Can I confess something to you guys?
I have a problem with self control. A big problem. Well, actually, let’s narrow that down a bit: I am addicted to sugar.
Sure, there are bigger confessions out there. This is one that I have trouble admitting to myself, though, let alone to a bunch of folks on the internet. But as someone with a fitness-based social media presence, who writes a blog centered around “balance,” I feel it’s my obligation to be honest about this.
Sweets have always been my kryptonite. No matter how much I try, practice, learn, or preach about it, I haven’t been able to conquer this problem. Becoming natural-minded has helped (it’s hard to justify a king size Snickers — or three — to yourself when you vehemently detest high fructose corn syrup, and won’t let your kids even touch it). So has starting an IIFYM lifestyle, where I track my macros each day. But even after years of trying to kick the habit, I still fall off the wagon way too often.
For those of you unfamiliar with IIFYM, it stands for If It Fits Your Macros. This is a practice of tracking your food each day, and trying to stay within set goals for both macronutrients (fat, protein, carb) and micronutrients (such as fiber or sugar).
It’s An Addiction
They say that sugar affects the brain the same as cocaine. And you know what? I believe it. I wouldn’t know from experience, as I’ve never gotten into drugs (they always terrified me), but I can imagine that the cravings I have are similar to those induced by recreational drugs.
Here’s a PET scan of a brain on cocaine, compared with one on a high dose of glucose (sugar). Notice a big difference? Yeah, me neither.
Large amounts of sugar fire off the same dopamine receptors as cocaine, giving the snacker a similar high. Unfortunately, over time, these dopamine levels are reduced, so it requires more and more sugar to reach the same level of pleasure and even ward off periods of depression. Similar, of course, to drug addicts – you need more and more of your “drug” to get the same high that was so easy to get in the beginning.
In fact, there is an alarming amount of scientific research to back up this sugar/drug comparison. For example, a study conducted at Connecticut University exposed lab rats to cocaine and morphine, two highly addictive chemicals. When later given the option between Oreos and the drugs they were already familiar with (and drawn to), the furry creatures were split down the middle. Half of the drug-addicted rats were perfectly content making the switch to chocolatey, cream-filled cookies, no longer needing chemicals to get high.
Does it alarm you that these furry creatures were able to get their fix from Oreos just as readily they could from liquid cocaine? It should. It should actually terrify you.
Additionally, the rats were later given a test to measure the expression of the protein “c-Fos.” This protein is a known marker that is released when a particular area of the brain – the one that controls the feeling of pleasure — is stimulated. Wanna guess what they found? The Oreos beat out both drugs by a long shot. As far as your brain is concerned, America’s favorite cookie is more pleasurable than coke.
Add to this the fact that high sugar diets and sugar addictions lead, quite directly, to high cholesterol and diabetes. Yet another study from the CDC found that, by 2050, anywhere from 21-33% of Americans will have diabetes.
So, How Much is Too Much?
Unless you already track your macros, the idea of keeping a tally of how much sugar you eat in a day is probably a strange idea. Even if you just try to stay cognizant of your sweets intake, it’s highly unlikely that you even realize how much you’re eating.
Sugar is in everything. Absolutely everything. Do you buy pasta sauce? Sugar is often one of the top 5 ingredients. Eat your lunchtime tuna sandwich on seemingly-healthy bread? Even the most expensive, seeded, organic, whole wheat breads are often loaded with sugar. Applesauce – made from a naturally sweet fruit – is typically full of sugar, without need. It’s everywhere.
Some sugars are more detrimental that others. White, refined, process sugar is obviously worse for your body than the sugars found in blueberries. Why, though? Well, it has a lot to do with the fact that natural sugars are typically accompanied by phenols and fiber. When you eat an apple, you’re not just consuming a bunch of sugar; you’re also getting a dose of various phenols that have antioxidant properties within the body.
The fiber found in the fruit and skin also aid in digestion and blood sugar regulation. So, you’re actually combating your subsequent blood sugar spike by eating fibrous fruits versus added-sugar foods. And, by doing so, you’re actually offsetting your risk of developing diabetes, even though you’re consuming fructose (natural sugar).
In fact, yet another study, conducted by the University of London, found that high-fiber diets (30+ grams per 1,000 kcal consumed) can even help prevent Type 2 diabetes, oxidative stress, heart disease, and strokes, among others.
Of course, even fruit should be eaten in moderation, but it is infinitely better for curbing that sweet tooth than added sugars. I personally try to keep my total amount of tracked sugar below 35 grams a day (around 50g for men). This is very difficult, and I don’t often meet my goal… but shooting for that low number means I can significantly reduce my intake each day.
As long as I stay between 35-50 grams, I’m generally pretty happy (and avoid the negative side effects like fatigue, bloating, and irritability).
How to Kick the Habit
I’m probably not the best person to ask, as I haven’t yet conquered by sugar demon. I have, however, found a number of things that have helped me get better about it and will, eventually, allow me to beat my sugar addiction once and for all.
First and foremost, I would recommend that you educate yourself. As the saying goes, “Know thy enemy.” That’s the only way you will know what you’re fighting, why you’re fighting it, and what will work best in your battle for improved health and empowerment.
Find books that will educate you on the effects of sugar and its addictive effects. These three have been my favorites, one of which I read over 5 years ago when I first started this journey:
- Sugar Crush: How to Reduce Inflammation, Reverse Nerve Damage, and Reclaim Good Health by Richard Jacoby
- Sugar Detox for Beginners by Gina Crawford
- Overcoming Sugar Addiction: How I Kicked My Sugar Habit and Created a Joyful Sugar-Free Life by Karly Randolph Pitman.
Figure out what your goal is. Do you want more energy and to decrease your risk of certain diseases? Do you want to move toward an entirely sugar-free life? Or do you just want to get to a point of balance, where you can eat sweets on special occasions but have the self control to stop at one slice, or avoid a week-long sugar binge? Knowing your goals is just as important with this journey as with any other.
Improve your gut health. Many sugar cravings are caused by candida (yeast) overgrowth in our guts. This can be improved by eating more alkaline foods, avoiding sugars and other carbs that feed this yeast, taking probiotics, and other gut healing approaches such as adding bone broth, organic gelatin, and biotin to your diet.
Get more sleep. Sleep deprivation — something I also struggle with — leads your body to seek “quick” sources of usable energy. The easiest? Sugars. When you haven’t slept enough and are running low on energy, you’ll often subconsciously run to junk foods and sugars that your body can convert to quick energy. Sleeping longer and on a regular schedule can ward off many sugar cravings.
Drink more water. Many hunger pangs are actually just dehydration signals. If you aren’t drinking enough water, you may feel the urge to snack when you’re not even actually hungry. This is a huge issue if you’re tracking food, sticking to a meal plan or diet, or want to stay away from “snack foods,” many of which contain high amounts of sugar, salt, or fat. Be sure you’re drinking a minimum of half your body weight in ounces each day, to stay adequately hydrated.
If you think you could use help, find a functional medicine doctor. They are well-versed in natural approaches and understand the underlying cause of things like sugar addiction. They are also very competent when it comes to improving gut health, and can help you improve your whole body health. The gut, as we are quickly learning, holds the key to many illnesses and diseases. Poor gut health is a sure ticket to cancers, heart disease, and a host of other problems. Keeping your gut happy and balanced will keep your entire body balanced.
What About Artificial Sugars and Sweeteners?
We’ve all seen “sugar free” foods that are still sweet. How can these exist? Well, they use a number of artificial or replacement sweeteners to please your palate, many of which may be even worse for you than refined sugar.
What NOT To Buy?
Of course, we’ve got a number of controversial artificial sweeteners that are now being studied to determine just how dangerous they are to our bodies. These include acesuflame potassium (marketed as Sweet One® and Sunett®), aspartame (Equal®, Nutrasweet®, Sugar Twin®), neotame (Newtame®), and saccharine (Sweet’N’Low®, Sweet Twin®, Necta Sweet®). Many of them have been found to cause headaches, visual and mental disturbances, and even kidney damage with prolonged use. I don’t know about you, but I would rather not even chance it.
There are even some “natural” sweeteners that I would avoid when you can. Some people use agave as a healthy alternative, but it actually has more fructose than processed table sugar. Sure, it might be healthier for you from a processing standpoint. As far as your blood sugar is concerned, though, you could be eating a spoonful of white sugar and it wouldn’t make a difference.
The same goes with honey, from a glycemic index standpoint (how quickly it raises your blood sugar). However, I am a strong supporter of raw, local honey for its myriad of health benefits, including enzymes, antioxidants, and local pollen (which can help substantially for those who get seasonal allergies!). I talk about honey’s benefits a bit in my recent face mask recipe post. As long as it’s used in moderation — and you only use unheated, unprocessed, completely raw, and LOCAL kinds — honey is worth keeping in the cabinet.
What SHOULD I Use?
Safer alternatives do exist. My favorite, and the seemingly-safest choice around, is Sweet Leaf®. This product is made from the stevia plant, which is naturally about 200 times sweeter than sugar. There are many stevia products out there. Some of them are so processed, though, that they actually contain very little stevia by the time they’re packaged/
A product called Truvia® is very popular, but it actually goes through a 42 step production process. This includes chemical extraction using solvents. By the time it makes it to your cabinet, it actually contains less than 1% of stevia. I would stay far, far away from these.
Sweet Leaf® is one of the most readily found versions out there, and not only has 0 calories and 0 carbs, and most importantly, no glycemic index. This means that it will not spike your blood sugar, as many sweeteners still can. It’s very sweet, remember, so a tiny sprinkle goes a looonnggg way. I buy the convenient little packets and put the tiniest amount in my coffee or on toast with cinnamon.
There are other brands of stevia that go through very little processing, but many of them are not FDA approved (don’t let that hold too much weight with you, however. The FDA approved quite a bit that can harm your body, while denying approval to many natural foods and supplements).
The best stevia, and the type that is closest to the actual plant, would be a green stevia powder. One good brand out there is Organic Traditions. Note, though, that some people find that natural stevia has a slightly bitter aftertaste. It is still very sweet, though, and not everyone notices this. But, I wanted to mention it.
Here’s my biggest advice to you, for your health and your waistline. Train yourself to enjoy foods that aren’t drippingly-sweet. Support your gut bacteria and control any gut yeast overgrowth with pre- and probiotics. Eat fermented foods (like kombucha, kefir, skyr, sauerkraut, kimchi, etc.). And try to find out if, like me, there seems to be some sort of emotional or psychological trigger causing your sugar cravings.
This added component, combined with the physiological craving that a sugar addiction causes, can make kicking the habit nearly impossible.
Sound off below: do you have issues with sugar? What do you find to be your biggest triggers, and how have you worked to combat the problem?