Naturally most of us have a heightened preference for sweet taste – it’s in our genetic makeup, it ensures survival and it’s the first taste we are exposed to when we are born, through our mothers’ milk. However, some people would argue that they are indeed addicted to sugar since their desire for sweets is so strong, it is almost impossible to overcome.
Going into every possible mechanism of sugar addiction would take up quite some time and space, so I’ll focus on a few obvious and most common ones along with some tips on how to overcome them.
Sugar addiction, or food addiction in general, is not an official diagnosis, rather a term people use to describe an overwhelming liking of everything, or almost everything, sweet. Even though consumption of sweet foods elicits similar response in the brain as some common recreational drugs do, as noted in this study, eating many non-sweet foods, or fruits essentially does the same, without being regarded as addictive (show me an apple addict!). Most people would not eat sugar straight out of a jar, the cravings they have are typically for sugar-sweetened foods or combinations of sugary-fatty things, which disproves the ‘addiction’.
Most sugar-addictive behaviors are conditioned by overconsumption of sweets, which leads to desensitization, in other words – reduction of feel-good hormone released in response to the same amount of substance. This leads to desiring even more sweets and overeating and the notion of sugar addiction. Our current environment, that offers highly processed food-like items with lots of sugar or high-fructose corn syrup at every store, pharmacy, vending machine and gas station contributes to our overeating of sugary foods. It’s easy (sort of) to do away with drugs – we don’t need drugs to survive, but we do need food. One needs to make clear distinction between real food that we need to survive (whole, unprocessed, fresh food) and food-like items – the highly processed stuff – which we do not need. The latter one should be consumed mindfully, in moderation and with caution.
So, how do we beat the sugar addiction or generally sweet cravings, if we can’t not eat? Well, we also need air to breathe, however we don’t need to do it through a cigarette…
- Set clear boundaries with sugar. It’s not willpower you’ll need to set clear boundaries with certain foods, it’s practicing self-respect and self-care. Put yourself in control, don’t let sugar navigate your ship – your body is yours to live in, and you need a healthy resilient one to ensure quality of a long happy life. Excess sugar contributes to oxidative stress in your body leading to inflammation, which in turn causes chronic disease: type two diabetes, heart disease, cancer, obesity, neuropathy, dementia. Put your mind to it and make an agreement with yourself – minimize processed sugar sweetened foods. But don’t just focus on taking stuff out of your diet – focus on adding stuff in. Read on.
- Eat more fresh fruit. Fruits are naturally sweet, offer a variety of potent nutrients and antioxidants, full of fiber and water to fill you up, and are rich in flavor. Start with adding a serving of fruit to every meal you eat, and you may find yourself craving less sugar. Fruits were found to have anti-obesity effects in many studies through known mechanisms – improved satiety, reduced sugar cravings, gut flora modulation, hunger and satiety hormones effects. Some mechanisms are still being researched, and scientists believe they might lay in the nutrigenomics – the ways our genes are being turned on or off through our diet. By adding more fruit, instead of taking foods out of your diet, psychologically it will be easier to deal with dietary changes, and inadvertently at the end of the day you will be eating less, since the volume of food will increase. Is Twix bar your daily answer to an afternoon slump? Slice an apple alongside and try for a few days, watch the difference. Trust me, and the science, on this one.
- Eat foods high in chromium, magnesium and zinc. These three minerals enhance your body’s sensitivity to insulin, thus stabilizing blood sugar levels and reducing cravings for sweets. They are also abundant in whole non-processed foods, which should comprise the bulk of your diet.
- Chromium rich foods: apples, bananas, broccoli, bran cereal, whole grains, wheat germ, oranges, romaine lettuce, raw onions, potatoes, green beans, raw tomatoes, black pepper, grape juice;
- Magnesium rich foods: nuts and seeds, green leafy vegetables, figs, avocado, raspberries, legumes, vegetables, seafood, whole grains, raw cacao, dark chocolate, tofu, chlorella powder;
- Zinc rich foods: oysters, beef, lamb, spinach, pumpkin seeds, nuts, dark chocolate, pork, chicken, beans, mushrooms.
- Out of sight, out of mind. Unlike vending machine down the hallway which still requires an effort to walk over to it and stick a dollar bill, which doesn’t even work all the time, your pantry or your desk drawers are only arms reach away and accessible. One study found that “making snacks less accessible by putting them further away is a potentially effective strategy to decrease snack intake, without risk of compensatory behavior.” Clean them up! Do a total make over by taking out the junk and replacing it with healthier options. I don’t believe in throwing food away, even the junk food, you can load a box and donate it to a homeless shelter, or simply pass by an area where homeless people are. You’ll declutter your diet and feed someone in need.
- Snooze and distress. Our sleep and stress levels effect our hormones and appetite. Chronically sleep-deprived people, like the ones working night shifts, tend to have lower metabolic rates, heightened appetites and sugar cravings. They often compensate low energy from lack of sleep with fast acting sugar boosts from candy, soda, and sweetened coffee. Layer it with high stress levels – and you’ve got a perfect hormone storm. Get your zzz-s, 7-8 hours every night, and find ways to reduce stress – practicing mindfulness, meditating, taking walks, finding quite time and some time for your favorite activities – to reset and calm your brain.
Having a written plan for your goals – whether at work or personal and health related ones, is an important step towards their successful achievement. And practice makes… progress. Don’t expect to be perfect, that is not realistic and may set you up for failure and loss of motivation. Do expect changes and improvements, track them, celebrate (without cupcakes!) and keep going till you are, not sugar, in control.
Stay nourished, my friends!
Tatiana Larionova, MS, LDN, CNS
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