Sugar. How do you feel when you hear that word? Maybe you cringe, thinking of all the tempting treats and goodies calling your name. Maybe you get excited, thoughts leading to the energy or quick pick me up that sugar can bring. Or maybe you feel indifferent to the subject. In that case, great, there is always more to learn about the affects of sugar on the body and mind.
I want to start this off by stating that this post isn’t coming from a place of judgement or criticism. I simply want to offer up information that you can take or leave and give you potential tools to help improve your relationship with certain foods.
Okay, okay. Let’s get to the good stuff. First I want to touch on why sugar in the first place. Sugar has been proven to be 8x more addictive than cocaine. That’s 8 times MORE addictive than a government-banned substance (Hyman). A solution of sugar and water is actually commonly used in cases of drug over-doses to give the brain the dopamine it needs to “calm down.” Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that controls the brain’s reward and pleasure center. Basically, dopamine tells your brain what makes it feel happy. In terms of sugar though, this is a viscous cycle. After receiving the dopamine from the sugar, the brain then craves more and more, expecting to keep receiving the dopamine and “happy” signals.
As of the last few years, statistics are showing that 70% of Americans overweight (30% of this subset is considered obese) and one in two Americans having Type 2 diabetes or are considered pre-diabetic.
There has also been a rise in sugar-sweetened products sold in the U.S., with the average American consuming 22 teaspoons of sugar a day. To me, there is no doubt in my mind that there is a direct correlation between sugar consumption and the increased risk of heart disease, diabetes and weight gain.
But who is really to blame? I want to make it quite clear that individuals are fighting an uphill battle against sugar and its addictive qualities. That being said, if we can start to understand the grasp that sugar can have on us and our minds, we can start to relinquish the control that sugar can have over us.
Signs that you might be addicted to sugar may include:
- Craving sugary foods, even if you might not be hungry
- You feel tired or sluggish from overeating (aka overeating sugar past the point you intended)
- Craving salty foods, the body naturally wants to bring balance and combat the sweetness by seeking out salt
- Craving simple carbohydrates, these all break down into glucose (sugar) in the bloodstream and have the same affect as sugar on the body
Do any of these resonate with you? Personally, I know I have gotten hooked on sugar when I start craving chocolate with every meal, wake up wanting maple syrup with my coffee or when I start eating baked goods like crazy! Now, there is absolutely nothing wrong with any of these things on a day-to-day basis. The problem is doing all of these things, every day without checking in with what my body really NEEDS. Chances are, it isn’t sugar. My body needs vegetables, water and protein to function its best.
Sugar can have a strong hold over our minds but there are ways to combat the cravings. Initially, just recognizing where the cravings are coming from can be helpful. Breaking down the cravings to understand the why we do what we do. Cravings are typically triggered by stress (both perceived and real), and if they aren’t deconstructed can turn into daily habits that wreck havoc on health.
Recognizing certain triggers for yourself such as confrontations, lack of sleep, heavy work load, illness, injury or financial distress can cause the body to feel stress. When our bodies are stressed, we are less likely to make decisions that might be best for our health and future selves (Rubin).
Now that we know the dangers of sugar, what causes us to crave it, I think it;s time to learn what we can do to combat these cravings. I want to help you create a better relationship with sugar and sweets. One where you feel in control and not controlled by.
A relationship where you know your boundaries and limits, can step up to those limits comfortably and then be satisfied without going overboard. And even if you do go “overboard” (which will look different for everyone), learning to detach guilt from our actions and instead, take responsibilities for our actions. Responsibility to learn from these experiences and act differently in the future for our own best interests.
There are plenty of interweaving factors in re-regulating the body’s response to sugar cravings. Some of these factors are more basic to overall health and include:
- Getting enough sleep (so important!)
- Getting 8-10 servings of vegetables a day (as many colors and varieties as possible)
- Avoiding processed foods as much as possible
- Learning to reduce blood sugar spikes throughout the day by adding satiating fat to the diet
- Satisfying your sweet tooth naturally, limiting processed, white sugar and using more natural forms of sugar such as maple syrup, honey and stevia
- Getting an appropriate amount of exercise – exercise raises serotonin and endorphins (aka the happiness hormones), which can reduce cravings for sweets
Working on any one of these factors takes daily effort and will take time and a lot of mindfulness. These small changes add up, day in and day out and eventually create healthier habits that greatly improve health and your relationship with sugar and cravings.
Some personal tips I use to combat sugar cravings include:
- Starting each day with a savory breakfast instead of a sweet breakfast – this helps to avoid a blood sugar spike and crash early in the morning and instead leaves me feeling great
- Using pitted dates to add natural sweetness to coffee, baked goods or as a snack! The natural sugar in dates is SO SWEET and super satisfying. Dates are also high in magnesium, zinc, iron and much more!
- Storing baked goods in the freezer or getting them out of the house. The classic “out of sight, out of mind” tactic at play here. If you can’t see it, you’re much less likely to crave it!
- Drink water! This helps a lot if you think you might be hungry. Sometimes, our body is just trying to get our attention by sending out signals that our body needs something. Try drinking a glass of water and see if you are still craving sugar as badly!
- Distractions. This tactic can work well if there is something that I know I should avoid (i.e. it might make me feel sick), I wait it out and avoid eating whatever it is for 30 minutes. I then re-evaluate and see if I really do want that particular food
- Eat the food. In the end, sugar is not the devil = sugar, all day, every day is. If I do decide to eat sweets, I truly enjoy every bite and feel no guilt. I respect when my body tells me I am full or am no longer enjoying every bite and accept responsibility in my actions and choices.
If further help or more accountability is needed, seeking out a health coach is a great option. Focusing on habit change, health coaches can help guide clients through a period of sugar detoxing.
I hope you were able to learn a little more about sugar and the affects it can have, while also learning that it’s okay to identify and deconstruct trigger points in your life. Sugar is incredibly addicting but by getting to know yourself better you can create a truly honest relationship where you can be real with yourself. That, in itself, is liberating!