Sugar is bad news. It’s linked to weight gain, obesity, type 2 diabetes, depression, heart disease and cancer. So if you want to lose weight, get healthy and feel better, just stop eating it. Starting…..right now. Good. Phew. Got that over with. Okay then. Moving on.
Only it never actually works that way. And that’s not just because sugar and artificial sweeteners are found in almost every single packaged food item in the grocery store. It’s not just because, if you’re like most Americans, you are singlehandedly consuming an entire cup of sugar every day without even realizing it – and that doesn’t include all of the artificial sweeteners you’re eating in between. It’s not because you’re careless, lazy, weak willed or gluttonous.
More likely, it’s because you’re an addict. Like most Americans, you’re addicted to sugar. And this addiction is very real, a response to a rollercoaster of brain chemicals and hormones triggered off by sugar that make it extremely difficult to quit.
That’s why, no matter how many stabs of sugar shame you feel after you’ve binged – yet again – you keep going back for more.
As a nation of sugar addicts, it may seem silly to make a big deal out of it and call it out for what it truly is – a deeply ingrained pattern of mental, emotional and physiological behaviours that we no longer know how to cope without. But as sugar is connected to the very life-threatening diseases that rank amongst the most common in North America, perhaps it’s time we took notice.
Understanding sugar addiction, and taking practical steps to break the habit, can help to nip many of these problems in the bud for good, and help you coast down the road to weight loss and better health with less set-backs and frustration along the way.
Why You’re Hooked on Sugar
Calling sugar a drug may seem excessive, but there’s no longer any doubt that it triggers a feel-good crash-‘n-crave hormonal cycle inside our bodies that sets the stage for classic addiction.
When we eat a lot of sugar, the body produces insulin, a hormone that grabs sugar and several other nutrients out of the blood and quickly dumps it into muscles and organs. However, one nutrient that gets left behind in the blood in high concentrations after you’re insulin levels have spiked is tryptophan. Tryptophan is an amino acid that your body converts into a brain chemical called serotonin. Serotonin is a feel-good chemical that bathes the brain in a wave of happiness and relaxation. Sugar also triggers the release of dopamine, another pleasure-pushing brain chemical. This creates that sugar high we so fondly look forward to after polishing off that box of Fudgee-os after a stressful day at work.
Unfortunately, once the insulin response removes all that sugar from the blood, we yo-yo from high blood sugar to low blood sugar. This is known as the sugar crash. For many people, this causes feelings of fatigue, headaches, stress or crabbiness. It can also trigger hunger again. Looking for that next high, we seek out another sugar fix. And the quickest way to get it is through more sweets jammed packed with simple sugars again, that absorb quickly into our bodies and launch us back into the sugar loopedy-loop.
And it gets worse. As these kinds of eating patterns continue, our bodies start to adapt. We need more and more sugar to produce that same high again, just like a cocaine addict. The sweeter the foods we eat, the more our brains adapt and become immune to their sugary flavor, requiring us to add more and more sugar to taste it again. And that’s exactly what we do. Lab studies make it clear that regular sugar bingeing causes the same brain changes that occur from drug withdrawal, leading to very similar patterns of increasing dependence and addiction.
A sugar addict is born. What do you do now?
5 Steps to Kicking the Sugar Habit
Sugar is sneaky. It appears in many packaged foods – and not just the “sweet” ones either. Cakes, cookies, candies and colas are the obvious culprits, but unobvious sources include sauces, salad dressings, canned soups, yogurts, granola bars, breads, cereals, and even “health” foods like most low-fat products.
Beyond that, sugar also lurks under several different names on a package’s seemingly innocuous ingredients list. It’s vital to get into the habit of reading ingredient labels, and to become familiar with what to look for. Learn to call out several of sugar’s aliases and equally harmful sweet relatives, such as the “syrups” (high fructose corn syrup, refiner’s syrup, rice syrup, etc), juice concentrates (cane juice, fruit juice concentrate, grape juice concentrate, etc.), “-ose”s (glucose, sucrose, fructose, maltose, dextrose, etc), and malts (barley malt, diastatic malt, maltodextrin, etc). These are all addictive sources of sweetener for a sugar addict. Although better than refined sources, even natural sweeteners like honey, maple syrup and agave syrup can jack up insulin levels, so choose these over refined sugar by eat these in strict moderation as well.
Step 2: Seek Out & Destroy
It’s next to impossible to break any kind of addiction without at least taking temptation out of immediate reach. Go through the fridge, pantry and cupboards, scan the ingredients labels and purge the products that don’t make the cut. Then re-stock with tons of healthy alternatives for the products you’ve sacked. Replace your sugary cereal for a high fiber option that is free of sugar (and sweeten it with fresh berries or a portioned helping of dried fruit if you find it too dull). Chuck sweetened snacks for seeds, nuts, plain stove-top popcorn or healthy kale chips for when the munchies hit. Sub store-bought salad dressings and dips for home-made ones (check out some deliciously healthy and sugar-free salad dressing recipes here), and try using hummus or avocado dip. Discard instant oatmeal for plain rolled oats, which don’t require that much more time to make.
And if you run into an overwhelming sweet craving now and then – yes, it will happen – try satisfying it with some fresh, high fiber fruit, combined with a serving of protein or healthy fat. Sweet and sugary, but also full of fill-you-up-fast fiber, water and other wholesome nutrients, whole fruit can safely satisfy a sweet tooth while curbing further appetite and preventing sugar binging. Also, combing fruit with a small serving of healthy protein or healthy fat (think nuts, nut butter, cottage cheese, plain Greek yogurt, etc.) helps to moderate the insulin response and avoid the sugar crave-crash-crave-crash cycle from spinning out of control.
Explore all sorts of natural, whole alternatives that, in your sugar haze, you may have forgotten existed
Step 3: Look at Your Life
Examining your daily routines and lifestyle more closely can start to reveal previously unnoticed patterns of eating, and what could lie at the heart of them. Do a close inspection of when you tend to eat sugar in the day/night, and what event often happens just before you eat it (even if that event is a thought or feeling). Do your sugar cravings hit because of fatigue, requiring a pick-me-up? Are you reaching for sugar in response to stress, or when feeling depressed? Are there other chronic digestive disturbances that you are noticing? Are sugar cravings connected to your menstrual cycles? Are there certain times of day when sugar cravings hit harder than others?
Once you start paying attention to these patterns and trigger points, you’ll know when and where to arm yourself against them. Recognize that a sugar addict’s triggers are largely mental. If you have gotten in to the habit of reaching for a sugary treat when you are tired or feeling blue, try replacing this habit with light exercise instead, which works wonders to re-energize you and release feel-good chemicals (endorphins) in to your body as well. If you start seeking sugar when engaged in the mindlessness of watching television, reading a book or in front of the computer, find another healthier vice or something else to absentmindedly do with your hands (like drinking herbal tea, ,molding a stress and squeeze ball, painting your nails or brushing your teeth, etc.). If you notice that the sugar cravings start to hit after lunch or dinner time, then take a look at what you are eating during those meals and assess if it’s giving you what you need nutritionally. Did you just eat a meal heavy in simple carbs (which often lead to energy crashes and sugar cravings afterwards)? Compare this to what happens after you’ve eaten a meal balanced with lean protein, complex whole-food carbohydrates and some healthy fat, which act much more kindly on blood sugar and curbing appetite.
Once you pin down the whens, wheres and whys, seek out ways of avoiding these sugar triggers and changing the ways you deal with them.
For scientifically-backed ways of breaking sugary snacking habits, read more here.
Step 4: Nutrition is key
Regular sugar bingeing leaves the sugar addict’s body quite nutritionally depleted, which only exacerbates the vicious cycle. Deficiencies in nutrients like the vitamin Bs, folic acid, amino acids and others prevent the body from making balanced doses of serotonin and dopamine, pushing the sugar addict over the edge towards even more sugar binging! Make sure to begin supplementing with a multi-vitamin, that will help the body re-coup from sugar toxicity and get you on the path to recovery and health.
Step 5: A Step-by-Step Sugar Detox
A sugar addict must start by forgiving herself. Realize that the sugar cravings aren’t going to stop overnight. And going cold-turkey isn’t a realistic goal for some people. Making a gradual detox schedule that you can (and must) commit to works wonders, not only because it prevents withdrawal symptoms from striking, but also because of the brain adaptation response discussed.
The brain starts to adapt to sugar and starts “ignoring” it, requiring you to eat more and more of it to taste its sugary high. But fortunately, it works on the flip side as well. By reducing the amount of sugar in your morning coffee by half for week 1, and then by another half for week 2, and onwards, your brain will start to “recognize” the sweetness again, and will actually start to enjoy less and less amounts of sugar again. As you continue to gradually reduce the sugar from all of the foods and products around you, you will eventually start to find that, not only have you stopped craving it, but any abrupt return to the amount of sugar you use to consume suddenly tastes sickeningly over sweet!
Re-training your brain, your body, your taste buds, your habits and your lifestyle can eventually wean you off of your dangerous sugar dependence, ensuring that the sugar addict not only gets clean, but can start living a happier, healthier, more satisfying life. Nothing is sweeter than that.