inclined to see their problem as fixable. Contrast that with the conventional belief that it’s all about discipline and willpower. When people think their problem with sweets is attributable to those things (or a lack of them), they’re less amenable to change (if at all), because they think they simply don’t have what it takes. So (their thinking goes), any effort on their part isn’t worth it.

      Stated a bit differently, it comes down to growth mindset vs. fixed mindset.

      Thank you for sharing what you’ve heard others say about sugar alternatives being a gateway to more sweets. You’re right – it’s consistently reported. Enough, I think, for us to view it as a very real phenomenon.

      As for fructose, I know Gary Taubes and others write about it. I’ll go back and have a look and try to incorporate it later in the series. I’m certainly going to write about the impact of sugar and fat. The combination is super duper palatable, as in highly salient – so the dopamine hit is greater when we eat these foods together than when we eat them by themselves. Chocolate is a great example. Raw cocoa is a fat source that’s too bitter on its own to be likable (for most). Combine it with sugar and it becomes overwhelmingly good (massive dopamine hit). Another great example is cream. It’s a fat source that is likable on its own. Combine it with sugar and it becomes even more likable. The plainest ice cream is made of cream, sugar, with a little vanilla. Think about how likable it is (massive dopamine hit).

      As for protein and sugar – there’s no reason to think the combination dulls the neurological impact of the sugar. To the contrary, combining sugar and protein makes the protein more palatable (salient), so people eat more. It’s exactly why fast food restaurants and processed food manufacturers add sweeteners (of all kinds) to their chicken and other protein dishes, via sauces and things on the side, like honey mustard. They’re knowingly trying to give people a big dopamine hit, to set in motion the cycle of like want do that I talked about in this post. The key word in the last sentence is knowingly. It’s well known that adding sugar, fat, or salt, or some combination of those things to any food will make people want to eat more of it. Two important books are The End of Overeating and Salt Sugar Fat.

      Always good to see your insightful comments here, Tim. You rock.

      • Fructose is processed via the liver along the same pathways as alcohol and can lead to non-alcoholic fatty liver disease; personally I believe that the fructose element of sugar is far more addictive (and certainly more problematic in terms of insulin hikes and cholesterol) than pure glucose and I think the hint is in the fact it’s processed like alcohol. That’s why HFCS has been having such a devastating effect and is so supremely difficult to detox from – cola-heads anyone?!?

        • Thanks so much Kelda. What you’ve written here will help me for sure in figuring out the fructose part of the picture.

          Your mention of alcohol highlights something I’ve long believed/noticed: There’s a tie in between sugar and alcohol consumption. One of them can make people want the other. Having spent time in France and Italy, I especially noticed what people seem to do there on a routine, cyclical basis: drink wine at night and self-medicate with sugar the next morning and throughout the day, until it’s time for more wine at night. (Common sugar sources are sugar in coffee, pastries, and, in Italy’s case, gelatin).

          This is surely going on elsewhere, but it was especially noticeable to me when traveling in those countries. I see it here as well, of course. Across the street from me, there’s a wine shop right next to a Starbucks. The wine shop is crowded at night; the Starbucks is crowded from early the next morning and throughout the day, until late afternoon, when the wine shop gets busy. And so on, cyclically, day after day. (Note: The folks in Starbucks, to be sure, aren’t just there for the caffeine. They’re there for the sugar too – a even a casual observation bears that out.) On weekends, when people drink more, it’s especially noticeable. The restaurants in the neighborhood are filled with people in the morning, eating sweet brunch food.

          The alcohol-sugar tie in. Ever noticed it? Would love to know your thoughts.

  13. Yes, dopamine/pleasure centre rewarding cycle in a socially acceptable manner; the more we get the more we want. The brain is cleverly wired to lower the pleasure hit on subsequent intakes so we seek more and more for a declining high. It was a pure survival mechanism originally to make sure we finished off the berry feast or honey find – all that excess sugar was stored as fat to be burned off in the lean times. Trouble is modern society doesn’t have seasons, or lean times with reference to sugar (alcohol) availability.

    There is also evidence that certain genetic make-ups are more prone to needing high doses for the same ‘hit’ and they are the ones that often have the addiction problems. There’s one other very interesting fact I came across too which tends to lean towards genetic difference in relation to addition behaviours. Narcoleptics (sleep disorder – and known to be hereditary so likely at least in part genetically based) have not been recorded as having addiction issues; their brains are simply wired differently.

    • Kelda:

      I’ve been reading about the genetic element of the problem. It’s fascinating, and explains quite a lot, including what I’ve been wondering in writing this series: Why can some people sample just a bit of a pleasure-giving substance and stop, while for others, a sample opens the floodgates.

      It’s not a character flaw thing after all. How good someone figured that out. When people know it’s a matter of neurocircuitry (vs. weakness), it can change their perception of the problem and themselves – and set the stage for much needed change.


  14. “It’s not a character flaw thing after all. How good someone figured that out. ”

    Oh yes! Plus one to that statement :-)

    Actually it was quite amusing how I stumbled upon the narcolepsy research … my mother is a diagnosed mild narcoleptic (about 30 years ago, after a loss of consciousness driving which resulted in a crash – no one hurt if you don’t count the brick wall!).

    She has always been one to beat the ‘willpower’ drum. Endlessly. Holding herself up as a paragon of virtue having iron willpower in order to do anything (or stop anything) she chooses. She looks down on those that can’t/don’t with a deal of superiority and distinct lack of compassion!

    Oh how wonderful was it for me to find research recently, quite by chance, that showed that narcoleptics had not been recorded as addicts LOL! Absolutely nothing to do with willpower, simply a differently wired brain (which explained an awful lot of other things too)!

    • Kelda:

      “[A] paragon of virtue …. She looks down on ….” Looks like we’ve both had occasion to observe just that in our respective family circumstances. :-)

      It’s hard to will yourself awake, isn’t it, when your brain is wired to fall asleep?


  15. Quite! Perhaps you can imagine her attitude to my life-long insomnia!

    My family was not a match made in heaven!

  16. Hi Susan,

    I found your website and this post via Mark’s Daily Apple. I am so excited to see this series and am looking forward to changing my behaviours around sugar. I have been using sugar to self-soothe since I was 6. I switched to alcohol during my teen years and then weaned myself off booze by replacing it with sugar. Needless to say, I am one of these people who is a “floodgate” sugar eater. I have had such a love-hate relationship with this substance for a long time.

    If you are wondering about the biochemistry of sugar consumption (esp. fructose), check out Dr. Lustig’s talk called “Sugar: The Bitter Truth” on YouTube. If I remember correctly, he was one researcher Taubes cited in GCBC. Fascinating!

    This is my first time on your site and I am really impressed. I look forward to reading more on your series and in general on your site. :-)

    • Hello Anita:

      Welcome. Great to see you here. How good you found app4Mind via Mark’s awesome blog.

      How interesting that you talk about sugar, alcohol, and Lustig – all in one comment. I recently looked through one of his books, where I saw him equate sugar and alcohol. His idea is that alcohol is a sugar derivative, and both are abused and addictive, so there must be a link between them, and, as such, they should be viewed and analyzed together.

      I think he’s onto something. What do you think?

      I’m so glad this series is useful to you. Part III is well underway. In my research, I’ve found that “floodgate” sugar eating relates way more to the flow of dopamine in the brain than to insulin flowing through the blood. The good news is that it’s a fixable problem. Part III is all about the fixes.

      Your comment mentions biochemistry – by that, do you mean how sugar is processed in the body? There’s quite a lot written about that. So many good writers – Mark Sisson, Robb Wolf, Gary Taubes, et al. – have explored it at great length. It’s an important dimension, but it’s not the only one. I’ve noticed that the neurological dimension is either missing from the discussion, or its mention ed without enough specifics to make it seem real to people. (Taubes mentions it only twice in the 500+ pages of GCBC. Looking through the indexes of my many paleo/primal books, the word “dopamine” doesn’t appear in any of them.)

      In this series, I’m trying to explore the neurological/behavioral dimension – because it’s huge. It’s hard to imagine how insulin and other physical factors, by themselves, could be driving people to consume sugar at the level they’re consuming it. In fact, that’s not what’s happening. Sugar is addictive in the same way drugs are addictive. My belief is that people need to start seeing it this way – because it’s how they’ll become open to new approaches that can help them.

      Again, Anita – great having you hear. Look forward to getting to know you.


  17. Hey Mike:

    Sounds like you’ve been through quite a lot. Way to go, giving up things most people won’t consider jettisoning from their lives. I agree with you that many don’t realize what they’re letting happen.

    Our take is much the same on ditching sweets and alcohol: life just gets a whole lot better. It’s an experiential thing, you know? It’s hard for some people (a lot of people, actually) to imagine life without things like that. I say it’s worth a try – for just about anyone – because sometimes we do things we think we won’t like and low and behold – we like them.

    Thank you so much for weighing in. I enjoy chatting with you.



  1. […] what cookies did to Duhigg do what they do to just about all of us: make us want more cookies. Because of dopamine. When we stop, the wanting stops too (sooner or later) – when we realize that not eating […]

  2. […] the third post in a series about how sugar hijacks your brain and what to do about it. The problem, as we’ve seen, is that sugar causes a neurological malfunction in the brain that leads to a continuous cycle of […]

  3. […] to find the same freedom from whatever our “substance” happens to be – like sugar, for […]

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