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My name is Karen, I’m a sugar addict

Soothing with sugar in childhood spiralled into an addiction that resulted in a roller-coaster of highs and lows, says Karen Thomson, grand-daughter of Professor Chris Barnard

Soothing with sugar in childhood spiralled into an addiction that resulted in a roller-coaster of highs and lows, says Karen Thomson, grand-daughter of Professor Chris Barnard

Published Nov 4, 2014


Durban - She was addicted to cocaine and alcohol, but Karen Thomson said her toughest addiction to kick was sugar.

“I am a sugar addict,” she said. “I have an addictive personality and have struggled with addictions since my teens. But my addiction to sugar was the hardest to beat.”

Thomson, who lives in Cape Town, was speaking at a seminar in Durban titled Stop Sugarcoating the Truth, hosted by Discovery SharkSmart, that focused on the benefits of a low carbohydrate, sugar-free diet.

The 34-year-old granddaughter of heart transplant pioneer Dr Chris Barnard said her mother, Deirdre, had had an eating disorder, her uncle had died of addictions and she believes her family heritage increased her risk of addictions and eating disorders.

From childhood, she used sugar to soothe, a practice that continued for years. “My dad would come home with a fizzy drink and a chocolate and when I had those, I felt safe and comforted. Sugar equalled love, affection, joy, security and safety. To push down bad feelings, I would use sugar. Sugar made me happy.”

Then the pretty 16-year-old from a famous family started modelling.

“It was one of the toughest times of my life. I didn’t fit the stereotypical look and I starved myself to get thin. I fell into a cycle of binge-starve-guilt. Not eating was hard, but sugar gave me energy.

“I was obsessed with the scale. If I was 50kg in the morning, I had a brilliant day. If I was 52kg, my day would be shocking.”

Then she discovered cocaine.

“It took away my appetite. It made me thin, but I was never thin enough. I was drinking excessively too, but nothing could fill the hole in my soul.”

At 24 she checked into rehab for nine months and emerged clean of cocaine and alcohol.

“Recovering from drugs and alcohol was easy compared with recovering from an eating disorder. For seven years, I abstained from eating disorder behaviours – bingeing, purging and overeating – but I substituted with sugar. It was a roller-coaster of sugar highs and plummeting lows. My blood glucose would spike after eating sugar and my mood would stabilise. Then it would drop and I would be a tyrant.

“I would use any excuse to fill up my car so I could slip into the shop and buy sugary snacks, which I would eat in the car on the way home.”

What makes quitting sugar hard, says Karen, is that it is everywhere, lurking in the unlikeliest of foods with a variety of names. She realised that even on a “restrictive” day, coffees with two sugars, two fizzy drinks and a bowl of pasta would add up to 26 teaspoons of sugar. The recommended daily intake is 5-9 teaspoons.


Ironically, the dietitian who treated her for eating disorders said eating “normal” foods indicated she was becoming normal in her eating.

“She did not take into account the fact that I was eating all of my emotions and I would do anything to get hold of sugar, even eating it out of the bowl.”

A turning point came when she heard a talk by Professor Tim Noakes, who advocates a low-carb, sugar-free way of living.

“He used the words ‘sugar’ and ‘addiction’ in the same sentence. In that moment I knew I was a sugar addict.”

She knew if she wanted to kick her sugar addiction, she needed to identify the emotional triggers that made her soothe with sugar. She had to accept herself, start loving herself – and abstain from sugar.

“It required complete abstinence – no sugar substitutes either, as my brain could not distinguish between real and fake sugar. It was a programme of recovery involving body, mind and spirit.

“I felt terrible at first, with physical withdrawals like shaking, and my moods were all over the show. I went cold turkey but had a couple of lapses, but as my taste buds started changing, sugar stopped having the same effect on me.

“Quitting sugar was more difficult than quitting cocaine because I was not surrounded by cocaine. I learnt that there were no half measures for me. It was all or nothing. I had to learn to live with no sugar.”

Today, the home she shares with her husband, Steven, and two sons, Jamie, 7, and Luke, 5, is sugar free.

“If my boys go to a party and have sweets and cake, that is okay, but there is no sugar at home.”

She runs HELP, a 21-day inpatient programme and The Sugar Free Revolution, an eight-week online programme to help others who abuse sugar and carbs. The programme has been developed by Noakes and Rael Koping, in partnership with Harmony Addictions Clinic in Cape Town.

She glows with health and is committed to spreading a low-carb, sugar-free way of eating.

Life, she says, is sweet – without the sugar.


Is it for real?

Opinions are divided over whether sugar addiction is real.

American research neuroscientist Dr Nicole Avena says sugary foods trigger pleasure in the brain.

“Dopamine is released in the brain when a person consumes both sugar and illicit drugs, producing a ‘high’,” she says.

“Increased (sugar/drug) use stimulates the craving for more, so the brain requires increased amounts to arrive at the same level of dopamine release as a smaller dose would have previously generated.”

Dr Aseem Malhotra, a London cardiologist and member of the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges obesity group, says it should be regulated like alcohol as it shares characteristics.

“It’s toxic, unavoidable, capable of abuse and has a negative impact on society,” he said.

But Priya Seetal, senior dietitian, external affairs at the South African Sugar Association, is adamant sugar is not addictive.

“The idea of promoting sugar as being addictive is based on some scientific studies suggesting certain foods, such as sugar, engage similar nerve pathways as abusive drugs,” she says.

“But these nerve pathways are also stimulated by pleasurable activities such as smiling, laughing or being in love. Drugs that hijack these natural pathways, over-stimulate them to levels 100 times more than seen with any food.”

Professor David Benton, of Swansea University, an expert in the psychology of food, says that if someone were addicted to sugar, the addict would go to any lengths to get sugar, such as stealing..

Benton says someone addicted to sugar would be satisfied by sugar straight from the jar, but most common food cravings are for savoury/salty foods such as chips or sweet/fatty combinations such as chocolate.

Seetal says sugar is a natural product found in fruits and vegetables.

“The sugar we add to tea and coffee is treated by our bodies in the same way as the sugar in fruits and vegetables – but we do not hear of anyone being addicted to fruits and vegetables,” she said.


How to cut down

1. Remove all sugar, sweets and treats from your fridge, freezer and pantry. Set yourself up for success.

2. Plan and prepare your meals and snacks ahead of time. Being hungry and having no sugar-free snacks or meals may see you reaching for a chocolate or fizzy drink to boost your blood sugar slump.

3. Keep a sugar-free snack in your bag, car or drawer.

4. If you are craving sweetness, have a teaspoon of coconut oil to curb the physical craving, go for a walk or write in a journal. Often, we crave sugar for reasons other than natural hunger. For many, sugar has become an emotional crutch, a way to celebrate or relax. Slow down and decode your cravings when you absolutely need that piece of chocolate or cake. Identifying the real need behind the sugar is the key to kicking your sugar habit for good.

5. Get active, this will help balance your blood sugar levels, release dopamine (the reward and pleasure hormone in the brain) and leave you feeling great.

6. Read ingredient labels. This is the best way to ensure that the foods you eat don’t contain sugar. Don’t just look for sugar on the label, though; sugar is often disguised as many other names, like glucose, fructose, syrup, caramel, dextrose and more.

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