Know that feeling when you can’t stop thinking about that bag of chocolate chip cookies you have sitting in the pantry or that pint of ice cream in the freezer? You try and distract yourself, but your mind keeps reminding you of those sweet, delicious treats you could be enjoying right now. And then you give in and decide to have a small piece only to inhale the entire package until not one crumb is left. What’s left are empty bags and you hating yourself because you were weak. You gave in instead of sticking to your convictions.
Where does this insane craving for sweets come from? Is sugar really as addictive as some people say it is?
Studies have shown, sugar addiction could be real. But before you start booking yourself into rehab, hold up, because the science is conflicting. It sure as heck feels like an addiction when you can’t distract your mind from those sugary treats—but that's not quite what's going on.
It's all about the sugar rush
What the scientists agree on is that sugar sparks the "reward" center of our brains. Consuming sugar can stimulate the brain to pump dopamine into your system. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that tells you "hey, this stuff is good, have some more!" This is what causes sugar cravings—not an addiction to sugar itself, but to the rush of feel-good hormones you get whenever you eat it.
Beyond that, there's very little support for sugar addiction in humans. Addiction is a serious medical condition where the brain actually changes to need more and more of the substance to get the same high. Researchers have seen these brain changes with drug addiction, but they just aren't finding them with sugar. I’m not the only one who avoids using the phrase “sugar addiction” because it almost assumes that consumption of sugar is beyond people's control.
So if craving sugar is not an addiction, what is it?
The obvious answer is that it's a habit. The difference between the two is dependence—addiction is driven by a NEED to do something while a habit is driven by the ROUTINE of doing it. As a society, we've developed habits around sugar consumption where our bodies have learned to expect to have sugar at the same time each day. If you can't function without that caramel macchiato in the morning or the afternoon pick-me-up in the form of a cupcake, then you'll know exactly what I'm talking about!
The problem with sugar is it’s energizing. Who hasn’t felt better—at least temporarily—when using sugar as a quick fix when feeling low or stressed? A break-up can lead to weeks of bingeing on the sweet stuff. We all know that this is not the solution to our problems. But in that moment, it can feel so darn good.
For sure, you'll need the willpower to break a bad sugar habit. But the good news is, it's not impossible. You're not going to experience any major withdrawal symptoms from sugar the same way you would if you stopped using heroin. Ditching the daily sugar "fix" is not going to interfere with your ability to turn up for work the next day. And it's really worth thinking about if you want to tip your body into optimal health.
The ugly truth about sugar
The average American takes in 22 teaspoons of added sugar daily—almost four times the amount suggested by the World Health Organization. And it’s not only the obvious items like ice cream and cookies that are loading us up on sugar. Other big culprits are sugary drinks—sodas, Slurpees, fruit juices and fancy coffee. And although it has never been considered a "health" food, the evidence is mounting that sugar can do more damage than previously thought.
A diet heavy in the sweet stuff—even when it comes from natural sources like fruit—increases your hunger more than any other type of carbohydrate. Not only does it spike insulin, a hormone that causes you to lay down fat, it also blocks leptin, a hormone that regulates hunger and tells your body to stop eating. Too much sugar is a clear risk for weight gain.
More worryingly, high sugar consumption spikes your triglycerides, blood sugar, blood pressure and inflammation—all risk factors for heart disease, diabetes, cancer and even dementia. Some researchers even call Alzheimer's "Type 3 diabetes." High sugar intake has also been linked to acne, accelerated (skin) aging, bad teeth and not to forget depression and accelerated cognitive decline.
But wait, don't we need sugar?
No. You do not need sugar, EVER. Your brain needs very little glucose (around 25 grams) to work optimally. In the absence of sugar, your body is designed to use fatty acids for fuel. Even if you cut your sugar intake to zero, your body would function optimally by using fat as its main energy source.
So how do you reduce sugar?
Some swaps are obvious. For example, ditching just one regular (12-ounce) can of soda can cut around 40 grams (10 teaspoons) of sugar from your daily diet.
Other sources of sugar can take you totally by surprise. For instance, you might chalk a bowl of granola and a small cup of low-fat fruit-flavored yogurt up as a super-healthy breakfast, but when you read the nutrition label, you could be taking in 30 grams of added sugar—more than a Snickers bar!
Food manufacturers have found that with virtually every product they sell, they can add a little more sugar to make it tastier. The "bliss point" describes the sweetest and therefore the tastiest a product can be before adding any more sugar makes it too sweet. This is why sugar is in everything, from granola and bread to peanut butter and pasta sauce.
Bottom line: The most effective way to reduce your sugar intake is to eat mostly whole and unprocessed foods. However, if you decide to buy packaged foods, read the labels. Avoid anything with sugar near the top of the ingredient list and watch out for fancy marketing words for sugar like "evaporated cane juice" and "maltose." This article lists 56 different names for sugar that food manufacturers use to fool us into eating more sugar than we realize.
What about the cravings?
Fighting sugar cravings can be a challenge at the start. You've stopped giving your body something it has been habitualized to expect so of course, it's going to fight back. If you pick up a muffin on auto-pilot each day after lunch, then your body is going to be stuck on those routines.
You need to tackle this with the attitude that sugar does not improve your life in any way; it simply gives you a temporary dopamine hit. When you're not dependent on sugar, then your baseline mood and energy stays constant all day. You don't get the post-lunch slump or the highs and lows of blood-sugar crashes. And the longer you go without sugar, the more stable you feel—most people feel the benefit in as little as one or two weeks.
Here's another trick: keep a food diary. Write down what signals your body is sending you when a craving comes up (boredom, stress, time of the month and so on). This information is ammo for when you next get a craving so you can get it under control and let it pass.
Important: don’t starve yourself. Sometimes we experience cravings when we are thirsty or hungry. Often a glass of water and a healthy snack including some protein and fats (such as a hard-boiled egg and a handful of nuts) can successfully stave off that craving.
"My family members are enablers!"
You may find that your family and friends are not as supportive as you'd like. People are stuck in their own habits and those who themselves are sugar addicted often act as enablers for everyone else. They want you to continue eating poorly because it validates their own choices.
And what about the workplace? You arrive at the office on Monday morning, ready to get down to some work, and you have to walk past a whole bunch of “healthy” snacks your employer has provided as a job perk. There are pastries in the cafeteria, desserts served at lunchtime and what’s this? An email from Sue saying its her birthday and she’s brought in cakes. They’re on the table by the printer, enjoy! Pure peer pressure. If you don’t participate in this high-sugar, supposedly morale-boosting lifestyle, people might be offended.
I say, empower yourself! The best defense is a good offense, so why not read up on sugar and get educated on the subject? Then you'll always have a comeback when someone says, "sugar can't be unhealthy because fruit has sugar in it." The more you know, the more you'll strengthen your resolve to continue with your low-sugar lifestyle. For example, did you know an apple contains naturally occurring sugar, but it also has fiber, which slows digestion. Your body will experience less of a blood-sugar spike after you eat an apple than if you had, say, a soda. “This doesn't mean that you can eat all you want of natural sugars. You still need to have portion control,” says Alissa Rumsey, R.D. and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
Eat well, be happy
Ultimately, your body doesn't need sugar for survival. Having less is better. That doesn't mean you can't enjoy the occasional dessert without feeling guilty. But there is simply no nutritional value in adding sugar to your diet. We should all be looking to protein, fat, complex carbs and plenty of veggies for nutrition—these are the things that our bodies truly love. Combine these foods with your training program, and you're going to look and feel amazing!
Anka Urbahn (@mindsets_fitness) has been part of the health and fitness world her entire life, first as a competitive gymnast and speed skater in her native Germany, then as a U.S.-based martial artist, bodybuilder, blogger, and certified fitness trainer. Her ethos is simple—no quick fixes or deprivation, just a balanced program designed to improve your (fitness) life and take the frustration out of training. Her holistic approach blends strength training, nutrition coaching, and lifestyle adjustments to build a stronger and fitter you, take your confidence to the next level, and empower you to become the most awesome version of yourself that you can be.