Did you know that people can be biologically addicted to sugar in a way that is similar to addiction to nicotine, alcohol and drugs? Many people recovering from addiction replace alcohol with sugar. Sugar causes your body to release dopamine and opioids, stimulating your brain in the same way as other addictive substances. Over time, as happens with alcohol and drugs, your body needs more and more of this sweet, potent substance to get the same good feeling as it did the first time, setting you up for powerful cravings that are hard to ignore.
Scientific research also shows that you can go through sugar withdrawal. Although not as severe as drug withdrawal, the process can still be uncomfortable. Some common symptoms of sugar withdrawal include headaches, bloating, fatigue, cramps and nausea.
On average, Americans are consuming between 22 and 30 teaspoons of added sugar a day. The American Heart Association recommends that women consume no more than six added teaspoons of sugar each day and men no more than nine teaspoons each day. Unfortunately, sugar is found everywhere, including in most processed foods, from cereal and granola bars, ketchup, energy drinks and sodas to baby food, yogurts and even toothpaste. Our taste buds are becoming so accustomed to these strong, sweet flavors that real, whole foods and beverages taste boring and bland to us.
Our brains and bodies also get used to the quick energy boosts we experience when eating refined sugars and carbohydrates. We get a sugar high as our blood sugar quickly spikes, followed by a sugar crash. This sugar low stimulates our cravings and appetite, which can leave us more vulnerable to weight gain and disease.
Here are 9 steps you can implement to break free of your sugar addiction:
1. Eat a healthy breakfast that includes protein, healthy fat and fiber. When you eat a balanced breakfast first thing in the morning, it helps set you up for normal blood sugar the rest of the day. Think green smoothies, eggs and leftovers in place of sugary breakfast cereals, yogurt and muffins.
2. Stay hydrated. Sometimes sweet cravings are a sign of dehydration. Before you reach for a sugary drink, have a glass of water and wait a few minutes to see what happens. Caution: coffee drinks, energy drinks and sodas are America’s number one source of sugar.
3. Eat sweet vegetables and fruit to satisfy your sweet cravings. They are healthy and delicious and provide your body with important vitamins and nutrients that will help you overcome your junk food cravings. For example, apple slices with nut butter might satisfy your cravings as much as a bowl of ice cream. When you have cravings, wait 15 minutes for the cravings to go away and go for a walk outside to distract yourself.
4. Lower the glycemic load of your meals. As I recommended with breakfast, combine quality protein, fats and wholefoods in all of your meals. Eat fiber-rich carbohydrates, vegetables, legumes, nuts, seeds and a limited amount of whole grains and fruit. The combination of protein, fats and fiber from whole foods slows down the digestive process, averting blood-sugar spikes.
5. Eliminate processed fat-free and low-fat foods. These foods contain high quantities of sugar and chemicals to compensate for lack of flavor and fat and they will send you on a roller-coaster ride of sugar highs and lows. It is important to include healthy fats in your diet to support healthy cell membranes needed for optimal insulin function and blood sugar control. Healthy fats include wild caught fish, avocados, olives and organic grass-fed butter and meats.
6. Get moving. Exercise helps balance blood sugar levels and reduces tension so that you do not feel the need to self-medicate with sugar and food. Get out more and move. Start with simple activities like dancing, walking, yoga and daily stretching. Ten minutes at a time will add up. You do not need to make exercise a big event that you feel pressure to do each day. Just move more and make it part of your daily activity, like brushing your teeth.
7. Get more sleep, rest and relaxation. Lack of restful sleep damages your metabolism, causes increased cravings for carbohydrates and makes you eat more. Lack of optimal sleep also increases your risk for heart disease, diabetes, dementia, depression and early death. Getting enough quality sleep helps maintain blood sugar balance and weight loss. Consider talking to your doctor if you are not feeling rested and energized after a full night’s sleep.
8. Experiment with spices. Coriander, cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves and cardamom will naturally sweeten your food and help reduce cravings, helping you to retrain your taste buds to prefer the taste of real, whole foods.
9. Slow down and find sweetness in non food ways. Biologically, you do not need unrefined sugar, but you do need other things, such as positive social contact, outside time, regular movement and loving relationships to feel happy and fulfilled.
When making any lifestyle changes, it is important to find support with those that understand your struggles and care about your health and success. Making these changes with a friend or loved one will help you stay on track.