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Addiction Replacement, Sugar, and Sobriety (updated 2020)

Addiction Transference in Sobriety

About a year into my sobriety, I struggled to piece together what in the world was happening with me and soda, in particular, diet sodas.

When I got sober in December 2016, I realized that I was consuming way more soda and sugary foods than I had before. I read that it’s normal, that lots of people “switch” to sugar when they stop drinking. Switch?

Clearly, I had taken one thing and replaced it with another. That thing was replacing copious amounts of alcohol (not great) with copious amounts of diet soda (also not great). It was my last remaining vice and I desperately wanted it.

battling sugar addiction in sobriety

What was I doing?

When I first noticed the uptick in soda consumption, it made sense to me. I wasn’t a coffee drinker and I needed a caffeine source because I was taking care of a newborn on very little sleep with Google as my primary resource for understanding why my child would not stop screaming.

But once we both got into a groove (and a bit more sleep), I noticed my consumption remained the same. If anything, it increased.

Sugar & The Newly Sober

Why are sugar cravings so common in early sobriety? There are a few reasons:

  • Sugar releases huge surges of dopamine in your brain, something you used to rely on alcohol to do.
  • Alcohol has high sugar content. When you quit drinking, your brain still needs to get its sugar fix.
  • There is evidence that the neurobiological pathways of drug and sugar addiction are similar and affect the same area of the brain.
  • We become psychologically dependent on sugar to help us feel better because we’re no longer consuming our former feel-good substance – alcohol.

Essentially, sugar acts as a natural replacement, both physically and psychologically, for alcohol. In the early days, we do what we must to stay sober, but at some point, the sugar bug becomes its own kind of monster.

When the Replacement Habit Gets Worse

I realized this soda thing had become a problem. Shortly after my daughter’s birth, I dropped down to 145 pounds (because I never had time to eat), but I was slowly packing those pounds back on.

My belly fat increased and not just in that new mama kind of way. My teeth started to feel sensitive and lacked their usual luster. Is that the beginning of discoloration, I see?

Then there were the digestion issues and painful gas and bloating. Obviously, I shouldn’t be drinking something that is making me feel bad, but I couldn’t seem to stop.

It was the same cycle all over again.

Before I knew it, I was catching myself drinking 4-6 cans per day knowing full well that it was making me look and feel awful, and yet not being able to stop.

I made plans in my mind to cut back and stuck to none of them. The time of day when I would first crack open a can would get earlier and earlier. Diet Coke for breakfast? Don’t mind if I do!

I grabbed a soda if I felt stressed. Tired? Grab a soda. I was tired way more often. Bored? Crack open a fizzy drink.

I didn’t feel in control. Several times a day I would argue with myself about my soda consumption. Stop. Don’t stop. Cut back. Why are you drinking this? Before getting sober, I had the exact same arguments with myself about cigarettes and alcohol.

I’m embarrassed to admit it, but I even did the ceremonial throwaways. You know, when you toss out those remaining bottles and say, “I’m done!”

But you aren’t. A few hours or days later, you’re right back at it.

addiction transference in sobriety

How did soda get to me like this?

Clearly, I hadn’t changed much at all. I’d merely transferred my alcohol issues onto something slightly more benign and now it was driving me crazy.

I needed to kick the soda habit, but unless I did some deeper level work, I’d just pass it on to something else and this little merry-go-round will stay spinning.

It’s like that late 90’s film, Fallen, starring Denzel Washington where he fights a demon that keeps jumping from one body to the next. Just when he thinks he’s got it beat, it finds another host. Addiction can feel like that too.

Understanding Addiction Replacement

I beat myself up over the soda and sweets thing. Maybe you’re reading this with a donut in one hand, nodding vigorously.

It’s important to save a little grace for ourselves.

Addiction replacement is common in sobriety. When you drink heavily for an extended period of time, it rewires and reshapes your brain. We become overly sensitive to the craving cycle and susceptible to impulsive behavior.

It’s why so many alcohol-dependent people struggle with binge-eating, gambling, compulsive shopping, or even over-working. This behavior is rooted in a sense of lack. We’re trying to fill the hole that alcohol used to fill for us with other things.

So how do you handle addiction replacements like sugar in sobriety?

Everyone is different, but the primary things I’ve found helpful that are backed by science are the following:

  • Meditation and mindfulness – to help heal the brain and form healthier neural connections.
  • Counseling – to help address the roots of your addiction and develop healthy coping mechanisms. I use BetterHelp and have had A LOT of success with it. More on that HERE.
  • Lifestyle changes – focusing on exercise and nutrition to help combat cravings, heal the body, and correct vitamin deficiencies.
  • Patience – because none of these things happen overnight and take time to work.

Eventually, I was able to work on the underlying factors that drove me to push my addictive tendencies onto other things. I haven’t perfectly mastered them all, but it’s getting better and that’s the most important thing.

If you’re struggling with sugar addiction or another addiction replacement in sobriety, please know you are not doomed to be trapped by this behavior forever. There are specific tools you can utilize to transform this aspect of your life as well. The entire Soberish community is available to support you along the way.

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