How to overcome sugar addiction

In a previous blog I talked about how the Buddha’s explanation for why we suffer as human beings is that it’s the result of our craving — the hankering after something that we’re not experiencing, or pushing away something that we are. I said that his prescription was something called the Noble Eight Fold Path, which involves ethics, meditation and wisdom.

But I know you’re all busy people, and you love a quick solution. Here’s a hack you can use the next time you crave something (which will probably be in the next minute or so!) like chocolate, coffee or to check your emails/phone.

The technique I’m about to teach you is used to treat drug and alcohol addiction, but it is just as applicable for your less damaging vices.

Say you’re sitting there right now craving a chocolate biscuit, even though you’ve already had four, or you’re meant to be giving up sugar, or you just promised yourself that today you’d start eating more healthily. Your mind is consumed with how much pleasure you will be experiencing as soon as the chocolatey, biscuity goodness is inside your mouth. You might be trying to concentrate on something else but your mind keeps darting back to the object of your lust.

When I succumb to such an impulse, my body moves towards the sweet treat speedily and on autopilot. I scoff it down as quickly as possible, barely enjoying it. I’m just scratching an itch, and I regret it afterwards.

Most people’s attempt to overcome such impulses involved one of the following:

  • Ignore it
  • Distract yourself
  • Substitute it with something else
  • Remind yourself of the reasons you’re not supposed to be eating biscuits

These are usually not very successful approaches because they don’t tackle the impulse itself head on, they’re all attempts to push away or avoid the feeling.

Our evolutionary programming impels us to repeat behaviours that result in us getting food, sex or status by giving us a little dose of dopamine (the pleasure inducing hormone) when we receive them. The more times we carry out the behaviour and receive the reward, the stronger the impulse becomes to do it again. This is called operant conditioning and goes some way to explaining sugar, social media and porn addiction.

Just as a rat learning that pressing a lever results in getting a pellet of food makes it press the lever more, so it works with us humans.

Trying to ignore the impulse to eat the chocolate is the equivalent of trying to push the rat away from the lever. It may stop the behaviour for a time, but the rat still has the same desire for food, so you’ve not solved the problem.

Instead of pushing the feeling away, you need to weaken the link between the stimulus and response, by not acting on it. Just as when you stop feeding a stray cat, it will stop coming to your door.

If you can just notice what’s happening, you are already stepping outside of your conditioned programming.

A helpful acronym for how to do this is RAIN:

R — Recognise: Ah, I’m craving chocolate biscuits

A — Allow: I’m OK to just sit with this feeling and not act on it. It’s not that bad.

I — Investigate: what does this actually feel like in my body and what’s happening in my mind?

N — Note: thinking about where to get it from, fidgety, tensing, distracted, slight hunger

Another tip, is to investigate what it’s like when you do eat the chocolate biscuit. Is it as good as you anticipated? How long did the pleasure last? Count how many seconds. Realising how fleeting it is can help loosen your fixation.

Even though I know how to do this, I still succumb to craving every day, but much less than I used to, and I’m more aware that it’s happening when it does happen.

Try it out and see if it work for you.

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My work is all about love. Loving yourself, loving other people and loving the earth. I do that through writing, podcasting, coaching, running workshops.

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