A fine, white powder that is incredibly addictive. Once you get a taste you want more and more. You dream about it and crave it and will sometimes do crazy things to get it. I’m not talking about hard drugs, I’m talking about sugar. Although often laughingly compared to cocaine, recent science is discovering that sugar affects not only our waistlines but our brains as well. And we all know that sticking to a diet plan is hard enough even without being mentally compromised by this “legal cocaine”. So how exactly does sugar affect you and what can you do to kick the habit?
What is sugar?
There are three main types of sugar. Glucose, more commonly known as “blood sugar”, is the body’s preferred source of energy and is the end product of carbohydrate digestion. When you eat too many carbs you get a rush of glucose released into the bloodstream, causing a blood sugar spike. In response to this sudden influx of glucose your body releases insulin, the hormone responsible for glucose uptake into cells. When there is too much glucose for our body to either use immediately for energy or store within the liver or muscle the excess gets stored as fat. Once all of that glucose has been tucked away in fat storage our body senses that blood sugar levels are low and we get hungry again, specifically for more carbs. And the vicious cycle starts again.
Fructose is the naturally occurring sugar in fruits. Unlike glucose, fructose is processed in the liver. When we eat too much fructose the liver can’t process it fast enough and it has no way to store it so it turns it into fat in the form of triglycerides and sends it into the bloodstream. The small amount of fructose in fruits is easily used by the body for energy and doesn’t result in an excess. It is when fructose is processed and added to foods as a sweetener that it becomes problematic. Refined fructose is known as high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) and although the fructose itself is no different from the natural fructose found in fruits, the amount is the problem. For example, an apple has about 2.4 grams of fructose and HFCS ranges from 42-90 grams per 100 gram serving! So enjoy your fructose in small amounts as a naturally occurring sugar in your fruit, but stay far away from it when it’s been processed and added to products as a sweetener!
Sucrose is the scientific name for table sugar. It is a complex carbohydrate made up of the two simple sugars, glucose and fructose. The body breaks it down into the two components we’ve already discussed and either uses them for energy or stores them.
Why is sugar so addictive?
In addition to the glucose induced blood sugar spike that we get from eating sugar, there is also a spike in serotonin, our “feel good” hormone. And while insulin packs away that glucose into our fat cells for storage and causes the blood sugar to drop our serotonin levels drop too causing the “sugar crash” many of us are all too familiar with. It’s a double whammy. Now we are hungry because the sugar lacked the nutrients we need and we are irritable because our serotonin levels are low again. So we go hunting for more food (usually more sugar) and become like a drug addict, forever searching for that next high. What’s really scary is that recent research is showing that the more sugar we eat, the more we need to eat in order to be satisfied – just like with many drugs. A 2012 study out of the Oregon Research Institute used MRI to scan the brains of subjects while they drank milkshakes and found that the receipt of the milkshake robustly activated the reward centres within our brains. In addition to this, frequent ice cream consumption was associated with a reduced response! This means that people who ate ice cream often required more milkshake to get the same magnitude of response within the reward centres of the brain. The more sugar you eat, the more you want it and the more you need to get the same effects! It’s a downward spiral.
So how can you break the cycle?
There are many factors involved in breaking a sugar addiction. We need to cleanse our body of the physical addiction in order to get rid of the cravings. To do this I often recommend cutting out sugar entirely for at least three weeks. It will be difficult and you can expect to go through withdrawal. You may get headaches and feel tired and irritable. Drink lots of water and increase your intake of vegetables. Eventually the cravings will subside and you will feel better, I promise! Three weeks is a guideline, this usually is enough for most people. You may need less or more time.
Unfortunately though it’s not just as simple as quitting the sugar cold turkey. Many of our daily habits reinforce our sugar addiction and it’s the association with these activities and tasks that will cause a craving. You may always get a cookie with your morning coffee so when you cut out the cookie you miss it not just because of the physiological addiction to the sugar, but you miss that happy part of your routine. While you are trying to kick the sugar habit it may be a good idea to change your routine as well. Go for coffee at a different time, or to a different place! Replace the cookie with a healthier snack, like fruit and nuts. If you always like to have a bowl of ice cream on the couch in the evening try to avoid the couch for a while (just while you are trying to cut out the sugar). Have a bath and enjoy a cup of tea in bed to unwind, or even just sit in a different chair than the one you would normally sit in to eat your nighttime treat. Whatever activities in your day that you associate with sugar or cause a sugar craving, change it! This will shake up your routine and help your body learn new habits.
And finally you will need to figure out ways to deal with the cravings when they do happen. Always have healthy snacks available and make sure you never let yourself get hungry. Come up with ways to distract yourself until the craving subsides, which usually takes about 20 minutes. Drink a big glass of water and visual your goals to help you refocus. Even just setting a timer and telling yourself you can have it in 20 minutes can be a good way to stop impulsive eating. You may tell yourself you can have it later but by the timer is up you won’t want it anymore!
Kicking a sugar addiction is not easy. Once you have rid yourself of cravings and are ready to add sugar back into your diet in small amounts as an occasional treat be sure to do so carefully. Now that you have retrained your brain you should be satisfied with much less sugar. Enjoy your treats slowly and keep portions small. Be very mindful of how you feel after you eat sugar and adjust accordingly. Feeling sick or groggy the day after eating sugar is a sign that your body is still working the “poison” out of it’s system. If it takes you more than a day to feel like yourself again try reducing the amount of sugar you consume in your next treat. Eventually you will find the amount that you can tolerate and still stick to your healthy eating goals!
This article was researched and written by Follow @DaraCoxPT
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