Cycle of Sugar and WLS

Beware of the Vicious Cycle of Sugar and WLS – Food Addiction

June 8, 2016

What is food addiction? Is it possible to be addicted to sugar? Will having WLS help with the cycle of sugar addiction? Let's discuss food addiction, sugar and WLS.

Food Addiction, Sugar and WLS

Sugar seems to be the food that is getting a lot of negative press these days.  To those who have experienced its harm first hand, it’s understandable why.  The Huffington Post recently reported the typical American gets 13% of their calories from added sugar,(1) mainly from sugar-sweetened beverages.  While most of us after weight loss surgery have learned to go without carbonated sodas, think about other drinks such as Monster Drink, Red Bull, or Gatorade.  The recent USDA Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend less than 10% of calories per day should be from added sugar.(2)  While this may be obvious from a post-weight loss surgery standpoint, it may not always be easy.

We know that the recommendation to reduce sugar intake is really aimed at improving how we eat overall and to prevent chronic conditions such as type 2 diabetes, hypertension, heart disease, and cancer.  Sometimes, and we don’t plan it, we see a donut, and before we know it, we eat the donut and then those old pleasures come back….

If this is you, you are not alone.  It’s hard not to succumb to the environmental stimuli all around us.  Think of all of the food billboards, commercials, food TV, workplace, grocery stores, and fast food eateries that are constantly marketing highly palatable food to us 24/7.

What is a Food Addiction?

There is a mixed consensus in the medical community on what is a true food addiction(3)  The Food Addiction Institute defines food addiction this way:

“Scientifically, food addiction is a cluster of chemical dependencies on specific foods or food in general; after the ingestion of high palatable foods such as sugar, excess fat and/or salt, the brains of some people develop a physical craving for these foods. Over time, the progressive eating of these foods distorts their thinking and leads to negative consequences which they do not want but cannot stop.”(4)

According to research, there is a pleasure or reward center in our brain.  This center releases a chemical called “dopamine” whenever we consume a certain food or engage in some activities resulting in our brain sending a mood enhancing reward.   For some patients, however, the ability to recognize dopamine is lower, so we eat more or need more. And, this becomes more of an addiction with food. (5)

As research neuroscientist/psychologist, Nicole Avena, PhD, explains, people can be addicted to sugar and foods just like drugs, alcohol, and other activities such as gambling.  She further explains that the brain’s response to any of those activities produces the release of dopamine, resulting in the overwhelming desire to eat more sugar.

Sugar and WLS - Does Weight Loss Surgery Cure Food Addiction?

For some individuals who struggle with excessive and addictive eating, weight loss surgery may temporarily help, but it might not ‘cure’ the food addiction.  Ask anyone who has struggled with this and they will say the struggle is sometimes a daily one.    The “just say no” philosophy to food is not realistic.  What do we do about sugar and WLS? We can avoid added sugar, meaning anything added to food, which is not the same as sugar that is naturally present in food such as milk and fruit.

Unlike alcohol or drugs, we actually need food to live.   According to the American Society for Metabolic and Bariatric Surgery, there may be other factors which may play a role in affecting our food intake (chronic sleep loss, carbohydrate source (corn syrup, processed meat; processed grains),  stress and psychological distress, and medications)(6).

Small Steps, Meaningful Changes

The best way to truly manage a food addiction is through a multidisciplinary approach with a behaviorist and/or therapist (specializing in food addictions), and your dietitian.  If you want to overindulge, take advantage of local support groups, and take it one day at a time.

Try making small changes and make it stick for a few weeks, and then add another change.

I love the tool of self-monitoring.  For some, this is difficult to do every day.  Start small with, “this week, I’ll start monitoring 2 days of the week.”  Popular apps like ‘Baritastic (free)’ or MyFitnessPal (personalize calorie and protein goals) can help you keep track of your intake, activity level, and even mood.  If you have the technology know-how, maybe starting a blog or journaling in your ‘notebook’ would be a great way to pass the commute. Or just grab a cool journal you can make your own and record your intake the old-fashioned way with a pen and notebook!

When journaling, especially if you are struggling with food addictions, think about noting the following:

  • The Pace of your Meal: Take note of the time the meal or snack started, and the time the meal or snack was finished. Chances are if your meal pace has gone back to eating pretty fast, then you may not be feeling satisfied (full) at the end of your meal, and may be looking around for something to snack on a little later. Remember: Protein First, Veggies Second, and Whole Grains last.
  • Your emotions/mood/thoughts:
    Did you record how you were feeling that day? Were you tired, stressed, or bored?  Did that affect your meal pace, meal pattern, or food choice? Skipping breakfast may set us up for relapsing into eating bigger portions at the next meal or succumbing to that fast-food billboard on the way to work.
  • Did you plan out the day?
    One of the biggest obstacles many of us face is finding the right balance.  Balancing work, family, and health if you add struggling with a food addiction to that list, it’s an uphill climb!  But experts agree, if you take the time to plan out what you will eat ahead of time, you’ll save yourself time, health, and money.  You might even spare yourself negative feelings.
  • Food Choices
    Read nutrition labels for ingredients in foods and condiments such as corn syrup, high-fructose corn syrup, maple syrup, agave syrup, and ingredients ending in “ose:” (fructose, glucose, sucrose, dextrose). Naturally occurring sugars found in fruits and dairy are OK, just check for added sugars, especially to some yogurts! Watch out for choices that are going to get you into trouble, like ‘trigger foods.’
  • Beverages can Add up!
    The obvious is to avoid foods high in added sugars.  This also includes beverages, like energy drinks (i.e. Red Bull, Monster, etc.) and smoothies. What’s the difference between Gatorade and G2?  Think: 21 grams of added sugar per 8 fluid ounce serving!
  • Exercise is Free Medicine! 
    Exercise can also stimulate the chemicals in your brain, and this is a positive in our book!  The trick is finding an exercise or activity in which to get ‘addicted.’  Walk, run, bike, dance; whatever makes you happy! Mix it up!
  • One Day at A Time: 
    Remember, weight loss surgery is a journey.  It is also a great opportunity to help others around you in your home establish healthier eating relationships with food.  Have your family members help grocery shop or give input on meals and meal prep.

Whatever tool you choose, be patient with yourself and remember - one day at a time!


  1. Gregoire, C (April 06, 2015) This is What Sugar Does to Your Brain accessed 3/15/16.
  2. USDA Food and Nutrition Service; HHS and USDA Release New Dietary Guidelines to Encourage Healthy Eating Patterns to Prevent Chronic Diseases. accessed 4/21/16.
  3. Strejcek A. and WolfsonR,  The Science of Food Addiction,
  5. Nicole Avena, PhD, Common Foods People Develop Addictions to (And Why); accessed 4/23/16.


Elaine Lozano, MS, RDN is a registered dietitian and currently works with Inova Weight Loss Surgery Program. Elaine has practiced all over the world, and has over ten years of nutrition education experience. Elaine is interested in coaching individuals to help them achieve a healthy relationship with their nutrition, and ultimately a healthy lifestyle.

Read more articles by Elaine!