Do you often reach for a sweet treat or sugary drink to boost your energy in the middle of the afternoon? Crave dessert or ice cream at the end of a long day? Binge on chocolate to improve your mood? Your desire for sugary foods may be more than just a "sweet tooth" and closer to an "addiction." Research studies show that sugar affects brain chemistry in ways that are similar to drugs like cocaine, morphine, and alcohol, though to a smaller magnitude. Eating sugar releases dopamine and opioids, producing chemical changes in the brain's reward center and leading us to want even more. While the cravings, dependency, and withdrawal symptoms may not be as severe as those experienced with substances of abuse, it's clear that sugar has an addictive nature, one that is more problematic and pervasive than we might think.
Consuming too much sugar is linked with an increased risk in chronic diseases like diabetes, heart disease, and liver disease, and may play a role in cancer, stroke, and even Alzheimer's. Eating large quantities of sugar can lead to imbalanced insulin levels and leptin resistance, which in turn contribute to weight gain and obesity. Excess sugar impacts your body’s metabolic processes – when the liver is overwhelmed by sugar, it converts it to fat which is stored in the waist and midsection, leading to a "sugar belly."
The average adult in the U.S. consumes 17 teaspoons (over 70 grams) of sugar per day. That’s two to three times more than the American Heart Association's recommendation of 6 teaspoons (25 grams) of added sugar for women, and 9 teaspoons (38 grams) for men. Where is all of this sugar coming from? Besides the obvious sources like soda, candy, cookies, and cake, etc., there are "hidden" sugars in many processed foods. Over 70% of packaged foods contain added sugars, which are added by food manufacturers and not found in foods naturally. There are added sugars in yogurt, breads, salad dressings, and sauces. All of these sugars add up.
In addition to preventing chronic disease, there are short-term health benefits of reducing sugar in your diet. Research has shown that after just 10 days, restricting added sugars can improve metabolic markers like blood sugar, blood pressure, and cholesterol. It also helps to even out the blood sugar highs and lows associated with eating refined sugars, increase energy levels and mental clarity, reduce sluggishness, and improve emotional stability.
Here are some tips for reducing your sugar intake and breaking the sugar "addiction":
Start with a mindful approach – reaffirm your intentions and motivations throughout the process.
Use meditation and deep breathing exercises to manage any symptoms of withdrawal, like irritability, tiredness, or depression.
Consider intermittent fasting (only eating within a 6-8 hour window each day) as a way to regulate your blood sugar.
Minimize processed foods, added sugars, sweetened beverages, and refined sweeteners for at least two weeks.
Emphasize whole foods and complex carbohydrates found in grains, legumes, and vegetables.
Chew your food well (20 to 30 times per bite) to bring out the food's natural sweetness.
Eat moderate amounts of naturally sweet foods like beets, carrots, winter squash, and sweet potatoes.
Replace soda with seltzer water flavored with a squeeze of lemon or lime juice.
Eat a variety of flavors like sour, pungent, spicy, and bitter to reduce your cravings for sweet.
If you need to use sweeteners, replaced refined sugars with stevia, whole grain malts, maple syrup, or molasses.
Focus on developing small habits into long-term lifestyle changes.
Avena, N.M., P. Rada, and B.G. Hoebel. 2008. Evidence for sugar addiction: Behavioral and neurochemical effects of intermittent, excessive sugar intake. Neurosci Biobehav Rev 32(1): 20–39.
Lustig, R., K. Mulligan, et al. 2016. Isocaloric fructose restriction and metabolic improvement in children with obesity and metabolic syndrome. Obesity 24(2): 453–460.
UCSF SugarScience. How Much is Too Much.
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