Curb Your Sugar Addiction
Why We Eat Sugar and 6 Tips to Help you Stop Yourself
Have you ever heard someone say they’re addicted to sugar? It’s usually said tongue-in-cheek, poking fun at themselves. In reality, though, there’s a basis to this claim.
You’ve probably heard this before – too much sugar is bad for you.
What’s worse? Once you start eating more sugar, your body makes you believe you need more. Systematic reviews of research have found that sugar has addictive effects on the brain, often mirroring those triggered by opiates and other drugs.
Yes, opiates. Like oxycodone. Vicadin. Heroin.
And so you try not to eat a banana split every day. You turn down the chocolate cake after dinner. Scary thing is - sugar is hidden in places you don’t even know. For example, would you ever think it was healthy to throw Hershey’s chocolate syrup on your chicken and grill it? Most of us would never consider that a nutritious option. Yet, barbecue sauces can contain more sugar per serving that chocolate sauce (6 grams per tbsp. vs 5 grams per tbsp. in chocolate sauce).
But, you may argue, didn’t we just agree that sugar is addictive? Isn’t my brain making me eat all these sweets?
Yes and no. Part of our culture’s obsession on sugar is beyond our control. Our brains are wired to enjoy the effects of sugar. Its consumption is positively reinforced in our bodies through our brain’s reward center (called the nucleus accumbens), which releases dopamine into the body.
But wait! There’s good news. You can retrain your brain and reduce your addiction to sugar so you feel satisfied with smaller amounts.
Here are 6 helpful tidbits of information that can help you curb your addiction to sugar:
1. You have to know how you’re consuming your sugar.
One of the easiest ways for sugar to creep into our diet is through beverages. The CDC includes the following drinks as some of the types of SSBs (not a full list): regular soda (not sugar-free), fruit drinks, sports drinks, energy drinks, sweetened waters, and coffee and tea beverages with added sugars. Data collected by Rosinger et al between 2011-2014 says that, “on average, U.S. youth consume 143 calories from Sugar-sweetened beverages (SSB) and U.S. adults consume 145 calories from SSBs on a given day” (CDC, link). This equates to roughly one can of Coca Cola. No big deal, right? Unfortunately, it has a bigger impact than you’d guess. MyPlate guidelines suggest that adult women should only consume up to 6 tsp of added sugar a day (men are recommended up to 9 tsp per day) - a can of Coke contains a little over 9 tsp of added sugar.
Another source of hidden sugar is in processed foods. Have you ever looked at the nutrition label of your cereal? I mean really looked at it: (to your right -->)
18 grams of sugar (about 4 tsp) in one cup of Kellogg’s Raisin Bran. One cup is actually a fairly generous portion (most cereals suggest a serving of ½ to ¾ of a cup), but it’s still often less than you normally pour. Try it for yourself: go home and measure a cup of cereal and pour it in a bowl. Now keep measuring and pouring until you fill the bowl how you’d normally do it. Did you pour closer to 1 ½ cups (6 tsp)? or 2 cups (8 tsp)? Food for thought… (pun intended)...
2. Don’t Make Sugar Taboo
This sounds counterintuitive, but bear with me. When I was a kid, my mother didn’t purchase cereals that listed sugar as a first or second ingredient. Oh, it’s not like we didn’t know these existed. We saw the commercials - we wanted to steal Lucky’s sweet little marshmallows - and so every chance we got to eat it, we did just that. I remember going to my grandmother’s house and using the sugar in her sugar bowl to “re-frost” my Frosted Flakes. (Don’t judge.) When we ate sugar, we significantly overate sugar.
Bottom line, sugar isn’t all bad, so don’t make it taboo. Our bodies easily use glucose as our primary energy source (carbohydrates are easier to convert to energy than fats or proteins). Plus, it’s fun to have a tasty little treat every once in a while. The key is to keep the amounts of sugar consumed low. If you, cold-turkey, completely eliminate sugar to lose weight or to try the next fad “diet” (read my other blog called “Stop Dieting, Start Eating Well”), your brain will not support you. Trying to just eliminate sugars will force you to rely solely on will-power. Eventually, you’ll lose, and you’ll find yourself face-deep in your son’s leftover birthday cake.
Which brings me to my next tip,...
3. Remember the 80/20 rule.
None of us is perfect all the time. Even the healthiest eaters have days where they slip, cheat, or just decide to indulge. In fact, relying on your willpower to stay perfect all the time spells disaster. That’s why most people in the field of nutrition agree that people should aim to eat healthy foods around 80% of the time, which leaves a little room for indulgences - like birthday cake, a slice of pie at Thanksgiving, or a scoop of ice cream on a hot summer day - without feeling guilty. Allow yourself a few treats now and then so your brain doesn't feel like it's all or nothing.
4. Understand the difference between natural and added sugars
People like to follow rules - it makes life easier to be able to categorize and define things easily. Do this; don’t do that. And as we talk about sugar, people want to go all or nothing. “Remove sugars? Ok! I won’t touch anything that feels even remotely sweet!” People tend to lump all sugars - added and natural - into the same category. And there’s some validity to this point.
The truth of it is - our body treats all sugars in practically the same way, regardless of source. Glucose is glucose, regardless if it came from a soda or an apple. Yet, the discussion often fails to include the rate our bodies process sugars based on their source. Sugar from an apple is also accompanied by fiber, which slows its absorption and processing, as well as vitamins and other nutrients. In contrast, a soda offers little nutritional value and provides liquid sugar for the body to metabolize.
You may have read some evidence suggesting that our bodies react differently to glucose and fructose. To overly simplify, fructose (the simple sugar found in fruit (as well as high fructose corn syrup, or HFCS) does not trigger the body to release insulin or subsequently leptin, one of the chemicals in our bodies responsible for satiation.
Yet, it’s important to remember the drastic difference between the fructose found in fruit and that found in HFCS. The fructose in a peach represents approximately 1% of the fruit’s weight whereas fructose accounts for half the weight by volume of HFCS (7). That means the other 99% of that peach contains fiber, anti-inflammatory agents, phenols, and other micronutrients that provide other benefits to the body and slow the absorption of the natural sugar.
Bottom line: for most people, whole fruit is still a very healthy thing to eat.
5. Replace, don’t remove.
If you’re craving something sweet, your body might be trying to tell you something. Many people spent the whole day limiting what they body consume, which leads to a struggle by the end of the day to keep your spoon out of the ice cream tub. You might need just a little bit of sugar to feel right - each person needs a different variety of nutrients to feel their best since no one diet or formula works for everyone. This is a great time to know yourself and feel ok about grabbing a little something sweet.
Instead of automatically grabbing an overly-processed snack with a lot of added sugar, though, stop and try some fresh fruit or other naturally-sweet food. As mentioned above, you’ll get a lot more out of the food you’re consuming. You also might be surprised to find that your sweet tooth is satisfied.
6. Know why you eat sugar.
In my experience, there are really only three reasons why tend to crave sugar: reward, habit, and hunger.
In my experience, there are really only a three reasons we crave sugar: Reward, Habit, and Hunger.
Reward - this is my weak spot. If I’ve had a long day, or I’ve finally gotten the kids to bed and just need something that says, “Lady, you’ve earned a moment of happiness!”, I turn to food. That momentary reward from my brain makes me feel so much better. For the moment. Since this usually happens to me at the end of the day, I end up eating a sugary sweet right before bed. In turn, my sleep is often affected and I wake up early and extra hungry (because my blood sugar crashes.)
If this is your reason, consider another way to reward yourself. Do you like warm baths? Perhaps you can do a puzzle, read a book, or put on some music. Sit down and think about something that would bring you a moment of joy, and then do that, not eat.
Habit - Have you ever just done something because this is what you always do? You finish your meal and then head to the pantry for dessert. Are you hungry? Maybe, but maybe not! This is just how you finish your meal every night. But why?
Answer: Our brains love habits - it’s much easier to go through the day without having to figure out each individual task all over again. This allows the brain to do more complex tasks as they arise. Yet, if you consider how important nutrition is to your health, one could argue that this should not be left to habit. Each bite should be considered and enjoyed for the nutrition, pleasure and satisfaction it provides.
Try talking to yourself about how you'd like to change your habit and reminding yourself out loud that you don’t need dessert after dinner. Sometimes, just bringing the habit out of your subconscious and into your conscious mind will help you manage it more easily.
Hunger - I imagine this has happened to all of us (because it happens to me all the time). You’re at work and a wave of hunger hits about 2:30pm. You’re already tired and the communal candy dish is calling out to you. You avoided the tempting morsels all morning (you were full from breakfast and lunch was on the horizon), but now, you’ve still got several hours before you can head home to dinner.
The key to avoiding the sugar in this situation is to have something substantial and nutritious on hand. I keep a bag of Trader Joe’s lightly salted roasted almonds in my desk drawer - a handful is perfect for holding the afternoon munchies at bay. An apple with some peanut butter, a plain greek yogurt with berries, or some dried fruit and seeds would also be great options. Whatever you enjoy - plan ahead to have some with you. It’s easier to say “no” to candy when you can say “yes” to something just as delicious.
Ultimately, making the choice to reduce your sugar will improve your health and wellbeing, but also help you enjoy treats when you opt to eat them. When you do decide to eat something sweet, you'll enjoy and savor it that much more.