As we all know, eating large amounts of sugar is anything but wholesome for the body, especially when refined or processed. Though, for whatever reason, we find it hard to resist these sweets and that’s truly because it is everywhere. Whether we are consuming sweet desserts, snacks or drinks, studies have finally shown that sugar is in everything. Not only is this the case, but it has been found to have actual addictive properties which makes it even harder to say no to them. Just like a person with a drug addiction, once we stop consuming sugar, our body immediately craves it.
So how do we control these intense cravings? Just in time for the holiday season, we will teach you what’s actually going on in the body when we eat sugar and learn how to realistically control your addiction to it.
What is Sugar?
Processed (Refined) V. Natural (Unrefined) Sugar
Processed sugars are exactly what they sound like. They are smaller molecules of sugar that have been processed or broken down, allowing them to be absorbed into the blood at a very quick rate, shooting our blood sugar levels high. Examples of refined sugar include processed, white sugar, white flour, and fructose corn syrup.
On the other hand, natural sugar has been left in its raw form. Some great examples of natural sugar include honey, agave, and fruit. Typically, this type of sugar is much higher in fiber, water, and various nutrients such as antioxidants, phytonutrients, vitamins, and minerals. Compared to refined sugars, natural sugars have a much lower number on the glycemic index scale. This means that natural sugar has less of an immediate impact on the bloodstream and slows down the typical “crashing” effect processed sugar delivers. All in all, if we’re going to sweeten anything we eat, choose this type of sugar.
Is All Sugar Created Equal?
As you could have guessed, not all sugar is created equal. This is because the simplicity of the structure of a sugar molecule determines how quickly it is broken down. Sugar is metabolized at different rates and we feel very different if we break it down too quickly.
What happens when we eat a big bowl of white pasta? We feel extremely full at first and then exhausted because our body is trying to utilize the sugar in the bloodstream and turn it into fuel.
Have you ever felt exhausted from eating an apple? Probably not.
How Does Sugar Affect The Body?
Sugar is considered an inflammatory food meaning it causes inflammation. It also increases your triglycerides and blood sugar levels in the blood. Sugar has been shown to promote cancer growth, diabetes, excess weight and obesity, metabolic syndrome, gastrointestinal illnesses, cardiovascular disease, depression, anxiety, tooth and gum decay, and even can cause acne. Aside from all the chronic health concerns, it is physiologically addictive. In 2008 studies confirmed sugar, in fact, is chemically addictive. Studies have even said that sugar can be 8x more addictive than the drug cocaine.
What Makes Sugar So Addictive?
Sugar is addictive because, just like other addictions, it causes a release of dopamine in the brain which is the primary neurotransmitter involved in addiction--it gives us the feeling of pleasure. When we stop eating sugar, we stop releasing dopamine. When we stop releasing dopamine, the feeling of pleasure ceases and we begin having the withdrawal effects. What do we do to get those feelings of pleasure back? We eat more sugar and become dependent on it to feel pleasure and happiness.
What’s even scarier – people who consume sugar often develop a tolerance to it, causing you to need more to actually feel the pleasure effects.
So, what do you think? Is sugar actually addictive? The answer is clearly yes, due to the withdrawal & dependency effects it has on the body when we stop eating it. The amount of addictiveness sugar has on a person depends on you and your personality. Therefore, it might affect some more people than others. (example: just because a person drinks alcohol doesn’t automatically make them an alcoholic)
Tackling Sugar Addiction
How do we stop giving into sugar cravings and ultimately stop the development of a sugar craving all together?
- Become an investigator - Identify sources of sugar in your intake and make a conscious effort to reduce this as much as possible. This means you will need to read nutrition labels on all foods.
- Reflect - Find out how much you really are consuming on a daily basis. Keep a journal or utilize food logging apps like MyFitnessPal and Loseit.
- Identify the foods you are addicted to - What I like to call “trigger foods”. Each person will be different. Common symptoms of sugar withdrawal include: irritability, fatigue, headaches, insomnia, and feeling foggy.
- In the future, in public sugar situations like a holiday party - Ask yourself “Am I really hungry or do I just feel a craving coming on?” This takes reflection but the more you understand yourself, the better you are able to know when a sugar craving is coming on.
Cut Out Sugar Completely?
That can be pretty challenging, but we can definitely cut back on unnecessary refined sugars. The American Heart Association recommends the following maximum amounts of sugar that should be consumed in a day:
- Men: 150 calories per day (37.5 grams or 9 cubes).
- Women: 100 calories per day (25 grams or 6.35 cubes).
The average American consumes 4 – 5x that amount every single day.
Tips for Conquering Your Sugar Cravings:
- Find healthy swaps to your specific food cravings. Example: Dark chocolate chips in a handful of mixed nuts instead of a candy bar.
- Pair natural sugar with lean protein and heart healthy fat. If you’re going to have an apple, cut it up with some heart healthy fat like peanut butter. This slows the breakdown of sugar and keeps you satisfied longer.
- Hold-off for 15-20 minutes when sugar cravings hit - They come on suddenly, they’re very overwhelming and typically short lived. Distract yourself. If you must consume something, drink water but get out of the kitchen. Ask yourself am “I really hungry or am I just craving sweets?”
- Purchase single serving foods you crave because completely cutting all foods out makes us want it more. This all or nothing mentality causes us to feel too restricted and leads to binge eating later, ultimately “falling off” the healthy lifestyle we are trying to build. Enjoy ice cream every once in awhile – go out, have it. Leave it there and come home. Do not keep tubs of ice cream in your fridge because you will eat it all. On the other hand, identifying trigger foods and eliminating them completely might be the best way to tackle cravings.
- Have purposeful, scheduled snacks. Often times we go too many hours between meal times and end up overeating once we finally sit down. Purposefully snacking prevents this from happening. Keep snacks at your desk, in your purse, in the car etc. (in emergency to help tackle cravings and an unplanned schedule)
- Become a nutrition facts label & ingredient list reader. Only 48% of consumers truly know how to read a nutrition facts label. Read the nutrition facts label to look out for total sugar and added sugar. READ THE INGREDIENT LIST to identify sources of added sugar and be able to tell the difference from natural sugar. Example: foods like yogurt, pasta sauce can be crazy high in sugar so you have to watch out.
- Think about your drink. Sugar-sweetened beverages contribute to the greatest source of added sugars in the diet and are completely empty calories. The body doesn’t seem to recognize calories very well when they’re delivered in liquids; you don’t feel as full. Suggestions for sweetening your food and drinks:
- Sugar in the raw
- Stevia (stevia in the raw)
- Truvia or truvia nectar (half honey and half stevia)
- Honey or agave (natural but lower GI than white sugar/flour)
In conclusion, take a closer look at what you are currently eating to see where you can eliminate unhealthy and unnecessary added sugars. Remember not all sugar is created equal. Choose natural sugar, like a banana, and pair it with healthy fats, like peanut butter or a lean protein (like greek yogurt) to manage your blood sugar levels. Sugar is added to almost everything so try to consume real food with minimal ingredients. A healthy lifestyle is not all or nothing when it comes to food. Take steps towards eliminating unnecessary sugar from your diet--your cravings will go down and you won’t need as much to feel/taste the sweet effects when you do have natural sugar.
If you feel like you need a plan to tackle your sugar addiction, or any aspect of your nutrition, consider nutrition counseling with a licensed and registered dietitian.