Did you know that approximately 75% of Americans eat excess amounts of sugar, many of whom could be classified as having a sugar addiction? In this episode of The Agent of Wealth podcast, Marc Bautis and John Williams invite Dr. Vera Tarman on the show. Tarman is a clinical physician, author, speaker and food addiction expert who believes that an addiction to sugar can be as treacherous as an addition to alcohol, tobacco and even cocaine. Tarman’s expertise includes hands-on experience as a recovering food addict who has maintained a 100-pound weight loss for more than 12 years.
In this episode, you will learn:
- What classifies a sugar addiction?
- How genetics, previous additions and environment may play a role in food addiction.
- How and why sugar is considered a gateway drug.
- How sugar plays a role in the leading causes of death worldwide.
- A discussion of the difference between passion and addiction.
- And more!
This is the second installment in a six-part Agent of Wealth series, called “Health is Wealth.” Listen to the other episodes:
- How to Start Exercising and Stay Motivated
- How Collaborative Problem-Solving Can Lead to Better Parenting
- Tools for Solving Common Sleep Issues
- How to Build Resilience
Food Junkies: Recovery from Food Addiction (2019) | Addictions Unplugged – Dr. Vera Tarman’s Website | Sugar-Free for Life Support Group | Food Junkies: Recovery from Food Addiction (Podcast) | Bautis Financial: (862) 205-5000
Welcome back to the Agent of Wealth podcast. Today’s episode is the second part of a Health is Wealth series, where we focus on how improving your health can improve your wealth. On today’s episode, John Williams is back on the show.
We also have a special guest, Dr. Vera Tarman. Dr. Vera’s an expert on drug and alcohol addiction, especially sugar addiction. She’s also the author of Food Junkies: Recovery From Food Addiction. Dr. Vera, welcome to the show.
Thank you. I’m happy to be here.
It’s no secret that nutrition is one of the best ways to improve your health but so many of us struggle with it. To start off, how would you define food addiction?
What is a Food Addiction?
When we talk about food addiction, immediately people say, “How can you be addicted to food?” I’ll be more specific, when we talk about food addiction in the general public, it’s usually better to say ‘sugar addiction’ or ‘processed food addiction’ — that captures probably 80% of the population who struggle with food.
But I’m actually quite happy using the term ‘food addiction’ because addiction to anything has a chronic, progressive nature. People can become addicted to almost any kind of food, but generally speaking, let me just start with how to define sugar addiction.
A sugar addiction is when someone struggles with an amount of sugar, and they fulfill the criteria of addiction. Primarily, that is if a person has a craving or a desire, wants to stop because there’s problems that are arising, but struggling to. If they fulfill those criteria, then we’re starting to move into the addiction paradigm. Whenever you’re on that continuum of struggling to stop, you’re wading into the whole world of addiction.
Is there a line between liking something and being addicted to it? For example, I like having ice cream. Is it an addiction if I can’t go a day without eating ice cream? Where is the line drawn?
That’s probably the biggest question in terms of diagnosis. It is very difficult to distinguish where that line is. But, to answer your first question, you are absolutely not an addict if you like ice cream. The brain is wired to want energy-dense foods. Energy dense can mean dense in sugar, fat or a combination of both. So of course we like ice cream and other sugar-dense foods.
But the brains were wired this way when the environment was different — 200 years ago, when there was no processed food industry, just fruits growing on trees and vegetables growing in the farms. The amount of sugar that humans were exposed to would not draw us into a line of impairment, danger or obsession. Nature gave us a stopping point.
But today, we’re in a food environment that has stripped away that stopping point. Which is combined with the instinct humans have to feast or famine. When a person wades into a world of abundance and does not pose the ability to stop, impairment and obsession happens.
Basically, there’s a neural adaptation that happens in the world of addiction. To diagnose an addict, we have a set of criteria. Generally speaking, the criteria is listed below.
Criteria for Addiction
- Cravings to use the substance.
- Wanting to cut down or stop but not managing to.
- Using the substance in larger amounts or for longer than you meant to.
- Neglecting other parts of your life because of the use.
At the end of this spectrum is someone who will not leave their home anymore — either because they’ve gained so much weight, or because they’ve become so socially isolated that they’ve lost the ability to function in the world. I see this happening, the same way it happens with alcoholics or substance abuse.
The Effect of Dopamine on Addiction
How much do chemicals like dopamine come into play? It’s always interesting to me to hear about how dopamine relates to addiction, such as how your brain gets a shot of dopamine when eating, so it connects eating with happiness.
What you’re describing is the mechanism of what I was talking about earlier. If I used words that a person can relate to, it would be, “Are you obsessed? Do you feel compelled? Are you fantasizing? Are you desiring something?” And if you say, “Yes, I am.” Then the neurochemistry that’s creating those experiences is dopamine.
Let’s say that I love cherries. There’s only really a point at which I love them — but if I drink a cherry flavored smoothie at Starbucks, or eat chewy cherry candies, I can consume tons of it and that stop switch is gone. Similarly, in the brain, the dopamine can get jacked up beyond the level at which it is safe. Food gives us the ability to move beyond what would naturally be acceptable so that we start to develop a tolerance. And so, a banana is no longer good enough — I now want banana cake.
I like to say that addiction is an impaired dopamine circuitry and it’s simply due to abundance.
It’s ironic that that chemical reaction is a survival mechanism, because it’s supposed to keep us looking for food, right?
But now all of a sudden, in such a short period of time, there is an abundance of it. And we haven’t been able to adapt to the change fast enough.
The Connection Between a Previous Addiction and a Food Addiction
Do you see people more inclined to become addicted to sugar? Is it something that’s genetically inclined?
When I work in clinics, I see people who stop drinking, stop drug use, stop smoking cigarettes, etc. and then eat way more than they did before. Essentially, they are trying to transfer the addiction to soothe the pain of withdrawal. So people with previous addiction are more inclined to become addicted to sugar.
Exposure is huge, too. If someone grew up eating certain types of food, they batter the receptors, creating a tolerance, which leads to addiction in adulthood. That’s why parenting and making positive nutrition decisions for your children is so important. I believe that sugar is a gateway for other drugs, because you get the dopamine primed and high jacked and then you pick it up somewhere else.
We also think that there’s a genetic predisposition. We see this with alcoholics, for example — most likely, an alcoholic has people who struggle with alcohol in their family. There’s a cross connection, something genetic. How this actually translates to food is still under exploration, but we see a strong correlation.
We know that specific groups of people — cultures, body types, etc. — are more inclined to become diabetic. In my clinical observations, I see the same in cases with food addiction. We all have a “sweet tooth”, but some people have a big sweet tooth while others don’t. I think genetics are to blame for that. There’s also something to be said for genetic carb and sugar sensitivity.
When you talk about different addictions, there’s a lot of similarities, but I also hear some major differences. For instance, certain addictions you can work through on your own. But alcohol, for instance, is very dangerous. And so, there is a crossover between addiction independence and chemical dependency. Is there a danger when it comes to sugar in that sense?
You’re asking a lot of the big questions. People tend to quit their addictions — alcohol, drugs, cigarettes — and think that if they eat more, they’ll be able to buffer the pain of withdrawal. They think turning to sugar is okay, because it won’t kill them (or so they think). There are books that suggest this, too. Have a craving? Pop a candy.
What I think it comes down to is choosing which addiction you want to take your life. With an opiate addiction, you can die tomorrow if you pick up the wrong dosage. Whereas with a cocaine addiction, death may take a few more years, and be from a stroke or heart attack. Alcohol takes a lot longer to cause death, but eventually cirrhosis or pancreatitis will kill you. Sugar is the same as alcohol, it takes longer.
Do you want to go fast and quick? Or do you want to go agonizingly slow? Either way, it’s not a pretty picture.
Sugar As a Leading Cause of Death
We don’t talk about sugar’s role in the leading causes of death nearly as much as we should.
The three leading causes of death in society are heart disease, stroke and pulmonary disease. Well, what feeds those causes but sugar? While we don’t attribute a death directly to sugar, an autopsy could reveal a fatty liver, enormous amounts of visceral fat. These are consequences of metabolic syndrome, caused by sugar.
Eventually, we all die. But we don’t have to die early, at the age of 65 or 70 — or be sick for 10-20 years before we pass. At that point, the quality of life is gone, all due to a sugar-filled American diet. The worst part is that most of the people who are in life-threatening situations know they shouldn’t be eating what they are. But they’re struggling to put it down. The issue is people don’t acknowledge that they have the power to prevent these major diseases.
I will say that the world is starting to recognize the effects of sugar and carbs due to the growing popularity of the keto and paleo movements. But, we’re still not acknowledging the power that sugar has on people.
And that sugar, I want to tell you, it is a damnable faux. I’ve had crystal meth addicts tell me that it was easier to put down meth than it was sugar.
How to Overcome the Addiction
What are some ways that someone can stop it?
The first thing that you have to do is acknowledge that it’s an addiction, and acknowledge the strength of the addiction. We frequently see commercials that joke about cravings — but it’s not a joke. Basically, what I’m saying is, we need to have a societal shift in recognizing food addictions, just like we did with cigarette addiction. Now, if I say, “I want to quit sugar.” Somebody’s going to say to me, “Why, Vera? Your weight is great, you don’t have diabetes. Go ahead, have a candy bar.” We don’t say that with cigarettes anymore, and we have to do the same with sugar. I’m hoping that in less than 10 years, we’ll get to that place.
The next thing is to have support, because we’re social creatures. If I see you nibbling at something, I may be thinking ‘I don’t want that, but I’ve seen it and now will eat it.’ We’re very easily influenced and we need people around us who support us.
Do you see people more successful quitting cold turkey, or weaning themself off slowly?
Both. I’m a proponent for cold turkey but I do believe in a bridging reduction, but not with sugar. On the topic of quitting, we have to acknowledge the withdrawal phase. When withdrawal comes about, people should recognize that they are in fact dealing with an addiction. Like any other addiction, it only takes three to four weeks to get through the withdrawal symptoms. If you can get through the three or four weeks cold turkey, all that’s left to fight is relapse.
So that really holds true? The saying that it takes three weeks to break a habit.
Yeah, absolutely. But those three weeks are not pretty — you’re going to be craving, feel deprived and probably have trouble sleeping.
What I would suggest for people who simply cannot imagine quitting cold turkey, is turning to artificial sweeteners. That will help, at least a little bit. Ultimately, you want to get off of that too because the sweetener will still make you want sugar but it will help you withdraw with less disruption.
Addiction Versus Passion
I see a lot of athletes who make amazing comebacks and fight addiction by turning to sports or athletics. In a way, they replace the old addiction with a new addiction, but a good one. Is it better to wean yourself off the dopamine high completely, or feeding one addiction with another — but this time a good addiction?
Well, you have to define what addiction is. When I hear about an outstanding athlete, I think it’s more passion driven, and passions lead to large dopamine amounts just as much as addictions do.
For example, you have a passion for the work that you do at Bautis Financial. But, you’re not steadily high all the time — you have peak moments when things are really good, and experience times when it’s not so good. That’s basically dopamine at its natural element.
If the athlete begins to develop a pattern or not going home because they are working harder and harder, or if they impair social relationships, hurt themselves physically, etc. they begin to exhibit addiction behavior — obsession, impairment, inability to stop. But, to me, someone who is impassioned is someone who’s going to ‘make it’ out of their previous addiction because it’s a safe transfer.
There’s all kinds of things we can do to be happy, like working for a charity. Should people look for those things when working through an addiction?
Yes. That’s what dopamine is meant for, so that’s great. But we have to set boundaries in our passions. If we don’t, we lose those stop switches. For an athlete, as an example, that can be the time you plan on stopping training to go home. If someone who is recovering can do that, it is a great formula for recovery. I’m really happy when I hear people say they want to volunteer, or they got a job where they feel respected, or that they want to take up a new sport — because those are all situations where dopamine can thrive.
How to Set Yourself Up For Success
On the nutrition side, do you recommend someone puts some kind of structure around their eating? Whether it’s following a plan or diet? Or should they just wing it?
I don’t like the idea of winging it. At some point later on, a person might be able to. But early days, if they’ve been abusing food, there should be a plan in place. I say this because when you’re at that level of addiction, and the dopamine is in the other realms of normal, that it hijacks a person’s thinking — so they will think that the silliest thing makes the most sense.That’s also why we suggest to have a sponsor. A sponsor could be a coach, therapist or a friend you trust. Tell them, “Look, I want to do this plan.” Let’s say they follow the keto plan, which is mainly protein and fat. Well, some people go crazy on that and so they need to have somebody to check them and ask, “Aren’t you going a little bit too far?” Which goes back to the idea of the athletic person who might be moving into the addicted realm.
I would suggest that you have parameters, mainly because you’ve lost your sense of how to make a parameter and that aspect has not been healed yet — a recovering addict cannot be trusted just yet.
When someone is recovering from a drug addiction in the treatment center, we don’t let them walk out into a dangerous neighborhood. It’s the same idea, you don’t want to walk into a “dangerous neighborhood” — no bakeries, no having dessert if you’re going to a restaurant. And if you’re at a buffet, ask someone else to serve you a plate.
Yeah, totally. The relapse part of it is probably just as hard, if not harder, than the three weeks of withdrawal because we’re surrounded by so much sugar in our daily lives. So if we’re not asking for help/support it’s probably not going to work.
I do some run coaching on the side, and I see similarities between what we do at Bautis Financial and my coaching. At Bautis Financial, we’re helping our clients with wealth management. But at the end of the day, it’s more so a holistic health kind of idea — whether it be their finances, nutrition, love life, etc. All these things, at a very high level, work in our brain in the same way. There’s an emotional component to all of these things, and wealth management is not any different.
As an example, we might tell a client, “Hey, you need to control your spending.” Well, in their brain, they might have a dopamine connection to spending. If they like to spend money and buy nice things, we are the buzzkill. And it’s hard to be the buzzkill! Instead, we want to help them. I see a relation here to your explanation of sugar addiction.
Absolutely. What you can do is remind your clients that it takes three weeks to break a bad habit. Tell them, “Look, you just need to get over the three week hump.” That desire to want to spend, or to eat, will start to ebb when you don’t feed it. So, just let it ebb. It’s like a fire that slowly starts to peter out. The fire will always be there on a low ember, so I can easily flood it again. But as long as I don’t keep feeding it with oil or wood, it won’t grow.
And I see this happening all the time. It’s a beautiful process, but it can get upended if somebody says, “Hey, you’re doing really well. Have a piece of cheesecake.” Well, then, you’ll have to go through the withdrawal phase all over again.
We’re really good at convincing ourselves that we will stop tomorrow, aren’t we? And we know that a candy bar has sugar — we know it’s bad for us. But the temptation and lack of willpower can creep up on us very quickly.
Absolutely. It’s the job of the sponsor to call out that behavior.
Food Plans for Recovering Food Addicts
There’s no shortage of diets in our world, and I know you mentioned keto. Is there one in particular that you recommend, or is there a specific nutritional you give to recovering food addicts?
I try to be very inclusive about the various food plans. From a food addiction point of view, I would say avoid sugar and refined carbs (flour), so that means muffins, bread and cereal. That will chop off about 60% of your addiction. That’s already a big, big step. And if you’re drinking pop (soda), stop.
Now, in talking about the keto plan — I want to explain what that means. Keto can be anything from a low-carb diet to a meat-only diet. I suggest, if you want to go for the latter, you can — but it’s not necessary.
My suggestion is to eat real food and moderate your portions. Personally, for me, I like the paleo diet, which is vegetables — like cauliflower and brussel sprouts and carrots — meat and fats.
Okay. I think that we’re just about out of time. Dr. Vera, thank you for being on the show today.
If you are interested in learning more about what we’ve been talking about, I have everything written in a way that is quite reader-friendly in my book Food Junkies: Recovery From Food Addiction. You can also join my Facebook support group page called “I Am Sweet Enough, Sugar Free For Life.” You’re welcome to join that, it’s free. And I have a web page, which is addictionsunplugged.com.
And did you also say that you have a podcast as well?
Yes, I just started a podcast, it’s also called “Food Junkies.”
Great. We will link to everything in the show notes. Thank you again, and thank you to everyone for tuning in to today’s episode.