If you eat sugar regularly, you’re addicted. There’s really no other way to say it. Sugar affects the brain in the same way opioids do, which means that the sugar cravings can be just as strong as they are for cocaine or nicotine. This is why even the suggestion of giving it up turns us into snarling animals ready to bite the arm off anyone who dares to take our chocolate.
You don’t have to lock yourself in a room or tie yourself to the bed to stop eating cupcakes. If you stay focused on the fact that your cravings are a chemical dependency, it may be easier for you to summon up the strength to push through your body’s cravings for sugar. If you can stay strong for four weeks, your cravings completely go away. Those first few weeks aren’t a picnic, but if you get through them, there’s freedom on the other side.
What’s so bad about sugar?
You may be wondering: what’s so bad about sugar? It’s a household staple and totally ingrained in our culture. Who hasn’t made cookies with grandma?
The thing is, sugar causes a range of problems for the body, including inflammation. And inflammation is a precursor to many diseases, including cancer. Here are just a few reasons why sugar is bad for your body:
A UCLA study found that a diet high in sugar slows brain function and affects memory and learning
When kids stop eating sugar for nine days, they have lower blood pressure, cholesterol, and blood sugar levels
Eating too much table sugar and high fructose corn syrup may increase the risk of breast cancer
Too much sugar can lead to diabetes, weight gain, and inflammatory diseases
Eating too much sugar can contribute to Alzheimer’s disease
Eating too much sugar increases the risk of dying with heart disease
Sugar can overload your liver and cause fatty liver disease
Too much sugar can cause intestinal inflammation, which can lead to thyroid disease and autoimmune issues
If you want to read more about these studies and the negative effects of sugar, check out the “Learn More” section below.
Kicking the sugar addiction isn’t easy business. You’re going to need a plan, and cold turkey isn’t it!
If you decide you want to run a marathon, you wouldn’t go out and run 26 miles on your first day of training. You’d start slowly. The same is true when you want to wean yourself off sugar. Take baby steps. And try not to start before a major holiday, because holidays are full of lots of sugary temptations. If your goals are realistic, you set yourself up to succeed.
Keep it out of the unnecessary
Sugar, or some form of sweetener, is in almost everything. Start by reading labels—it’s the only way to know exactly how much sugar is in the food you’re eating. Slowly stop buying food and drinks that contain added sweeteners.
Keep it out of the house
It’s really easy to reach for something sweet when it’s calling you from the cupboard. So don’t bring sugar into the house.
If you eat dessert every night and then suddenly stop, it’s jarring to the system and difficult to sustain. But if you replace what you’ve given up with something else you like, it will make the transition easier. Take some time before you start weaning yourself off sugar to look for foods that can replace your favorite desserts (and carrots won’t cut it). For example, if you eat ice cream, try a sugar free coconut milk ice cream or sorbet.
Be creative and find substitutions that satisfy you. It takes a little planning, but having substitutions ready to go can really help. Remember, sugar is a highly addictive substance, and quitting cold turkey can backfire.
A few ideas for healthier desserts
Baked pears or apples are scrumptious desserts that don’t require sugar (although you can use honey if you need some sweetness), as are Paleo fruit crumbles. Or drink your dessert by popping some pineapple juice, frozen strawberries, blackberries, and maybe a little fresh ginger into a blender. (Add fresh mint for more refreshing flavor.)
If you need a substitution for your chocolate bar, choose a bar that’s 70% cocoa or higher. Dip it in unsweetened peanut butter (yes, most brand name peanut butters have added sugar) for a bit more decadence.
It’s important to be creative when looking for substitutions and to reward yourself with healthy food you really like. Try to choose substitutions that keep your hands and mouth occupied and take some time to eat, like grapes, watermelon, popcorn, or a whole pomegranate. Distractions are good. Otherwise, you have a lot of time to sit and think about what you’re not eating (like that sugary dessert or snack) and that’s when your cravings can get really strong.
Subtract 1, then 2, then 3
Once you’ve found the substitutions that work best for you, start replacing your desserts and snacks one by one. Start slowly. Giving up (or substituting) one sugary thing is enough to start. Keep your eyes on the prize and don’t give up. Weaning yourself off sugar is no easy task, so be proud of your progress. If you fall off course, right the ship and keep on going.
If you eat dessert every night, reduce it down to six nights a week, then enjoy a substitution on the seventh night. Once you get accustomed to six nights, take another night off, and so on until you’ve eliminated sugar from your diet completely. Remember, this doesn’t have to happen in a month.
Improve your afternoon snack
The same principle applies if you eat sugary snacks during the day. Reduce by one until you’re down to where you want to be. If you tend to eat chocolate in the afternoon, switch it out for a 70% cacao dark chocolate bar.
Avoid sugar for breakfast or lunch
If you can, eliminate sugar from your breakfast and lunch. Doing so will help reduce the blood sugar spike that often leads to that midday crash—which, in turn, triggers you to want more quick energy in the form of sugar and traps you in a cycle that never ends.
Eat enough & often
Another issue that can lead to a midday crash and a subsequent chocolate binge in the afternoon is not eating enough. If you’re not a big breakfast person and you have a busy schedule, you may look up and see that it’s 2:00 in the afternoon and you still haven’t eaten. Now you’re totally out of fuel and crashing. When this happens, your body tends to crave sugar big time.
To avoid this, try eating small meals or healthy snacks throughout the day to keep blood sugar levels stable. Make a protein shake or eat fruit and nuts. Hummus with veggies is a great snack to bring to work or take with you in the car, as are apples, plums, or whatever fruit is in season. Hard-boiled eggs or deviled eggs are a good portable option as well (unless you’re vegan). Think about snacks you can eat quickly on the go. If you eat enough throughout the day, you won’t crave sugar to keep you going when you’re out of fuel.
Recognizing your emotional ties to sugar
There is a strong emotional connection to sugar. It can give you a sense of well-being and trigger happy memories.
Sometimes, we have no idea that we are eating for emotional reasons. So when you have a craving, examine that feeling a little further. The trick is to find new, healthier comfort foods.
Know your triggers
If you let yourself get too tired, hungry, or blue, your sugar cravings can become more intense. When you are low on energy, your body will crave sugar because it’s a quick way to get glucose to the brain. Try not to skip meals when you are weaning yourself off sugar.
If you know you tend to eat sugar on your couch at night when you watch TV, get out of the house! Go see a movie; take a cooking class; learn how to play tennis, go on a walk, or take a dance class. Do something active that breaks you out of the habit.
Walk it off
Having a bad craving? Walk, run, or work out. Endorphins (the body’s feel-good chemicals) get released when you work out, and they can really help stop your cravings and make you feel better. If you have a strong urge to eat sugar, walk around the block a few times.
Are you thirsty?
It seems strange, but we can actually crave sweets when we get dehydrated. Add a bit more water to your diet to see if it helps your sugar cravings.
Are you drinking sugar?
Your latte or Frappuccino drinks can have anywhere from 10-16 teaspoons of sugar. That’s more than a can of Coke. Try ordering hot tea if you need caffeine and sweeten it with raw honey.
Sparkling apple cider is a great substitution for a soda because it’s bubbly and sweet, but doesn’t have added sugar. Another option is to pour sparkling water into an organic, non-sweetened fruit juice. Water infused with fresh cucumber and mint or lemon slices is a great substitution to keep at home or work, as well. If you garden, grow some lemon verbena and put a few leaves in your glass water bottle for a lemony flavor.
How long will getting rid of cravings take?
Once you eliminate sugar from your diet completely, it takes between 3-5 weeks for the cravings to stop. If you still crave sugar after that time, you haven’t broken out of the addictive cycle yet. Examine the ingredient list on all the foods you’re eating and make sure there isn’t any added sweetener that’s keeping you hooked. Even a little bit of sugar each day can keep you locked in the sugar cycle, so try and avoid it completely.
Agave nectar is used in a lot of healthy “no sugar” baking, but it’s higher in fructose than regular table sugar. High fructose levels can wreak havoc on metabolic health. Be warned that even healthy food manufactures use tricks to keep you coming back. If you want to eat desserts on occasion, buy or make ones that use raw honey or dates as a sweeting agent.
Free yourself from all types of sweeteners
Try not to stay on sweet substitutions for too long because they can become a crutch. If you are constantly on the edge of the addictive cycle, you’ll never really feel the full benefit of being off sugar. Some people spend a lot of time trying to replace the things they lost and never fully commit to being off sweets completely. Transferring processed “bad” sugars to healthier sweeteners can still manifest as sugar in the body. It may be healthier, but it doesn’t truly get you out of the addictive cycle. Try staying off sugar for at least three months before you add sweet alternatives back into your diet. And be careful because as soon as you reintroduce sugar, it’s really easy to get addicted again.
Changing taste buds
As you reduce the amount of sugar you consume, your taste buds may change. Once you’ve made it through the first month without sugar, you may notice that the food and drinks that you used to love will taste hideously sweet to you now.
Without sugar in your diet, you may sleep better. Your skin may glow and look a lot healthier. Your mind may be sharper, especially in the afternoon, and you probably won’t experience that midday crash. You’ll likely shed some pounds and have more energy, too. Other health problems could disappear or improve. So when your cravings get tough, remember why you’re doing this and know that they will eventually diminish and ultimately go away completely.
A word about fruit
When we eat regular table sugar, like the kind found in a candy bar, it quickly turns into glucose and our blood sugar levels spike. But when we eat fruit, the fiber and protein in the fruit help slow down that process, and the naturally-occurring sugar doesn’t elevate our blood sugar levels in the same way. Fruit doesn’t trigger an unhealthy addictive cycle like processed sugar can.
According to one metabolism study, when participants ate 20 servings of fruit per day for two weeks, they experienced no adverse affects in their weight, blood pressure, or triglyceride levels. They did, however, reduce their LDL (bad) cholesterol levels by 38 points. Meanwhile, a 2013 Nutrition Journal study found that decreasing fruit intake had no benefit on the blood sugar levels, weights, or waist circumferences of people with Type 2 diabetes. – U.S. News & World Reports, “Can Fruit Make You Fat?”
Fruit is a critical part of your diet because it contains antioxidants that help your body fight disease. There’s no amount of fruit that will make you gain weight, so keep it in your diet.
Remember, take it slowly, and give yourself plenty of time and encouragement. Breaking out of any addiction is difficult and sugar is no different. Set yourself up for success by creating a plan that includes food substitutions, and try eliminating all sugar from your diet for at least a month to give yourself all the health benefits that come with breaking out of the additive cycle. Here’s to a new healthier, and happier, you!
CNN – “What happens to your brain when you give up sugar”
NBC News – “Cutting sugar for 9 days made kids healthier: Study”
Harvard Health Publications – “Eating too much added sugar increases the risk of dying with heart disease”
Arthritis Foundation – “Food Ingredients That Can Cause Inflammation”
UCLA Newsroom – “This is your brain on sugar: UCLA study shows high-fructose diet sabotages learning, memory”
Authority Nutrition – “10 Disturbing Reasons why Sugar is Bad for You”
KTAR News – “The surprising link between sugar and chronic pain”
Today- “Cutting Processed sugar for just 9 days has a ‘striking’ effect on health”
Telegraph – “Sugar found in ketchup and Coke linked to breast cancer”
CNN – “When Food Causes you Pain”
The New York Times – “Sugar Season. It’s Everywhere, and Addictive”
Time – “You asked: What’s the Healthiest Sweetener?”
Mayo Clinic – “Artificial sweeteners and other sugar substitutes”
Rodale’s Organic Life – “The 5 Best, and 5 Worst, Sweeteners to Have in Your Kitchen”
SF Gate – “What Is the Difference Between Sucrose, Glucose & Fructose?”
Harvard Health – “Glycemic index and glycemic load for 100+ foods”
Feature image courtesy of Jeanny on Flickr @Creative Commons