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Why
diets
fail
(Because You’re Addicted to Sugar)
Science Explains How to
End Cravings, Lose Weight,
and Get Healthy

Nicole M. Avena, PhD, and John R. Talbott

TEN SPEED PRESS
Berkeley

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Contents
Acknowledgments
Introduction

// viii

// 1

Part One

How Sugar Causes You to Overeat
Step 1

Why Your Past Diet Attempts Have Failed

// 17

Step 2

Weigh In on Your Sugar Intake

// 32

Step 3

The New Science of Sugar Addiction

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// 58

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Part Two

How to Overcome Your Addiction to Sugar
Step 4

The Sugar Freedom Plan for Breaking
Your Addiction // 84
Step 5

What to Eat and What Not to Eat

// 118

Step 6

Managing Your Withdrawal

// 140

Step 7

Managing Your Cravings

// 152

Step 8

Avoiding a Relapse
(and What to Do If One Occurs)

// 165

Conclusion

How to Maintain Your New,
Addiction-Free Way of Eating //

Appendix: Sugar Equivalency Table
Resources

// 208

Endnotes

// 212

Index

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175

// 195

// 225

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Why You Need to Read This “Diet” Book
These days, diet books are a dime a dozen, but few books combine
the lived experience of someone who has implemented that diet and
seen amazing results with the scientific research that supports and
explains why the eating plan works. In Why Diets Fail, you gain
all the latest scientific knowledge and expertise from Dr. Avena,
who has a PhD in psychology and neuroscience and is an expert in
the fields of addiction, nutrition, and obesity, informed by insights
from John, who has lived through this experience.
Moreover, you will learn about some fascinating research
discoveries that you may not yet be aware of, many of which may
explain why certain approaches that you have taken in the past to
lose weight have been unsuccessful. All too often, research findings
are reported in scholarly journals or discussed among researchers
and members of the scientific community, and even though they
may have direct application to human life, they rarely reach the
larger public. Thus, such findings fail to have a significant effect on
the day-to-day lives of the people who could benefit. That’s why
this book is so valuable. Together, we’ll explain why John’s revelation, and resolution, regarding addiction to sugars was beneficial to
his life, and could be to yours, in so many ways.
Although diet will certainly be discussed, we’re reticent to
call this a “diet” book, as that term doesn’t necessarily reflect how
extremely valuable this book can be to individuals who struggle to
achieve and maintain a healthy body weight. But trust us, when you
implement the diet, like John did, you can reawaken to a life that is
more fulfilling, fun, and rewarding than anything you could have
imagined.

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Treating Food as a Drug
One important shortcoming of most diets out there is that they fail
to recognize that highly palatable, highly caloric foods can be addictive. And when we say “addictive,” we don’t mean in the fun-loving
sense like “I am addicted to watching CSI” or “I am addicted to
checking my Facebook.” In this context, we use the term “addicted”
more literally.
The idea that food, and sugars in particular, have addictive
characteristics is not necessarily new. For many years, we’ve heard
reports of people claiming they feel driven to eat sugars and other
sweets, much as drug addicts might feel compelled to get their
next fix. These stories, while fascinating, were largely anecdotal.
Yet studies now suggest that foods high in added sugars and other
carbohydrates satisfy the clinical and scientific requirements for an
addictive substance, like a drug that’s abused. Excessive intake of
some types of foods can result in behaviors and changes in the brain
that are akin to what one would see with addiction to drugs. Yes—
heroin, morphine, cocaine, alcohol . . . and sugars.
Studies suggest that people who are clinically addicted to food
can be found among people who are overweight, obese, or normal
weight, so addiction to food is not necessarily something that is
exclusive to obesity. People with disrupted eating patterns, such as
binge eating disorder, may also meet the criteria for addiction to
food. However, another important group that may be affected by
the addictive nature of food is made up of those at risk for becoming
addicted—and that group includes almost all of us.
As we’ll discuss later on, addiction is a multifaceted disorder
that has multiple causes. Genetics certainly play a role, but so does
the environment. Repeated exposure to, and use of, one’s particular
drug of abuse promotes addiction. Think about what it would be

Introduction 

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like if it were easier to obtain drugs like cocaine or heroin—if they
were legal and socially accepted, and we were bombarded constantly
with pictures of people enjoying them—the drug problem in this
country would undoubtedly be worse than it already is. Because
our modern-day food environment is dominated by high-sugar and
high-carbohydrate foods, we are all at risk for developing an addiction. So, even if you don’t feel compelled to overeat sugar-rich foods,
and you don’t experience other symptoms of dependence, you can
still benefit from this book. While this science is relatively new, it has
far-reaching implications not only for you as an individual who may
be struggling to lose weight but also for multiple disciplines, including public health and policy regarding the marketing and sale of certain types of foods. (We’ll say more about this in later chapters.)
How do we get addicted? There are several ways. One relates
back to the idea we mentioned at the start of the chapter about how
we have more food choices now than we did fifty years ago. While
in many ways the assortment of foods available to us is an advantage
(as the saying goes, variety is the spice of life), the variety of foodstuffs out there are not all healthy. We are plagued with fast-food
restaurants, convenience food stores, and snack machines pretty
much wherever we go. Even in the grocery store, we are faced with
aisles of different types of snack foods and treats, cakes, cookies,
and sweets. And we buy these items up. Not only do we like to
eat them, but often, to “save money,” we also buy them in massive
quantities at shopping clubs or in value packs. Those supersized bags
of chips, sodas, and other snacks may be adding to our supersized
waistlines. And this type of excess eating doesn’t just apply to junk
food. Other foods, some of which are promoted as being healthy,
are being consumed in excess. For example, bagels, boxes of cereal,
and loaves of bread have, like us, become larger and larger over time.
Why do we keep buying and eating such foods? Well, for one,
they are easy to obtain, as so often they are right there in front of us.

12

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Our fast-paced modern-day lifestyles, which have left us with less
time to prepare meals at home, have forced us to become dependent
on this convenience.
However, dependence on food appears to be more than just a
matter of convenience; science suggests that we are biologically dependent on certain types of foods, and this may contribute to obesity.
What exactly does it mean to be addicted to food? Due to the
constant, excessive exposure to foods laden with sugar and other carbohydrates (as well as their logos, commercials, and advertisements)
that has occurred as a result of our modern food environment, many
of us may experience significant cravings for sugar-containing
foods. As we build up tolerance for them over time, it takes larger
and larger amounts of those candy bars, chips, and ice cream cones
to satisfy our cravings. Most importantly, some of us may experience withdrawal symptoms between sugar fixes, which can be exacerbated when we quit consuming sugars and other carbohydrates
for a period of time (if you’ve ever tried to eat a low-carb diet, you
know what we mean). We may also have powerful cravings for these
foods when deprived of them, even when this deprivation is selfinduced, and these cravings can lead to overeating and excessive
calorie intake, which means more weight gain.
Here’s an example. Lower-carbohydrate diets have been found
to be superior to low-fat diets in terms of promoting weight loss. 5
And most low-carb diets involve reducing or eliminating added
sugars and other carbohydrates. But as we mentioned above, when
people follow diets like the Atkins Diet and quit eating these highsugar, high-carb foods, many experience discomforts like headaches,
for example.6 None of us feels good when we have a headache, so who
can blame us for cheating a little bit or, in many cases, quitting the
diet completely. But these headaches or any of the other discomforts
that have been reported by people eating a low-carb diet may actually
be signs of withdrawal. These popular diets don’t tell you that when

Introduction 

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you rapidly switch from a diet dominated by carbohydrates to one
that lacks them, you may experience the negative feelings and physiological changes that are akin to a drug withdrawal.
Even though it is not a pleasant process to endure, reminiscent
of what happens when heroin addicts go into detox, withdrawal
from sugars and other carbohydrates is part of the process of no
longer being chemically dependent on them. In order to break free
of your dependence, you must know how to anticipate and endure
the withdrawal and cravings that might lure you back to overeating
high-carbohydrate foods. That is the purpose of this book—to offer
a new approach toward achieving your weight-loss goals by recognizing and coping with addiction to sugars and other carbohydrates.

How to Use This Book
Why Diets Fail presents an eight-step program to help you lose
weight by restricting your intake of certain types of foods, and in
some cases eliminating them completely from your diet. At the same
time, we understand that adhering to a low-carbohydrate diet needs
to be done with an understanding of the possible addictive nature of
these types of foods. So we’re going to take it slow.
In each chapter, we introduce one new step that is designed
to help you learn about your present diet habits, recognize signs
of addiction to sugars and other carbohydrates, develop a sensible
and realistic low-sugar and low-carbohydrate meal and snack plan,
manage your withdrawal and cravings for the carbohydrate-rich
foods you lust over, and maintain this way of eating. In the second
part of the book, we present the Sugar Freedom Plan, which is a
plan for getting you off sugar and on to your new way of eating
and living. At the end of each chapter is a section we call Food for

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Thought. In these sections, you will be asked to reflect on aspects
of your life (your eating patterns, your coping techniques, and other
life patterns) so that you can apply the concepts presented in each
chapter to your life. In addition to these reflections, you may find it
helpful to grab a piece of paper and a pencil or pull up a notepad on
your handheld device and jot down any information that you find
interesting, insightful, and potentially useful for the future as you
read the book. You don’t have to use complete sentences or reference
specific page numbers, you can just write some short phrases or key
words that you know will jog your memory. Remember that each
one of us is unique and you will be reading this book with your own
personal weight-loss and health goals in mind. We provide approximate time frames with regard to reducing or eliminating excess
sugar sources from your diet, but these are merely a guide, and you
should work through the steps at your own pace.

The sad truth is that most of us are overweight because we eat too
much. And if you aren’t overweight, you are certainly in danger of
becoming overweight based on our present food environment. In
this book, you will learn about the evidence of food addiction that
has been found in both laboratory animals and humans. In addition,
you will be given a step-by-step plan that will help you to recognize
whether you have an addiction to sugar-rich foods and explain how
to reduce your intake of these foods, what foods to eat (or avoid
eating), how to cope with the side effects of addiction, and how to
reduce behaviors that may lead you back into the cycle of addictive
overeating. You will learn ways in which you can replace sugars and
other carbohydrates with sensible alternatives that will leave you
feeling full and in better control of your weight-loss plan.
Now it’s time to get started and take your first step toward a
lighter, healthier, sugar-free you.

Introduction 

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Disclaimer: The information contained in this book is based on the experience and
research of the authors. It is not intended as a substitute for consulting with your
physician or other health-care provider. Any attempt to diagnose and treat an illness
should be done under the direction of a health-care professional. The publisher and
authors are not responsible for any adverse effects or consequences resulting from the
use of any of the suggestions, preparations, or procedures discussed in this book.
Copyright © 2014 by Dr. Nicole M. Avena and John R. Talbott
All rights reserved.
Published in the United States by Ten Speed Press, an imprint of the Crown
Publishing Group, a division of Random House LLC, a Penguin Random House
Company, New York.
www.crownpublishing.com
www.tenspeed.com
Ten Speed Press and the Ten Speed Press colophon are registered trademarks of
Random House LLC
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Avena, Nicole M., 1978–
Why diets fail (because you're addicted to sugar) : science explains how to end
cravings, lose weight, and get healthy / Nicole M. Avena, PhD. and John R. Talbott. —
First edition.
pages cm
1. Sugar-free diet. 2. Sugar—Physiological effect. 3. Reducing diets. 4. Health.
I. Talbott, John R., 1955– II. Title. III. Title: Why diets fail (because you are addicted
to sugar).
RM237.85.A94 2013
613.2'8332—dc23 
2013021488
Hardcover ISBN: 978-1-60774-486-3
eBook ISBN: 978-1-60774-487-0
Printed in the United States of America
Design by Katy Brown
Cover photography by Katie Newburn
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©istock.com/pinstock, ©istock.com/SKrow, and ©istock.com/evemilla; page 160:
(dog) ©istock.com/alashi, (dog bowl) ©istock.com/HitToon, and (bell) ©istock
.com/lushik; and on page 161: (food) ©istock.com/appleuzr and (faces) ©istock.com/
PinkTag.
10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1
First Edition

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