The average American consumes 152 pounds of sugar every year. That may be more than some of you weigh!
If you guys are loyal readers of the blog (hey, you’re awesome!), you know that sugar is my number one enemy.
There are at least seven amazing things that happen when you quit sugar. So why don’t we just give up sugar and swear off the evil monster forever?
Well, not-so-newsflash: giving up sugar is hard work.
That’s because sugar is the most convenient and readily available drug out there – and we’re all addicted to it.
How do we break this addiction?
No, we don’t have to go to 12 step meetings and discuss our feelings, but we do need to admit that we have a problem. Then we need to understand our addiction; that’s the only way we can break free once and for all.
Sugar is the Most Dangerous Drug
Personally, I believe sugar should be considered a drug, and there’s firm evidence to support that. See if you disagree.
A drug is defined as “something and often an illegal substance that causes addiction, habituation, or a marked change in consciousness”.
So let’s see here…
When you eat sugar, your brain releases dopamine, serotonin, and beta-endorphin, which are neurotransmitters that “promote a sense of well being” and increase our feel-good hormones.
We also get a boost of energy so we feel excited. Our brains are literally flooded with this short-lived “rush” before we go through a debilitating crash, which makes us want to keep using, just like a drug.
Those sound like marked changes in consciousness to me. Let’s see how the effects of a real drug compare.
A brain (and body) on cocaine feels:
- an increasing sense of energy and alertness
- an extremely elevated mood
Sugar causes cravings, bingeing, and withdrawals; the hallmarks of drug addiction. You would expect going through cocaine withdrawals to lead to irritability, restlessness, and anxiety, but the same can be said about going cold turkey with sugar.
“The taste of sugar also releases endorphins that calm and relax us, and offer a natural ‘high’”, says Susan Moores, MS, RD, a registered dietitian, and nutrition consultant.
If you think the high you get from sugar isn’t as threatening as the high you feel from other drugs, consider this: one study demonstrated that when rats became addicted to cocaine, 94% of them still preferred sugar to the cocaine they were already addicted to.
That’s a pretty scary thought.
See, sugar dealers don’t need to lurk in dark alleys to push their product and get us all addicted. Food manufacturers are adding sugar to foods we wouldn’t even think have dangerous amounts of sugar in them.
So if you’re really going to break your sugar addiction, you have to asses the sources of it in your diet. Check all the labels on your favorite foods to see where sugar is hiding.
And boy is it hiding; did you know that there are at least 57 names sugar goes by?
Now that you know what to look for, here’s what you’ll need to do to break your sugar addiction fast.
Think About Your Dependence
Having sugar cravings and fostering a sugar addiction doesn’t just happen overnight. There’s an emotional element that comes with overeating.
Since sugar makes us feel good, we may be using it as a coping mechanism to help us self-medicate in a way.
You may be eating sugar to:
- Care for your emotions
- Numb pain
- Manage stress
- Cope with your psychological or relational needs
Take a few minutes every day when you wake up to sit in the quiet hours of the morning and think about your day ahead. Think about how you’re feeling. What you’re stressed or happy about.
Go through this daily meditation to see what kind of thoughts you’re battling that are forcing you to reach for the crutch of feel-good sugar.
When you have a craving for cookies, ask yourself if you want those sweets because you’re bored, stressed out, or really hungry. Think about answering that question before you eat and see if it keeps you from indulging when you don’t mean to.
Don’t Replace Sugar with an Artificial Alternative
Ever hear the phrase: “Out of the frying pan and into the fire?”
You see, going from sugar to artificial sweeteners is like leaving one bad situation for an even worse one.
Most manufactured stevia has been stripped of all the natural sweetness found in the leaves of the stevia plant and has become a processed sugar nightmare.
Plus, studies at Purdue University have linked artificial sweeteners with weight gain because they confuse our digestive systems and change our palates so we crave more sweet foods.
Sounds like a lose-lose situation to me.
So Should I Just Go Cold Turkey?
Going cold turkey, aka not eating ANYthing with sugar in it, seems like the harshest way to curb your sugar intake, but it may be the most effective if you’re the all-or-nothing type.
If you have the incredible willpower to actually do this, major kudos to you! This task is incredibly difficult (to say the least) – even I can’t do it.
Don’t feel bad if you’re not one of these superhumans; most people try to wean themselves off sugar little by little and that’s a good thing.
Remember those withdrawals I mentioned? They make you a very unhappy, irritable person. Learning to cope with less sugar makes adjusting easier than an all-at-once approach.
However, you can speed up this weaning process by removing all of your normal sugary foods from your house. This means getting rid of the ice cream you enjoy every night, the cookies you come home to, the ultra unhealthy soda you drink all the time, etc.
Then commit yourself to avoiding these items when you go shopping. Choose to shop the perimeter of the grocery store (where all the produce, meat, and dairy will be) and avoid all the interior aisles filled with processed and sugary traps.
You see, it’s easier to say no to sugar once at the grocery store than every minute of every day when that food is in your house. It just makes your temptations all too easy to give in to when those sweet delights are staring you right in the face.
Instead, fill your cart with healthy foods that taste better than junk food.
Choose to Eat Smaller, More Frequent Meals
Instead of eating three big meals each day, eat six smaller meals every few hours.
This constant eating will keep your blood sugar levels stable so you’ll have sustained energy that keeps you powering through your hectic day. See ya later, afternoon slump!
If you wait too long to eat between meals, like when you’re starving between lunch and dinner, your blood sugar levels dip and cause you to feel drained and tired. Then you crave more sugar in an attempt to up your energy level.
See how this cycle leads to food addiction? Withdrawal, crave, reward; repeat the cycle.
Stick to meals “that are well-rounded with a mix of lean protein, healthy fats, and fiber-rich carbs”.
Fiber will keep you satisfied, ward off sugar cravings, and help control blood sugar by slowing down the rate of sugar absorption. Check out these small meal ideas for some inspiration.
Take a Walk
As Modern Health Monk explains, our sugar cravings can be thought of as a simple habit that follows a three step process:
So let’s say your peak hour of sugar consumption comes around afternoon slump time when you’re sitting at your desk, lacking energy, and kind of bored. This is the cue – the why of your actions.
Normally you’d pop open a can of soda or reach for that bag of gummy bears in your desk for a quick pick-me-up. This is your routine. It’s what you’ve been doing, but it’s not doing you any favors.
After your sugar session, you feel a bit elated because your brain’s on the sugar rush it was craving. This sugar lights up the reward center part of your brain like a drug would.
Plus, you have enough energy to tackle a few tasks so you feel accomplished. This achievement is known as a reward.
One study proves that sugar consumption gives our brains a greater reward than cocaine, which makes us want to keep getting to that happy place time and again.
So how do we break this cycle?
We can start by changing the cue. If you start eating smaller meals, you won’t have to deal with that afternoon crash. You should be sticking to foods that fight fatigue and give you long lasting energy.
You can also change your routine.
Let’s say you didn’t have time to plan out your small meals and you’re stuck at the office without a healthy food in sight. When you reach your cue, which you’ve already identified, break the cycle.
Channel your cravings by taking a walk instead of gobbling sugary treats. You’ll get the same kind of endorphin/serotonin rush from the activity and it will give you a chance to clear your head. You’ll return to your desk feeling just as a happy and productive, without the sugar crash.
Watch Your Magnesium Levels
Research shows that people who crave chocolate in particular may actually be deficient in the mineral magnesium.
Stave off cravings for the sweet stuff by making sure to pack tons of magnesium into your diet. Magnesium’s not only great for warding off the sweet monster, but it also helps to reduce stress and anxiety, which both cause you to seek out sugar to cope.
Magnesium-rich foods include:
- Dark leafy greens such as spinach, kale, and collards
Magnesium also helps you fall and stay asleep, which may actually help prevent your sugar cravings before you even wake up to start your day.
Get More Snooze Time
When we don’t get enough sleep, our brains are less equipped to say no to sugary treats and fatty foods. Then we start craving them all throughout the day.
What’s even worse is that one study showed that the reward centers in our brains were activated at greater levels when participants were sleep deprived.
So here’s the situation you may find yourself in if you’re a consistent night owl: you crave unhealthy foods all day and when you eat them, you’re actually rewarded and feel good about eating those foods, so you continue to eat more.
Don’t fall victim to insomnia, learn how to fall and stay asleep by modifying your diet so you have a fighting chance at breaking your sugar addiction.
Keep Snacks and Fruit on Hand
To ease those sugar cravings, reach for a piece of naturally sweet fruit.
Fructose, the sugar found in fruit, gets metabolized by our bodies differently than other kinds of sugar. These sweet treats may give your brain just the boost it needs without the harmful effects of processed sugar.
But make sure to choose fruits low on the GI index for the least amount of blood sugar spikes.
Remember: the USDA says you only need two cups of fruit per day so make sure you’re not going overboard to compensate for your unscratched sugar itches.
Although it may seem counterintuitive, opt for full fat dairy over low-fat or fat-free varieties. Oftentimes manufacturers will remove fat, but add sugar to compensate for flavor.
Plus, research shows that eating full fat products actually increases satiety so you feel full for longer periods of time.
I’ll be honest: I don’t totally avoid sugar. I mean, how could I when dark chocolate is so good for you?
The secret is enjoying sugar in moderation.
For instance, I don’t buy a chocolate bar I see at the register because I’m standing in line and want that instant gratification. However, I’ll enjoy a 1 oz. piece of dark chocolate that’s at least 70% pure cocoa to satisfy my sweet craving.
Dark chocolate shouldn’t be missed because it:
- Decreases bad cholesterol
- Lowers our blood pressure
- Increases blood flow to our heart and arteries
- Improves our moods
By only vowing to eat a small portion, I control my cravings before they get a hold of me.
Believe me, when you start consciously limiting the amount of sugar you eat and only eat it when you’re paying attention, you’ll notice that your sugar cravings start to diminish drastically.
Treat Yo’ Self
When you stop giving in to your sugar cravings, your brain is going to miss those fleeting moments of happiness sugar used to provide.
So treat yourself to a different kind of reward.
Instead of activating that part of your brain with sugar, why not splurge on that new mobile device you’ve been eyeing? Or that outfit that makes you feel like a million bucks?
Double down the reward by treating yourself to an activity that benefits both your brain and body, like a relaxing bath or a hike in the woods.
No matter which of these tips you decide to follow, just taking the first step towards breaking the cycle of your sugar addiction will make you more conscious of what you’re eating – and that’s always a positive in my book.
Any enemy of sugar is a friend of mine.
Which of these tricks sounds the most helpful to you? I’m a big fan of meditating in the morning to keep my stress levels in check. I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments!