This article will examine how to deal with sugar addiction.
We will start with a brief history of sugar, followed by a look into the dangers behind that sweet taste.
We’ll then examine the science behind sugar addiction, how sugar cravings affect people’s lives, and the best methods to break free from a sugar addiction.
As part of the ‘nutrition heroes’ segment, we’ll also take a look at the work of someone who has made a significant difference to people’s lives.
Last week featured Dr. David Unwin for his work with diabetes patients, and the week before we looked at Dr. Fred Kummerow for his pioneering work on trans fats.
Today’s nutrition hero is Karen Thomson; a self-confessed “recovering sugar addict” who is leading the charge to bring sugar addiction into the mainstream spotlight.
A Brief History of Sugar
Sugar: that sweet, white powder that’s part of our daily lives.
When we think about it, we have to consider how we use it in our society. The foods that contain it are a treat for our children; we even use it as a reward system for good behavior.
Every childhood memory of a birthday or Christmas, if you’re anything like me, is filled with the stuff. It’s in almost everything in the supermarket from supposedly “heart healthy” breakfast cereals to TV dinners.
What most people don’t know is this: it’s addictive… and it’s slowly killing us.
As study after study piles up damning the health impacts of sugar, we should remember how it wasn’t always this way. In fact, sugar marketing originally portrayed it as a health food.
“Published in the interest of better
As you can see in the advertisement, much of the original marketing around sugar positioned it as a health food; a wondrous supplier of energy to breeze through life.
Now, however, things are very different.
How Does Sugar Impact Our Health?
Warning noises about sugar began to emerge in the early 1970s, as John Yudkin, a pioneering British professor, tried to warn the world.
With the rest of the nutrition community zeroing in on fat, Yudkin publicly wondered why traditional foods like butter, eaten for centuries, were getting blamed for the increasing prevalence of heart disease.
He stood alone in his identification of sugar as the dietary devil behind the trend.
“If only a small fraction of what WE KNOW ABOUT THE EFFECTS OF SUGAR WERE TO BE REVEALED IN RELATION TO ANY OTHER MATERIAL USED AS A FOOD ADDITIVE, THAT MATERIAL WOULD PROMPTLY BE BANNED.”
– PROFESSOR JOHN YUDKIN, 1972
The professor was a thorn in the side of the sugar industry, and there was a widespread campaign to both discredit and ridicule his work.
Fast-forward four decades, though, and everything the professor warned about has come to pass.
The Dangers of Sugar
Sugar is linked to a huge range of health problems, and the scientific evidence has become far too strong to ignore.
Here is a brief summary of research from recent years:
Sugar and Heart Disease
- As daily calories from sugar increase so does cardiovascular disease mortality (1).
- Individuals who consume more than 10% of calories from sugar have a 30% higher risk of death from heart disease. People who consume more than 25% of calories from sugar have triple the risk (2).
- Even moderate consumption of sugar for a short duration may cause substantial harm (3).
- One sugar-sweetened beverage a day results in an average 16% higher risk of heart disease (4).
- Diets high in sugar induce many abnormalities associated with CHD risk including; elevated glucose levels and insulin, leptin resistance, and fatty liver disease among others (5).
Sugar and Cancer
- Raised glucose levels switch on a growth pathway allowing tumors to survive (6)
- Foods which contribute to hyperinsulinemia, such as refined sugar and flour should be eliminated from a cancer-protective diet (7).
- Dietary sugar intake increases the risks of breast cancer development (8).
- A prospective study found that those consuming the most sugar (particularly sugar-sweetened beverages) had a higher risk of developing pancreatic cancer (9).
- Increased sugar intake activates several oncogenic pathways to induce cancer development (10).
Is Sugar Addictive?
Whether or not sugar addiction is real is a contentious point; many people absolutely believe that it is real, yet others feel we shouldn’t class it as an addiction.
Personally, I strongly believe that sugar (and other refined carbohydrates) are addictive.
Picture this scenario:
You are sat at home on a Friday evening about to watch a movie. Despite eating a little while ago and feeling quite full, a huge craving to eat spinach and a pork chop suddenly appears.
So, you quickly grab some money and sprint to the shop in a desperate attempt to beat closing time.
You arrive at the shop exhausted, pick up the pork chop, but when looking at the spinach you feel like just one won’t be enough… so you buy three packs of spinach as a treat.
After getting home, you eat all three packs of spinach and the pork chop. Afterward, you feel a bit guilty and wonder why you ate three packs of spinach.
Does it sound realistic? Actually, I’d be quite worried if you answer “yes” to that.
Presuming the answer is no; how about if we change the word ‘spinach’ to chocolate and the word ‘pork chop’ to a donut?
Does that sound more realistic? I think so.
And so do the millions of people who experience withdrawal from sugar, and the uncomfortable, continuous urge to eat more of it.
What Are the Signs of Sugar Addiction?
There is a fine line between being “a bit greedy” and having a sugar addiction, so some people who are addicted may not even realize.
Here are some common signs of sugar addiction:
- Eating when you don’t want to, and feeling guilty or disgusted with yourself afterward.
- Making excuses to yourself: “I’ll just eat it for this week, and then I’ll stop starting from September.”
- Feeling an urge to eat when you are already full.
- Buying a large amount of food and finishing it in one sitting.
- Continuing to eat despite being uncomfortably full.
- Eating the food alone, because you don’t want family/friends to see how much you’re eating.
- Hiding the food you eat from others, being careful to throw food packaging and receipts out before anyone sees.
- Instead of eating the food slowly and enjoying the taste, you eat it rapidly until it’s all gone.
- Eating emotionally – going out and buying food because something upsets you. Eating to make yourself feel better.
If you are experiencing more than a few of these symptoms then it’s likely you have a sugar addiction. These kinds of problems may also be experienced with refined carbohydrates such as wheat (which rapidly digests into simple sugars in the body).
The Science of Sugar Addiction
So, how does sugar addiction work?
When humans find something pleasurable, dopamine levels in our brain surge. This effect is often seen with addictive drugs such as opiates. The area of our brain where this takes place is known as the ‘reward center’.
Such drugs become addictive because we want to experience the ‘feel good’ factor again. As time passes, though, we sensitize and the dopamine effect becomes weaker and weaker, encouraging us to take more drugs to get the same effect.
What you may not know is that sugar stimulates this dopamine release in much the same way (11).
When you consume sugar, it hits your bloodstream almost instantaneously and spikes dopamine levels to give you that ‘feel good’ feeling.
This is a kind of evolutionary feature that tells us to remember something that we feel is good for us. It was particularly useful when we had to scavenge for food in the wild and avoid the many poisonous foods abundant in nature.
The sweet (and safe) taste of berries, for example, was something that should be reinforced at that time.
The problem is that we still have this feature in today’s world of hyper-processed food. Surrounded by sugary food every time we leave the house, and desperate for our next dopamine hit, it’s not hard to understand why so many people have problems with sugar.
What Do Studies Say: Is Sugar Addiction Real?
Firstly, there are obvious ethical reasons why we can’t cage a group of humans and try to induce an addiction in them, so we have to mainly go on animal studies here.
There are a few that show sugar can be a powerful drug which encourages dependency:
- In animal studies, rats fed a sugar solution over 21 days showed increased dopamine and less acetylcholine (acetylcholine is a satiety response to food) release (12).
- Sucrose-dependent subjects release more dopamine, have a delayed satiation response, and favor sucrose-containing food/drinks than non-sucrose-dependents. This is similar neurochemical behavior as seen in drug addicts (13).
- A study comparing how sweet taste and also cocaine impact the reward center of our brain found that 94% of animals chose sweetened water over cocaine, even in those that were addicted to the drug (14).
Overcoming Sugar Addiction – 5 Ways to Beat It
So, you feel like you’re addicted to sugar. How can you stop sugar cravings?
Unfortunately, there are no quick fixes and it will take time. However, I find that these five things help people a lot:
Stage One: Share Your Problems
The first priority should be to tell someone close to you about the trouble you are having.
Stop hiding it inside. Who you tell is up to you. It could be a friend, family member or even a teacher or co-worker.
A problem shared is a problem halved. By admitting you have a problem in this way, you have taken the most important step to fixing your sugar habit and recovering your health.
Instead of keeping your sugar addiction secret, you are being open about it and taking responsibility for positive change.
Stage Two: Clean Out the House
The best way not to be tempted by sugar? Make sure you have none of it in your house!
You can’t control all the environments you’re in, but this is the one you can control, making it the priority.
Make sure your house is stocked with lots of healthy food and that there are no sugary snacks calling out your name.
Stage Three: Optimize Your Diet
Cutting out added sugar alone isn’t enough. Food with high carbohydrate density such as rice, bread, pasta and juice
Foods with high carbohydrate density such as rice, bread, pasta and juice all have a very similar effect once inside the body. All these foods rapidly convert to glucose.
A great way to cut out your reliance on sugar would be to choose a low-carb meal plan full of healthy fats.
Eating a nutrient-dense diet will provide your body with the micronutrients and healthy compounds it needs.
As a result, it should help lower cravings for sugar.
Stage Four: Can’t Control Yourself? Be Prepared.
So you are eating a healthy diet now – but only at home.
Despite your best efforts, maybe you just can’t control yourself when you are surrounded by shops, bakeries, and cafes selling tempting treats.
So what can you do?
- Take lots of healthy snacks (see point 3) to work; eat them if you start getting a craving.
- Only take the money you need to work/school with you.
- Leave your bank cards at home. If you don’t have money, you can’t spend it.
And if you do find yourself entering a fast food chain, then make a healthier choice.
Stage Five: Join a Supportive Online Community
Maybe you just need someone to listen to you, or a group of people – strangers even – with whom to share your thoughts each day.
Humans are social creatures and discussing your problems with other human beings can really help.
Sugar cravings will ease with time, so just adopting these five points until you have better control can really help.
How to Deal with Sugar Addiction
Now that we’ve examined the main issues around sugar addiction, it’s time to hear what a true expert has to say about it.
Karen Thomson is a former sugar addict but through the adoption of a low-carb diet full of healthy fat she has managed to beat her addiction and turn her life around for the better.
She is now using her passion and dedication for health and wellness to help people from all over the world who suffer from sugar addiction. And that’s what makes her a nutrition hero.
I had the chance to ask Karen a few questions about how we can recognize and deal with an addiction to sugar, and she kindly provided some information to help you all.
Here is what she had to say:
What would you say is the biggest difference between a simple food craving and a full-blown sugar addiction?
Karen: We all experience cravings. What differentiates a ‘normal’ food craving and an ‘addictive’ food craving is the lengths the person will go to in order to feed that craving. As with other addictions, sugar addicts will go to extreme lengths to get their ‘drug of choice’.
I know that my husband can lie in bed and say: “I wish I had a chocolate” and that’s where it will end. In the past I would lie in bed and think: “I wish I had chocolate”, then two minutes later: “I really need chocolate”, then two minutes later: “I have to have chocolate” and then a minute later I find myself in the car, in my pyjamas, and on my way to the shop in the dark of the night to buy chocolate.
This basic food craving has turned into a compulsion and despite the negative effects it has on my health and safety, I still put my intense desire to have it ahead of everything else.”
From your experience, what is the biggest obstacle people have in regard to quitting sugar?
Karen: Believing that everything in moderation is key: I cannot tell you how often I have heard this as an excuse for people wanting to ‘have their cake and eat it’. The problem with a true sugar addict is that one slice of cake is never enough and instead of eating cake we eat feelings of guilt, shame, and fear along with it.
This could in turn set off a vicious cycle of binging, feeling guilt, shame and fear, and then needing to eat some more cake to push those uncomfortable feelings away.
So.. if someone is having these kinds of feelings, what can they do? What would be your best advice to someone dealing with a sugar addiction?
Karen: Find a supportive community. You are NOT alone. Join our Sugar Free September Challenge.
To help people struggling to beat their sugar cravings, Karen is running a ‘Sugar Free September’ challenge.
If sugar is a problem for you, I highly recommend you check it out because support really does make all the difference.
You can find out more information on her website here: http://www.thesugarfreerevolution.com/sugar-free-september-challenge-2016-register-now/
Have you ever experienced sugar addiction? Do you struggle with it now? Share your story in the comments below.