It is common to crave sugary foods and drinks after quitting alcohol, but excessive sugar consumption can create a variety of health concerns.

Article at a Glance:

Sugar cravings are common in recovery.

Like alcohol, sugary foods can be addictive and trigger the brain’s reward system.

An unbalanced diet is a common trigger for sugar and alcohol cravings in recovery.

Excessive sugar intake can prolong recovery and deny your body the nutrients it needs to heal after alcohol detox.

Why does it often seem like people recovering from alcohol addiction suddenly develop a massive sweet tooth? There are a number of reasons why this phenomenon is such a common occurrence.

When someone has something sugary, the neurotransmitter dopamine is released in their brain. Dopamine plays a pivotal role in the brain’s reward system, which is linked to addictive behaviors. The reward system gives a person a sense of pleasure and encourages them to repeat the activity.

Cravings often occur when someone stops using alcohol. Unfortunately, when a person is recovering from alcohol and turns to sugary foods and drinks to satisfy cravings, they may be unintentionally trading one addiction for another. The following provides an overview of why this occurs, how it affects the body and ways that people in recovery can prevent it from happening.

The Relationship Between Alcohol, Carbohydrates & Sugar

Different types of alcohol contain varying amounts of carbohydrates. Some types, including distilled spirits like whiskey, do not contain any carbohydrates at all. In contrast, liqueurs or mixed drinks can contain a high amount of carbohydrates. Beers and wines often contain a moderate amount of carbohydrates.

Carbohydrates are the major source of energy for your body, and they’re made up of:

Simple sugars, like sucrose (table sugar) and fructose (fruit sugar): Simple sugars are found in many processed foods. The sugars that are found in alcohol are also simple sugars. They can break down quickly in the body and can spike blood sugar levels.

Complex carbohydrates, like grains and vegetables: Complex carbohydrates are considered healthier than simple sugars because they break down more slowly in the body, minimizing blood sugar spikes. In addition, they are often high in fiber and provide a rich assortment of vitamins and minerals.

The Relationship Between Alcohol & Low Blood Sugar

People who struggle with alcohol use typically have altered eating patterns. This is because drinking can impact your appetite, taste buds and nutrient absorption. For this reason, people who drink heavily may not consume regular meals, increasing the risk of low blood sugar. Low blood sugar can occur due to drinking on an empty stomach or several hours after eating.

If a person regularly drinks a lot without eating, their blood sugar levels can plummet dangerously low. This is because when someone stops eating, their body breaks down glycogen and turns it into sugar for energy.

After a day or two without eating, however, these glycogen stores are emptied. The body can normally compensate by having the liver create new sugar, but if a person is drinking, the liver’s top priority is to remove the alcohol from their system. As a result, the body’s sugar levels plummet.

How To Handle Sugar Cravings in Addiction Recovery

Cravings for both food and alcohol are common when you are newly sober. Cravings occur because your body is still adjusting to sobriety and may be sending you mixed signals. For example, you may mistake hunger for an alcohol craving.

Eating an unbalanced diet has been linked to having increased cravings. In contrast, eating a balanced diet at regular mealtimes can help control cravings for both food and alcohol. As your body gets used to sobriety over time, you will learn your body’s hunger cues and eat on a more regular basis, reducing both food and alcohol cravings.

Can My Sugar Intake Harm Me?

Experts believe that a high sugar intake can harm you during recovery in several ways:

  • Addiction transfer: Swapping a substance addiction for a sugar addiction may interfere with detox and contribute to a relapse. This is called addiction transfer, as sugary foods can trigger the brain in ways that are similar to drugs and alcohol.
  • Blood sugar spikes: A high intake of sugary foods causes spikes in your blood sugar. This is linked to both mood changes and cravings, which can hamper your recovery.
  • Eating disorder risks: About half of people who struggle with addiction have a co-occurring eating disorder. Eating nutritious food can improve eating habits as well as benefit recovery.

Can I Get Addicted to Sugar?

Recent studies show that processed foods like sugar trigger the brain’s reward system in ways that are similar to alcohol and other addictive substances. In other words, it’s entirely possible for someone to become addicted to sugar. Additionally, some researchers believe there is a genetic component to sugar addiction in families with a history of substance abuse.

The Warning for People in Recovery

Recovery is hard work on your body. When it comes to fuelling your body during early sobriety, proper nutrition is crucial. If you do not eat properly, detox can take longer and be more difficult than it otherwise would.

As mentioned, addiction can cause a person’s body to confuse hunger for a substance craving. Without proper nutrition and regular mealtimes, a person might be tempted to use substances instead of controlling the feeling by eating. Further, detox itself can change your nutritional requirements and cause your body to require more nutrients.

If you or a loved one is struggling with alcohol use and unhealthy diet habits, The Recovery Village is here to help. Contact us today to learn more about alcohol addiction treatment programs and nutrition plans that can help you begin the path to a healthy, alcohol-free future.

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Editor – Jonathan Strum
Jonathan Strum graduated from the University of Nebraska Omaha with a Bachelor's in Communication in 2017 and has been writing professionally ever since. Read more
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Medically Reviewed By – Dr. Jessica Pyhtila, PharmD
Dr. Jessica Pyhtila is a Clinical Pharmacy Specialist based in Baltimore, Maryland with practice sites in inpatient palliative care and outpatient primary care at the Department of Veteran Affairs. Read more

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Medical Disclaimer

The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare providers.