We think we know what an addict looks like. It is the emaciated man on a bare mattress in a grotty room, a syringe dangling from his arm. It is the woman who stumbles home every night, who can’t stop having ‘one too many’. It is the bullied teenager who stops eating to get some kind of control over their life. But the guy who has three sugars in his coffee? The busy mum who devours a chocolate bar at the end of the working day? The kid who whines for a cola? The student living off ready meals?
According to Karen Thomson, founder of Cape Town’s Help (Harmony Eating and Lifestyle Program), sugar is as real an addiction as heroin, alcohol or anorexia. The only rehab centre in the world to offer a programme specifically tailored to sugar and carbohydrate addiction, Help uses traditional rehabilitation techniques to treat sugar addiction. ‘When clients arrive they are at rock bottom, like any other addict,’ says Thomson. ‘They are depressed, anxious and hopeless. They have lost their sense of purpose, sense of self and drive to live.’
It’s odd to think of an addict hankering after a cupcake rather than a crack pipe, but increasing evidence seems to show that sugar may trigger the same responses in the brain as more typical sources of addiction. PET scans have shown that the same neural pathways in the brain light up when an obese child is exposed to sugar as when an alcoholic has a drink. (That said, sugar is not classed as an addictive substance — instead, like gambling, its hit of pleasure is merely seen to lead to addictive behaviour.)
The ‘No Sugar’ movement, led by Dr Robert Lustig, has been gaining traction with its claim that sugar is actually the world’s leading health risk, responsible for heart disease, diabetes and obesity. His video Sugar: The Bitter Truth has more than six million views on YouTube. To add credence to their argument, campaigners point to Sweden, where the low-carb/high-fat diet is already long-established, and where rates of obesity have now stabilised.
Increasing numbers of health specialists are recommending we cut down on sugar, too. Mandy Saligari, the founder of the Charter Harley Street rehab centre in London, is one. ‘Addicts tell themselves “I can’t control myself”,’ she says. ‘They find it unbearable to be in their own skin. They would rather have the negative feeling of the thing they use — getting fat, wired, spotty — than tolerate living with their emotions. That is the real damage of addiction.’
Although Charter does not treat sugar addiction per se, Saligari believes that it plays a huge role in eating disorders in general, and sometimes even in alcoholism. ‘Alcohol is packed with sugar. When people stop drinking they often turn to fizzy drinks, which leave the neural pathways open for relapse.’
Thomson doesn’t claim that sugar is a problem for everyone, but ‘for certain individuals, this is very real’, she says. One such individual is Amy, 34, based in London. She went to the Help centre when she realised that she had replaced her alcohol and drug addictions with sugar. ‘Even after two years “clean”, I was in a total mess,’ she says. ‘It was like a game of whack-a-mole: one addiction goes down and another pops up.’ She enrolled in the 21-day inpatient programme at Help after reaching a low point and calling a helpline. She describes her state when she arrived: ‘I was broken, lost, full of shame and self-hatred. I was a walking zombie, dead behind the eyes. I had given up on myself.’
Thomson is adamant that sugar addiction is treated in the same way as other addictions at her centre. A recovering alcoholic and cocaine addict herself, she is a proponent of the Minnesota model, otherwise known as 12 steps. The clinic has a 24-hour nursing staff, medical doctor, a detox unit, clinical psychologists, psychiatrists, trauma specialists and addiction counsellors.
The programme itself consists of one-on-one therapy sessions, lectures on nutrition, intensive trauma therapy, group therapy, 12-step facilitation and visits from a dietician. Meals are all prepared and are low-carb, high-fat. A typical menu for a day might be avocado and eggs for breakfast, tuna salad for lunch and chicken curry for supper, with nuts and biltong as snacks. Clearly, relapse is a worrying issue, as sugar is so widely available, but Help offers a comprehensive after-care programme with online support, free Saturday sessions for those who live in Cape Town, Skype calls with counsellors and WhatsApp groups.
Amy was so inspired by Help that she is now training to become a therapist herself, studying for a diploma in therapeutic counselling and working with other sugar addicts. ‘I love being part of the sugar free revolution,’ she says. ‘I feel like a modern-day suffragette. My roar keeps getting louder!’
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9 February 2016 | 7 p.m. | IET London