When I ask that question, most people attending my weight-management lectures raise their hand. Addiction to sugar is stronger for some people than others, but the truth is sugar is a powerfully addictive substance. If you’ve overindulged in cookies, candy, cake, or ice cream—and who hasn't, at some point—you know its seductive pull. Food manufacturers bank on it when they load sugar into soft drinks, breakfast cereal, soups, salad dressings, spaghetti sauce, energy bars, and even catsup. As a result, most of us develop a strong craving for sweets, without even realizing how much sugar we consume on a daily basis.
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THE DETAILS: Addiction to sugar is probably more common than you think. Americans consume an average of 20 to 30 teaspoons (about ½ cup!) daily of this substance, which has been linked to a variety of health problems, including obesity, hypertension, heart disease, diabetes, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), attention and memory problems, hyperactivity, anxiety, and depression. Every month a new study comes out adding to the list of dangers posed by consuming sugar and its cousins, high-fructose corn syrup, maltose, and dextrose. Despite the risks, we continue to eat sugar because it is so addictive.
In fact, sugar meets all the criteria for an addictive substance:
• It stimulates release of neurotransmitters in the brain, such as dopamine and serotonin, in a manner similar to alcohol, cocaine, and other drugs of abuse.
• People eat it compulsively, despite negative consequences and the intention to stop.
• With continued use, people develop a tolerance to its effects.
• Heavy sugar consumers have trouble functioning without it.
• When consumption ceases, withdrawal symptoms occur.
WHAT IT MEANS: Breaking free from a dependency on sugar is easier said than done. Because the roots of sugar addiction are both physical and emotional, you need a combination of physical and psychological approaches. The less you eat sugar, the less you will crave it. If you get withdrawal symptoms, know they will only last a few days and then you’ll feel more balanced and energetic than ever.
These 10 recommendations will make it easier to get a sugar problem under control.
#1: Keep sugar and sugar products out of your house. This includes white and brown sugar, corn syrup, and maple syrup.
#2: Eat enough healthy food to satisfy your hunger. Eat healthy, whole food snacks like fruit, carrots, red pepper, cherry tomatoes, dates, and dried fruit to satisfy your sweet tooth. Drink plenty of water, too. Add a little fruit juice to sweeten iced tea, carbonated water, and other sugar-free drinks. Frozen fruit, whole or pureed, makes a delicious alternative to ice cream. Once you have cleared sugar from your system, your taste buds will become more sensitive, and these whole natural foods will taste sweeter and more satisfying. If you slow down and eat mindfully, you’ll enjoy these foods even more.
#3: Eat three regular meals each day that combine complex carbohydrates (vegetables, whole grains, and fruits), lean protein (poultry, fish, meat, dairy, tofu) and healthy fats (milk, cheese, omega-3’s, olive oil and other cold-pressed oils). This will help you maintain a steady blood sugar level throughout the day and reduce your sugar cravings. Eating a diet high in fiber also helps to reduce sugar cravings.
#4: Take a multivitamin and mineral supplement. Chromium picolinate and l-glutamine help to reduce cravings for some people.
#5: When you go out, make sure you are not ravenously hungry, especially if sugary sweets will be the only food available. Bring your own healthy snacks with you, or eat before going out.
#6: Get regular exercise, plenty of sunlight, and adequate sleep to reduce sugar cravings.
#7: Learn to identify and manage cravings that are not a result of physical hunger, but instead are rooted in stress or anxiety. Develop alternative ways of managing stress: Take a walk, call a friend, read a book, play with your pet, watch a movie. Breathe, meditate, listen to music, or take a hot bath to activate your body’s relaxation response. Relaxation helps to balance your blood sugar and reduce cravings.
#8: If you have turned to sugar to deal with uncomfortable feelings, learn to identify the specific feelings and respond appropriately to them. If you are tired, take a break or rest, rather than trying to persevere in the face of fatigue. If you are bored, find something stimulating to do. If you are lonely, reach out to a friend. Overcoming your sugar addiction involves really paying attention to what you are feeling, and giving yourself what you really need instead of using sugar as a substitute.
#9: If you do overindulge in sugar, acknowledge that you slipped, and get back on track as soon as possible. Let go of the guilt and shame. Eating sugar is unhealthy, but it’s not a sin. As with other addictions, it doesn't matter if you need multiple attempts to quit, just that you keep trying until it sticks.
#10: Be kind to yourself. To end the struggle with sugar, learn to nourish your body well and respond compassionately to your own feelings. The best sugar substitute is genuine self-acceptance.
Jeffrey Rossman, PhD, is a Rodale.com advisor and director of life management at Canyon Ranch in Lenox, MA. He is the author of The Mind-Body Mood Solution: The breakthrough drug-free program for lasting relief from depression.