In June 2014 Time Magazine’s cover bore the sensual picture of butter, claiming we’re “Ending the War on Fat”, because it turns out that there is an everyday substance in the American diet that is much more perilous to our waistlines and minds. While we may crave the lipids on our tongue and the comfort food feeling of wholesome fats, they’re actually not habit forming (in the long run), and in fact satiate our appetites much faster than anything else.
Sugar addiction, however, is very real. And there have been some noteworthy studies conducted in the last decade to shed some very important light on this reality. In fact, some of the more prominent animal studies show that sugar is eight times more addictive than cocaine: one in particular went on to show that mice react to Oreo cookies with the same addictive behavior as they do with specific drugs.
Did you know that sugar meets all the criteria for an addictive substance?
People eat it compulsively; despite a desire to stop eating it, and intense sugar consumers have a hard time functioning in its absence. It stimulates the release of neurotransmitters in the brain, (dopamine and serotonin), similar to alcohol, cocaine, and other drugs. And, also like other drugs, due to continued use, you can develop a tolerance to its effects, and when you cut it out of your eating behavior, you can experience withdrawals.
Another study proved that mice became more addicted to sugar than cocaine, and chose it over cocaine as their drug of choice — a very interesting outcome!
Sugar stimulates the brain in the same way that cocaine does by lighting up the centers of the brain that trigger pleasure. However, when we become hooked on sugar to the point that it feels like an addiction – we suffer the consequences of an overload of sugar in the body (inflammation, mood issues, weight gain and more). And, just like other drugs, being addicted to sugar comes with the painful behavior cycle of looking for our next “hit,” and then feeling guilty that once again, we succumbed to our craving (and our addiction).
What’s too much sugar?
Well, the average American eats up to a pound of sugar a day! No wonder we’re seeing an increase in hypertension, obesity, diabetes, heart disease, ADHD and hyperactivity, anxiety, or depression.
Sugar is a fast track to pleasure for the brain, and so, if we’re in the grips of sugar, it may seem like an insurmountable goal to stop the cycle of addiction, because we get a chemical-emotional kick-back every time we take a taste. But it is surely possible to let sugar go.
Here are 7 strategies to help transform sugar addiction:
1. Stabilize blood sugar levels:
Keeping your blood sugar levels stable by eating healthy proteins and fats throughout the day is key. Choosing meals that are properly balanced will help your body extract energy at a slow and steady pace; you won’t need that lift in the middle of the afternoon! Often, sugar cravings indicate a need for minerals and protein in the body. So skip the pastry and coffee and be willing to hear your body’s messages. What should you eat? Here are some ideas – choose salads, vegetables, yogurt, hummus, high quality fish, meat, or beans for lunch, eggs or nut butter for breakfast. These are all good ways of including nutrient dense and protein rich meals throughout the day and will work towards reducing sugar cravings and stabilize moods.
2. Get Your H2O:
Studies have shown that the majority of people in this country (almost 80% of us) are suffering from chronic dehydration and mistake hunger for thirst. Our body reacts to dehydration with elevated blood glucose levels. Blood sugar spikes and dips contribute to our addiction to sugar. Drinking water throughout the day will support more stable blood sugar levels, which reduce the pull.
3. Re-Educate Your Tongue:
Eat foods that are naturally sweet to retrain your sense of sweet. Try starchy vegetables such as sweet potatoes, and beets, which can give us the flavor that we love without the detrimental after effects. Explore spices such as cinnamon, nutmeg, and cardamom, which not only offer a sweet associative taste without ill effects, they also work to reduce sugar cravings!
4. Keep sugar and sugar products out of your house.
Easier said than done, but it’s still true: you can’t eat what’s not there. If you’re really trying to kick the habit, you need to banish the sweet stuff: this includes white or brown sugar, corn syrup, honey and maple syrup.
5. Identify cravings that transcend physical hunger.
Sugar addiction has a strong physiologic component, so we can’t underestimate the emotional and psychological aspect to sugar addiction. If you are tired, take a break or rest, rather than pushing yourself harder in the face of fatigue. If you are bored, find something more interesting to do. Sometimes, writing down what we’re feeling helps us to acknowledge and become attentive to our feelings. If you’re feeling lonesome, reach out and connect! When we are emotionally present for ourselves, we are less likely to reach for the sugar-drug fix – in order to reduce the intensity of our feelings. 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.
6. Get Your Zzz’s:
When we lack sleep, our body doesn’t get the chance to fully recharge. We then start looking for quick energy during the day, and sugar is an easy quick energy, albeit not very long lasting. If we give ourselves the gift of enough sleep we are less likely to need to reach for the quick energy fix.
Assuredly, most believe that they know how to breathe correctly. But this is such an automatic response of the body that we often don’t think about, or even pay close attention to, our breath on a daily basis. Yoga enthusiasts know, however, that the simple act of correct and optimal breathing patterns can correct your internal sense of balance and energy in the body. Breathing correctly opens the chest and allows you to access the lower lobes of the lungs, where your stress-fighting oxygen-empowered skills live. The lower lobes of the lungs have more parasympathetic nerve receptors! This helps to create a sense of calm, relaxation, and emotional balance in the body. This increases your chances of keeping a low-stress state in the body and increases mental clarity, all of which may help you from reaching for that sugar fix.
When it comes to sugar and our obsession with it, it’s interesting to note what it represents in our life and everyday relationships. Sweetness isn’t just a biological interest, or energy kick-starter, it’s the stuff that makes life worth living. So while taking these 7 Tips into account, it makes sense to take stock of how you can go about bringing joy and some sweetness to your life in other ways than food. As we well know here at the Institute, food issues are never about food in the end, but a message from your body and your environment that there’s something else that needs our attention and loving care. So please, be sweet to yourself.
The Institute for the Psychology of Eating
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