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How Do You Know If You Are Sugar Sensitive?

There are several ways to determine if you are sugar sensitive. Some people prefer the informal approach, others like using the checklist shown later. Let’s start with an informal way to diagnose sugar sensitivity. When a client comes to see me about compulsive eating, I start by asking a simple question.

Imagine you come home and go into the kitchen. A plate of warm chocolate chip cookies sits on the counter just out of the oven. Their smell hits you as you walk in. You do not feel hungry. No one else is around. What would you do?

Does this question make you smile? You may think the answer is obvious, but people who are not sugar sensitive respond by saying, “I go check the phone for messages” or “I go upstairs and put on my sweats.” Some will stop and think about whether they would eat some cookies. Others will say, with no emotional charge, “Well, I might try one.” People who are not sugar sensitive do not have an emotional response to even the idea of smelling fresh chocolate chip cookies.

People who are sugar sensitive laugh at the cookie question. Their bodies are already responding to the very idea of the cookies. They know they would inhale a cookie -- probably more than one, at that! They might eat the whole plateful, even if they were not hungry. For a sugar-sensitive person, hunger is not the driving motivation. What triggers their desire to eat is the smell of the cookies, the anticipation of how the cookies will feel in their mouth, and the warmth and sweetness of the melted chocolate. Even the feeling of having a cookie in their hand will have a powerful association for them. Those cookies mean love, they mean comfort. Those cookies are friends and lovers.

People who are not sugar sensitive think this response to the cookies is strange, perhaps even stupid: “What on earth are you talking about? Why would I eat a cookie if I wasn't hungry?” But people who are sugar sensitive always know exactly what the cookie question means.

I have asked this question of many, many groups. Every time I’ve received dramatically consistent responses. While one part of the group will be waiting for the punch line after I ask, “Would you eat a cookie?” all the sugar-sensitive people are laughing. Their bodies are already responding to the image of the plate full of warm cookies in the kitchen. Try this experiment with your friends and see what kind of response you get.

Here’s a second powerful diagnostic question I use:

When you were little and had Rice Krispies for breakfast, did you eat the cereal for its own sake, or did you eat the cereal so you could get to the milk and sugar at the bottom of the bowl?

People who are not sugar sensitive think the milk and sugar at the bottom of the bowl are disgusting. People who are sugar sensitive smile. They remember that the real objective was to get to the dregs of milk and sugar. They got high by tilting the cereal bowl into their mouths and tasting the clump of sugar at the bottom.

Your answers to these two questions may simply reinforce what you already know. Some people -- perhaps including you -- are very attached to sweet things.

There are lots of other ways to get clues to your sugar sensitivity. You might think back to the size of the bag you carried at Halloween. Children who were not sugar sensitive carried those small orange plastic pumpkins. We carried pillow cases. Their candy lasted until Easter. Ours was gone in three days.

Diagnosing Sugar Sensitivity

If you are still asking, “How can I know for sure if I am sugar sensitive?” Let’s take a look at the core issues associated with sugar sensitivity. Check each of these ten statements that applies to you:

  • I really like sweet foods.
  • I eat a lot of sweets.
  • I am very fond of bread, cereal, popcorn, and/or pasta.
  • I now have or once had a problem with alcohol or drugs.
  • One or both of my parents are/were alcoholic.
  • One or both of my parents are/were especially fond of sugar.
  • I am overweight and don't seem to be able to easily lose the extra pounds.
  • I continue to be depressed no matter what I do.
  • I often find myself overreacting to stress.
  • I have a hstory of anger that sometimes surprises even me.
If you checked:

3 or more, it is very likely that you are sugar sensitive.

5 or more, you have come to the right place!

Each of these statements relates to an aspect of sugar sensitivity. Let’s go through them one at a time so you can see what your answers may have to tell you.

  • I really like sweet foods. Answering yes to this question alone indicates sugar sensitivity. If you really like sweet foods, you may have an intense physiological response to them. Sugar-sensitive people actually respond to tasting and eating sugar in a way that is more pronounced than other people. A “normal” person will enjoy sweets but can eat half a cookie and leave the rest for tomorrow. A “normal” person doesn’t sit through dinner thinking about dessert. A “normal” person does not feel more confident and powerful after eating sweet things.

  • I eat a lot of sweets. Sugar-sensitive people are likely to eat a lot of sweets. Even though you feel you shouldn’t, you may eat candy, cookies, or ice cream. Dessert may be the most important part of your meal. You may fast from sweet things during the day and then binge at night.

    Or you may really love sweet things but choose not to eat them. Lindsay, a tall, slender client of mine, was sugar sensitive. Because she was concerned about calories and fats in her diet, she had stopped eating hot fudge sundaes, candy bars, and the other sweets she usually craved. But even though she had eliminated obvious sugars from her diet, sweet things continued to find their way into her mouth. She ate energy bars for breakfast. She stopped drinking Coke and switched to fruit juice. She also discovered she loved carrot juice. She would have a glass of wine with dinner as a treat to make up for how much she missed her high-calorie splurges.

    All of these foods contain high amounts of sugar. Lindsay’s sugar-sensitive biochemistry was craving sugars and drove her to eat them even without her knowing what she was doing. Her energy bars and many of the other “healthy” low-fat foods she ate were very high in what their labels called “carbohydrates.” Sugars come in many forms. People who are sugar sensitive find them.

  • I am very fond of bread, cereal, popcorn, and/or pasta. Your body may respond to foods made with white flour as if they were sugars. You may find you feel good soon after eating them but then feel terrible later on. You may love bread. Cereal may be a staple for you. In the evening, you might settle on the couch with a huge bowl of popcorn.

    Rank yourself on a scale of 1 to 10 on your attachment to any of these foods. You may be surprised to find that even though you don’t eat “sugar,” you have a very powerful emotional attachment to bread, pasta, cereal, and/or popcorn. You would kill for French bread. You know where all the homemade pasta is sold. Don’t get nervous. It’s okay to feel this way. Your attachment to these foods only tells us how powerful your sugar-sensitive biochemistry is.

  • I now have or once had a problem with alcohol or drugs. If you have used alcohol or drugs in an addictive way at some time in your life, it’s very likely that you have a body chemistry that responds more intensely to alcohol or drugs than other people. Your attachment to sugars sets you up biochemically for the addictive use of alcohol and even certain drugs.

    Even if you are recovering from alcohol or drug addiction, sugar sensitivity can affect how you feel. This accounts for much of the syndrome called the dry drunk. Hair-trigger reactions and impulsive behavior can be caused by what you eat and when you eat it. Many of the unexplained physical and emotional symptoms that people take for granted in addiction recovery, such as irritability, cravings, mood swings, and sleep disturbances, actually result from having a sugar-sensitive body. In addition, feelings of low self-esteem may continue long after they seem rationally warranted. For example, Christine, who got sober five years ago, expected to feel a whole lot happier and healthier than she does. She has a fabulous job, which she loves, has been promoted three times in two years, and makes twenty thousand dollars more a year than she used to. But she still worries that she will be a bag lady in her old age. The problem is that Christine stopped drinking but didn’t change her diet to compensate for her sugar-sensitive body. What and when you eat can make you feel terrible or wonderful.

  • One or both of my parents are/were alcoholic. If your parents drank to excess or drank in an alcoholic fashion, you may have inherited a specific type of brain-chemical response to alcohol that makes you feel tearful, depressed, and emotionally overwhelmed -- or angry and belligerent -- when you are “under the influence” of sugar. You can inherit other aspects of sugar sensitivity as well. Your parents may have been sugar sensitive long before they started to drink. Seventy-eight percent of the drunk drivers in the program I ran reported that their fathers were alcoholics and their mothers loved sweets. This combination of an alcoholic father and a sugar-sensitive mother (or vice versa) maximizes the chance that your were born with a sugar-sensitive body.

  • One or both of my parents are/were especially fond of sugar. People who are sugar sensitive often grow up in houses where sweets abound. I remember our family ritual of going to the local Dairy Queen on summer evenings. Ice cream not only created a pleasant memory, it carried a whole emotional charge as well. To this day, the memory of the sweet, cold, creamy soft treat evokes a powerful and pleasant response in my body.

    As with the question about chocolate chip cookies, non-sugar-sensitive people do not respond in this way. They may report a childhood memory of going to Dairy Queen, but it’s a memory with a different emotional content. Their bodies do not remember the feeling of the ice cream in their mouths with the same intensity. Find a non-sugar-sensitive person and ask them what they remember about food from their childhood. Then ask a sugar-sensitive person. I guarantee there will be a big difference in their responses.

  • I am overweight and don't seem to be able to easily lose the extra pounds. Sugar-sensitive people often crave carbohydrates. This isn’t an emotional craving, but a physiological one caused by the way their body chemistry overreacts to sweets and carbohydrates. They find dieting difficult and often unproductive in the long term. Restricting calories does not result in weight loss as it should. People who are sugar sensitive can eat as little as 800 calories a day, but if those calories are from carbohydrates, they will still gain weight. They may have tried a low carb diet and initially had success. But over time it is likely that they started feeling restless and uneasy. Then they slip and eat carbohydrates, cannot get back on the diet, and experience a disastrous rebound effect. You know the “yo-yo syndrome” well: Lose ten pounds, regain fifteen; lose fifteen, regain twenty.

  • I continue to be depressed no matter what I do. Sugar-sensitive people may have a hard time getting mobilized. You may feel frequently sad or apathetic. You may be depressed and crawl through the day with very little energy. For women, the depression may get worse just before menstruation. Often, sugar-sensitive people are miserable in the winter because the decrease in daylight affects their already impaired brain chemicals. You may self-medicate your depression by eating sweet foods, since sweets are one of the few things that make you feel better, albeit temporarily. You may be taking an antidepressant like Prozac, but still have symptoms of depression. If that’s the case, you likely have a sugar-sensitivity aspect to your depression that neither you nor your doctor has recognized.

  • I often find myself overreacting to stress. Volatile blood sugar levels make sugar-sensitive people edgy and reactive. You may fly off the handle or cry at the drop of a hat. The conflicting feelings you have don’t seem to make sense. For example, my client Shirley worked as a senior manager in a governmental agency. She was well thought of, did excellent work, and liked her job. Most of the time she was steady and clear, but at other times she would get overwhelmed and want to sit and cry when her boss gave her feedback about her work. She was also surprised by the power of her anger, which seemed to bubble up from nowhere. Like Shirley, you may think of yourself as a really nice person -- and most of the time you are. But at other times you feel totally out of control. These mood swings may well be due to sugar sensitivity.

  • I have a history of anger that sometimes surprises even me. Sugar-sensitive people can have episodes of anger that seem to overtake them without reason. You may feel like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Your dark side stays hidden most of the time, but those people close to you know it’s there. Your flashpoint is low and your impulse brakes don’t work. The intensity of your feelings is particularly scary because it just doesn’t seem to fit your “real” personality.

    Are these patterns beginning to sound familiar? Does the sugar-sensitive profile fit your experience? Sugar-sensitive people often feel comforted by answering the questions listed above. Patterns in their lives that haven’t made sense suddenly start fitting together.
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Simple solutions for sugar sensitivity.
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