Lena Buckingham’s mind was so stuck on sweet treats she realized she was addicted to sugar, and like a drug it was controlling her life.
A mother-of-two from London and physically fit through running, her “drugs” of choice were cake, biscuits, chocolate, or ice cream after every meal and in ample amounts. She sometimes skipped meals and went straight to dessert.
She kept at it, even though she felt sick after eating sweets, had low energy, got dizzy, and had cold sweats when she exercised, and was often moody. She couldn’t moderate the amount she was eating, and that failure in turn affected her emotionally.
You may be thinking that if she realized sugar was a problem she should have just quit eating it so much. But it's not that easy.
For her, the solution was to cut down on foods with added sugars in them, mostly confectionary treats. Then she started to zero in on foods with sugar that were less obvious, like pasta sauce. Her mindset became one of substitution, such as some fruit instead of a cupcake (although fruit still contains sugar).
Massachusetts author and blogger Christina Haupert said it took her 18 months of constant diligence to truly control her sugar craving. A certified personal trainer, Haupert slowly made changes to her diet she could sustain long term.
“I needed to figure out how to incorporate sweets into my life without overdoing it every time I ate them,” she says. “I knew going cold turkey would never work because I love dessert so much and wouldn’t want to live without it. Plus, I knew if I tried giving up sugar all together, I’d only crave it more and go nuts the next time I was faced with a plate of cookies.”
Their struggles with sugar craving support the need for a sound strategy so you have consistency and balance as you cut sugars out of your diet. It’s much like kicking a drug such as nicotine, cocaine, even heroin — sometimes taking baby steps.
Those might seem like drastic comparisons, but dependency on all of them stems from an evolutionary aspect of your brain called the reward pathway that developed to keep humans alive.
To survive as a species we have evolved over eons to develop behaviors – like eating — that are reinforced and repeated by bringing pleasure to the brain, or rewarding it. Nicotine, cocaine, heroin, and sugars hijack the brain’s reward pathway and make users dependent.
So, yes, if you really crave sugar you are addicted, and that makes it much harder to kick the habit. It doesn’t help there are so many “hidden sugars” in foods you wouldn’t think contain them because they don’t really taste sweet.
Tips on lowering your sugar intake and losing your craving abound. Some say you can do it overnight, cold turkey. Ignore those because you would just be setting yourself up for making it worse.
One sound tip that makes immediate sense is to start clearing out your cupboards. That’s based on a simple premise. If sugar isn’t there, you aren’t going to eat it. Also, as the old saying goes, don’t go to the supermarket hungry.
Frank Lipman, MD, founder of Eleven-Eleven Wellness Center in New York City, recommends the pantry clearing approach and then filling your kitchen instead with “real food,” meaning the “kind of stuff that grows in the ground, goes bad if not refrigerated, or has a limited shelf life.”
Real food may not seem as rewarding at the time, but do it because it will chip away at the addiction.
Other tips include eating regularly to put a damper on the tendency to eat something sweet and satisfy that reward system. Don't let yourself get too hungry between meals because that encourages snacking on junk, including candy.
Get moving. Take a fast walk and even run if you’re in shape. This has a two-fold benefit. You are physically distancing yourself from that cupcake and the release of feel-good endorphins from exercise will decrease the craving.
Drink more water because dehydration may be related to sugar craving, eat fruit, dietary fiber, and more protein and fat. You also need a good night’s sleep. Emotional issues also are tied into eating, so work to keep your stress levels down through meditation or other techniques.
To remind yourself why you’re cutting out sugar even while you still crave it badly, create a list of the benefits you can turn to when cravings threaten to derail the reasons you want.
Read food labels diligently. Processed foods are full of added sugars to “improve” flavor. Take a stroll down a few supermarket aisles and read some labels. You’ll be surprised at the amount of sugar in foods you never suspected have it.
Try to satisfy your taste buds – and your brain – with spices that are sweeter than most, such as coriander, cinnamon, nutmeg, clove, and cardamom.
Maybe the best thing you can do is remember the less sugar you eat, the less you’ll crave it.
June 23, 2015
Christopher Nystuen, MD, MBA