You go to your doctor for your annual checkup. She tells you to lose a few pounds (this does not come as a major surprise to you) and to decrease sugar in your diet. She wants to see you in three months to review your lab reports and check your blood pressure. You leave the office feeling confident that you can lose the weight, cut added sugar out of your diet, buy a Fitbit, and start counting your daily steps. The first step (not a Fitbit step) on this journey is to cut out sugar. You inform the people in your life your spouse, co-workers, and friends that you cannot eat anything with added sugar. The first day starts off great and you are feeling in control – that is, until about 7:30 PM when your craving for sugar becomes relentless. You feel like an addict who needs a quick fix; the frozen chocolate cookies in the freezer are calling your name. You MUST eat one – you have no choice, it is beyond your control.
If the above scenario sounds familiar to you, you are not alone. We are all well aware of the dangers that excessive sugar can cause, ranging from tooth decay to cancer, and yet we do not feel like we can control our sugar cravings. There have been several studies which have investigated the reason that so many of us over-indulge on sugary food items, even though we know that they can cause havoc both to our physical health and to our emotional well-being. One such study demonstrated that sugar addiction is actually similar to drug addiction. After one consumes excessive amounts of sugar, the dopamine levels in the brain increase in a way that is similar to the reaction generated by cocaine. Another study showed that long term consumption of excessive sugar will eventually result in a reduction in the dopamine level, and thereby cause the individual to consume higher amounts of sugar in order to attain the same reward levels. Yet another study showed that sugar cravings can be treated with the same drugs that are used to help people with their dependence on nicotine.
In 2014, a study conducted at Edinburgh University found that although people could not become clinically addicted to eating a specific food, people could become addicted to eating for its own sake. In other words, people can develop a psychological compulsion to eat, which is driven by the positive feelings that the brain associates with eating. According to this study, the desire to overeat sugary substances could be considered a behavioral disorder and could be viewed as a condition similar to a gambling addiction. This study suggests that to overcome overeating, we need to stop focusing on the food that is consumed and focus instead on the individual’s own relationship with food.
The current treatment for sugar addiction is to eliminate as much sugar from the diet as possible. This requires discipline. It is understood that a recovering alcoholic would never keep single malt scotch in the cabinet and count on his will power not to take a drink. In a similar vein, if you are serious about cutting out sugar you need to throw out the chocolate cookies, cakes, ice cream bars, etc., that are in your freezer. Be aware of hidden sugars not only in your own food but in your children’s food. Start reading food labels; you may be surprised that foods which you thought were healthy are in fact loaded with sugar. Yogurt is a great example. Dannon coffee yogurt has 25 grams of sugar; a sugar content similar to that found in a cup of ice cream (and don’t get me started on the yogurts with M&M chocolate and cookies on top). Some granola bars actually have 12gm or more of sugar; and items like instant oatmeal, dry cereal, pasta sauce, salad dressings, and sports drinks are loaded with sugar and are not in the category of a health food.
If you decide to go “cold turkey” on your intake of sugar, you may feel cranky, light headed, and/or fatigued for a few days. But once these symptoms pass, you will notice that you are less hungry and your cravings should eventually decrease significantly. Cutting added sugar out of your diet may be a bitter task at first, but the benefits and rewards are sweet.
By Beth S. Taubes, RN, OCN, CBCN, Certified Health Coach