Are you consuming sweets daily? Do you add a sweetener to your daily bowl of cereal or cup of coffee or tea? Do you hunt for sweets at particular times of the day? If so, perhaps you feel powerless over your sweet cravings. If you’re like the average American who consumes 22 teaspoons of sugar daily, you very well may suffer from sugar addiction. Sugar is hidden in places you wouldn’t expect–it’s added to sauces, ketchup, soups, pickles, processed foods, drinks, health bars and more. And even if you don’t have a big sweet tooth, the consumption of wheat flour raises your blood sugar more than table sugar, so if you’re foregoing the sweets for foods made of flour (think bagels, crackers or pasta), you may still be addicted to sugar and not know it.
The truth is, we are hard-wired to like the taste of sugar. Sugar stimulates the release of the feel-good chemical dopamine in our brain. The problem is that some of us are genetically much more prone to sugar addiction because we have fewer dopamine receptors–proteins on the surface of brain cells that uptake chemicals. What this means is that we need more of a particular substance, like sugar or alcohol, to feel the same level of pleasure as someone with more dopamine receptors. Some of us need a lot more stimulation to feel pleasure and this can lead to a range of addictive behaviors–food addiction, compulsive overeating, drug/alcohol use, gambling and sex addiction, to name a few–that stimulate the reward centers in the brain. And those of us with fewer dopamine receptors are more prone to low moods and depression.
You may be wondering: if I’m craving sugar so intensely, can it really be that bad for me? The answer is a resounding yes. For many reasons. First and foremost, sugar decreases your overall health and makes you age faster. It lowers your immune response, increases destructive inflammation, leads to essential mineral deficiencies, feeds bad bacteria growth in your gut and accelerates aging by reducing the quality of the collagen in your skin and increasing the risks of all degenerative diseases such as diabetes, osteoporosis, heart disease and cancer.
If you’re trying to lose weight, a high sugar intake will act against your best intentions. Sugar increases fat storage because it encourages the release of our fat storing hormone insulin. And with continued high insulin spikes triggered by a constant sweet intake, the body becomes less sensitive to insulin, which leads to the all-too-familiar insulin resistance and the vicious cycle of more insulin production, more fat storage, and more resistance, eventually leading down the road to diabetes.
Keep in mind that your attraction to sugar is not proof that you are lacking willpower or that you are morally flawed. It’s truly a matter of genetics–you’ve most likely inherited the low pleasure, sugar addiction gene that leads to fewer dopamine receptors. Here are a few suggestions I offer my clients to help them break the sugar addiction.
1. Establish a pattern of regular meals–while I encourage my clients to eat when they feel true physical hunger and stop when they feel full, many tell me they don’t feel hungry until mid-day. If this sounds like you, try eating within one and one-half hours after awakening and then every three to four hours thereafter. When your blood sugar drops, you are more likely to grab a sugary treat.
2. Try a 3-7 day sugar detox. Many of my clients don’t think they’re addicted to sugar until I ask them to abstain from it for a period of time. They are often very surprised to find that they are consuming a large quantity of sugar daily and that they find it difficult to go without. If you decide to try a detox, you’ll have to read labels–sugar is added to everything. And beware–you may feel worse the first few days; but soon, you’ll notice an improved sense of well being. If you find it impossible to cut out sugar entirely, try making small changes. Cut back on the amount you use. Over time, your taste buds will adapt.
3. Increase your intake of fruits and green vegetables. Nutrient dense foods will help balance your body chemistry and reduce cravings. Try veggies for breakfast–they’re great by themselves, or try green smoothies or tofu scrambles. Sweet potatoes and yams will satisfy your sweet tooth in a natural way. Also, try adding spices–cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, coriander and cardamom naturally sweeten food and reduce cravings.
4.Keep sugary treats out of the home and office, if possible. If not possible, make sure you have healthy alternatives available.
5. Explore whether hidden food allergies are triggering your cravings. We often crave foods we are allergic to. I discuss food allergies and elimination/rotation plans in my book, The Emotional Eater’s Repair Manual.
6. Make sure you’re getting your Omega 3’s daily–nutrient deficiencies lead to cravings. Two tablespoons of ground flax seeds daily will meet your essential fatty acid requirements. While you’re at it, optimize your Vitamin D levels by getting 15 minutes daily of sunshine. When Vitamin D levels are low, the hormone that helps turn off your appetite doesn’t work and you may feel hungry all the time, no matter how much you eat.
7. Move your body daily. Exercise will provide the lift you’re looking for without the blood sugar imbalance.
8. Sleep to satiation every night, if possible. Research shows that we need 7-9 hours of restorative sleep every night. Plan for proper rest by turning off bright lights and stimulating computer and television screens and heading to bed earlier.
9. If you’re eating for emotional reasons, learn to check in with yourself and practice self-soothing and comforting skills where needed. I cover these skills in depth in part 1 of my book, The Emotional Eater’s Repair Manual.
10. Consider trying natural supplements for controlling cravings. Glutamine, tyrosine and 5htp are amino acids that help balance the brain chemistry and reduce cravings. Chromium balances blood sugar and can help take the edge off cravings. Rhodiola, a stress reducing herb, can also help.
Life is meant to be sweet; too much of the wrong kind of sweet and we’ve headed down the slippery slope of addiction. The good news is that at any point in time, we can clean out, rebalance and get back to mind, body and spirit balance.
Posted by Julie M Simon, MA, MBA, MFT, psychotherapist and life coach, certified personal trainer, founder and director of The 12 Week Emotional Eating Recovery Program and author of The Emotional Eater’s Repair Manual: A Practical Mind-Body-Spirit Guide for putting an End to Overeating and Dieting. If you have a question or topic you’d like to see addressed in this blog, go to http://overeatingrecovery.com.
Image courtesy of Bill Longshaw/FreeDigitalPhotos.net