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Alcohol and Sugar.

5 August 2013

A very cool post by Scicurious over at Scientific American analyzes a paper linking the preference for sweet things with a preference for alcohol. The study is about finding a correlation between how much people are “rewarded” for sugar intake, and how much they’re “rewarded” for alcohol intake. And Scicurious does a good job explaining the positive correlation they found, interpreting the results, and tempering the author’s conclusions. It’s a really interesting piece. Go read it. I’ll wait.

Back? OK. I’m going to use that to launch into a phenomenon which may or may not be related, which is that when alcoholics stop drinking most of us develop a sweet tooth, even if we didn’t have one before. Before I quit drinking, I almost never ate sweets of any kind. I hated chocolate. I would frequently describe things that other people really liked as “too sweet”, even if they fell into the “savory” category of foods. I hated (and still do, thank god) sugared sodas.

But I developed, almost immediately, a serious liking for sweets. Ice cream, chocolate, hard candies, all kinds of things. Sweets became a part of my daily life and still are. At first, I rationalized this as simply: “Better this that alcohol.” I was, when I quit drinking, in execrable condition. Fat, pack-a-day smoker. And suddenly, I needed to eat sugar too. I craved it (though, not the same way I craved alcohol, exactly.). I would eat huge sundaes. I was truly terrified of being diabetic, but I couldn’t stop and my rationalization was extremely effective.

This went on for about a year and a half, until I quit smoking and started to try to get into better shape in general. Maybe even longer than that. It wasn’t until I’d been sober for almost three years that I started to work out and watch my diet in any significant way. Eventually, I started to try to reduce my sugar intake again. I still eat far too much sugar. I eat something sweet every day. But I do try to eat less sugar than I did and I exercise a lot more to burn it off.

And you know what? I’m ok with my sugar intake profile in the days and even years post-sobriety. Would it have been better to immediately kick drinking, kick smoking, not eat sugar and start running? Absolutely. From a strictly metabolic point of view, that’s a far better plan. But for me, and for most drunks, it’s also utterly unsustainable. When people come in lit on fire and they make all those changes at once, my experience is that they almost always crash and return to drinking. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever seen that approach lead to sustained sobriety.

For most alcoholics, my opinion is that addressing the alcohol is the only thing we can do in the beginning. Attempting to take on even one more significant lifestyle change is too much. I tried, briefly, to quit smoking at the same time as I quit drinking. It didn’t even begin to work. And I didn’t want it to. Quitting alcohol is an incredible, daunting, confusing and overwhelming challenge. But it is possible. Obviously. Millions succeed. But trying to make myriad huge changes all at once can (and in my experience, does) derail that fragile early sobriety.

Many oldtimers in AA will also “prescribe” hard candies for alcohol cravings for newcomers. And it works! Sort of. A little bit of sugar really took the edge of of my early-sobriety alcohol cravings. Maybe that’s just the placebo effect. I have no idea. But I know that anything which aids in diminishing a craving is a good thing. Because they are utterly intolerable, but must be tolerated if sobriety is to be maintained. But they pass.

So, new out there? Trying to quit drinking but struggling with cravings? Try a hard candy. And don’t try to do everything at once. You have time. Cut yourself some slack on the family front. The cigarette front. The job front. The exercise front. These things may come in time, or may not. But what we really need is to be able to focus on the major task at hand. Quitting alcohol. Which is not done by fighting. It’s done by surrendering. Let go of expectations about what you should do, or should feel. Find people – there are lots of us in AA – who have walked the path, and follow the lead you find there. It works.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. 9 August 2013 14:37

    I also experienced a complete reversal in my attitude towards sugar. While I was drinking, I hated the stuff; after I quit, I needed it. I’m still eating too much sugar – mostly in the form of overly sweetened cereal, which is bizarre because I could never stand that stuff. I’ve been cutting myself some slack, but I think it’s time to stop. In the four months since I quit drinking, I lost 35 pounds, but in the last couple weeks it’s started to creep back on.

  2. cm1901 permalink
    11 April 2015 10:20

    Amazing. I thought something was seriously wrong with me until I read this article. For the 2nd time since I’ve started drinking, I’ve quit. This time, like the last, is because of pregnancy. I had quit smoking about 7 months ago. What a simple thing for me. I was one of those people smokers hated because I could smoke a couple a day and not care to have any the next. But out of simple habit I was smoking a pack a day.
    I always said to myself I’d stop drinking if I got pregnant, and wadda ya know? I’m pretty sure I went through a short grieving process, but kept in mind that I would be saving myself from +/- 2000 calories a day just on alcohol. I was NOT prepared for the sweets. Just before reading this blog, I finished a large mint chocolate chip milkshake. Yesterday I had an ice cream cone and Junior Mints. I haven’t had ice cream or candy in years. I work with many other women and the chocolate candies are practically flying around the room. I was the strange one who always declined the chocolate offers. I know the only reason I quit drinking was because of pregnancy, but I also truly think I’m craving sweets because I quit drinking. It’s so strange. Thank you for giving some insight into this phenomena.

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