January-February 2013 | Follow the Leader

Sweet Success

How a local addiction expert controls his sugar habit

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Having a sweet tooth may seem harmless enough. But about four years ago, addiction expert Joe Frascella realized his penchant for treats had grown into a full-blown bad habit that was negatively affecting his life.

“We love our sweets in the United States,” says Frascella, 54, of Rockville, who has worked for more than 25 years at the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) in Bethesda. “It’s a big industry.”

Like many Americans, Frascella says he religiously devoured dessert, snacked on treats and ate sugar-packed condiments, breads and cereals. He was 20 pounds overweight, and blood tests showed high triglyceride levels, a risk for heart issues.  

So he decided to look into health problems associated with sugar consumption. He learned that increasing scientific evidence suggests that sugar and other natural and artificial sweeteners target some of the same biological pathways as addictive drugs and that they can harm our health when eaten in excess.

“Certainly [sugar] affects obesity, but it’s probably also bringing a lot of other illness to us in ways that we are not fully aware of yet,” says Frascella, director of NIDA’s Division of Clinical Neuroscience and Behavioral Research.

Frascella decided to overhaul his diet and cut out food with added sweeteners, including natural versions such as table sugar, and artificial varieties such as high fructose corn syrup. Within six months he regained a healthy weight and healthy blood values.

“Overall, I just feel a lot better,” he says.

What He Does:


Frascella scrutinizes ingredients and avoids foods with added sweeteners, natural or artificial (including sugar, dextrose, lactose, fructose, sucrose, agave, high fructose corn syrup, glucose, honey, sorbitol, maltitol and molasses), as well as refined flour, which rapidly turns to sugar in the body.

“Eating a bagel is pretty much like eating a half cup of sugar,” he says.

Frascella also avoids no-calorie sweeteners, including sucralose and saccharin, because research suggests they may increase cravings for sweets. He also noticed that drinking wine boosts his sugar cravings, so he indulges sparingly.

Frascella eats steel-cut oatmeal with skim milk for breakfast. Lunch is cheese and turkey on Ezekiel bread, a special type made of grains instead of refined flour, and a piece of fruit. Dinner includes a protein, such as grilled chicken, vegetables and salad with oil and vinegar. Frascella snacks on nuts and generally drinks water.

He eats fruits and vegetables, such as apples and carrots, for sweet treats because their health benefits make up for their relatively small natural sugar content. And their fiber slows digestion and the absorption of sugars, meaning he’s not “getting the large concentrated doses of sugar that can considerably impact biology.”

The Payoff

Frascella says it was difficult at first to cut sugar from his diet, but his body recalibrated after four days of avoiding sweeteners. He felt better and less sluggish than before, and found that the natural sugars in fruits and vegetables tasted sweeter and were more satisfying.  

Within months, a physical revealed improved health, including a more appropriate weight and better blood values. Frascella also suspects his change in diet may have warded off diabetes and other ailments.


Frascella is vigilant about resisting his natural cravings for sugar, always aware that it “makes us feel good and we want to eat more.”

The Payoff

Frascella says that remaining aware prevents him from eating a lot of sugar without realizing it.


To avoid treats such as brownies fresh from the oven, Frascella will distract himself by going outside. He might picture a treat as unappetizing or remind himself that the cost of eating a few cookies is spending more than an hour burning the unwanted calories on the treadmill.

The Payoff

Frascella says the strategies seem simple, but really work because they take the emotion out of deciding whether to eat sweets, making it easier to stay in control.

Leah Ariniello is a Bethesda-based writer who frequently writes about health.