This post is also available in: Español (Spanish)
Do you have a sweet tooth?
Like… does it seem like you have an addiction to sugar?… and would you like to start breaking your dependence on sugar for good? If you do, you’re not alone.
Let’s get something out of the way- NOT all sugar is bad.
In fact, our bodies need sugar in the form of glucose for energy- and like anything else, too much or too little can be problematic.
Is all sugar bad for you?
No! Not all sugar is bad for you. For example, fruit is a source of sugar- but fruit is full of healthy vitamins, fiber and water that helps contribute to a healthy weight, good digestion and overall health. The sugar the we need to be careful of are ADDED sugars- sugars that are included in products like cookies, cakes, snacks and sauces, and can contribute to problems with weight management, blood sugar regulation and overall health. Sugar is used by the body (especially the brain) as glucose- which we actually need for a healthy brain! However, limiting added sugars is recommended.
The problem with your sugar intake is in the dosage.
Small amounts of sugar (even added sugars) aren’t the issue here- Its the overconsumption of added sugars and the mental toll that struggling to control your sweet tooth that we should be worried about. The occasional cookie or piece of chocolate can easily be a part of an overall well balanced diet- but if you find that you are constantly looking for your next ‘sugar fix’ or that you are unaware or unable to monitor the amount of sugar you consume on a daily basis.. Lets talk.
Science points to limiting or eliminating sugar intake in order to promote health and reduce risk of chronic disease.
However, the stress that you can feel over restricting or eliminating foods from your diet can ALSO contribute to health issues. Limiting sugar intake can promote better health, body composition, mood, digestion and energy – but if you feel ‘addicted’, that may feel impossible.
First off, a real addiction is something VERY serious- so no, the answer to your question is you probably are not addicted to sugar. But the pull that sugar and sweet foods have over you might make it feel like a cycle that is hard to break.
Sugar creates a dopamine response in the brain, and provides a quick hit of energy- eating sugar feels good for the body and the brain.
Sugar has been labeled ‘bad’- it is demonized and highly restricted by diet culture, which makes it that much more appealing and hard to regulate portion sizes.
It is important to recognize that food has an emotional and cultural component- maybe you always ate a delicious treat that Grandma made, you were only allowed to have dessert if you finished your dinner, or your family would go out for ice cream together on the weekends.
Now, you might be using sugary treats to comfort yourself or relieve emotional pain or stress- while also trying actively to restrict sugar for reasons to do with health or body composition.
This creates a feedback loop of restriction and guilt- since we are told that sugar will kill you, ruin your diet and cause a million other problems. When you find yourself craving something sweet, the immediate response is to promise yourself that THAT IS IT- NO MORE SUGAR (it’s bad for me!)… which we all know isn’t going to work.
How do you break a sugar addiction?
Focus on eating mostly whole, real foods- vegetables and fruit, lean proteins, whole grains, legumes, nuts, etc. Include vegetables and lean protein sources in each meal, and make sure to drink enough water. If you are currently dieting (restricting calories or food intake), think about putting your diet on pause. Restrictive eating patterns can trigger cravings and make it harder to kick your sugar habit. Start working on more mindful eating habits, like slowing down in your meals, chewing each bite well, and eating without distractions like the TV or your phone.
There are two parts to breaking a sugar addiction- lifestyle factors and your overall nutrition-
…for long term success in reducing your dependence on sugar, it is important to work on both.
Yes, in the short term you may be able to ‘control’ your love for sugar by simply cutting it out of your diet 100%, but what happens when you go on vacation? Or have a birthday party? Or someone brings you a homemade dessert?
Part 1: Lifestyle Factors
If you are constantly running on 5-6 hours of sleep, breaking your sugar habit will be much more difficult! Low sleep = more sugar cravings. Crappy sleep affects your decision making capabilities and impacts the hormones that control your hunger and satiety levels. Taking steps to improve your sleep can help you reduce your dependence on sugar. Check out this blog for more.
Work on managing your stress.
We often use food as a coping mechanism for different emotions or events, and stress can trigger sugar or sweets cravings. Creating a toolbox of self care that includes non food related coping mechanisms can help you stop turning to sugar when you feel stressed out.
Control your environment.
Especially at first, it can be helpful to reduce the accessibility of sugar in your immediate surroundings. Make sure you have healthy, easy snacks on hand at home and at work, and do your best to choose restaurants that offer quality, nutritious food instead of processed or high salt/sugar/fat options.
Stop following a rigid diet.
A consistently low calorie intake contributes to cravings for carbohydrates, and the psychological effects of restriction can make sugary foods so much more tempting. If you are constantly telling yourself that you need to be ‘perfect’ in your diet, or making deals with yourself like ‘if I finish this whole packet today then tomorrow I’ll be good’… lets talk about how you can get out of this cycle.
Part 2: Nutrition and Eating habits.
Eat enough fruits and vegetables.
Eating more fresh food does two things – it helps keep you hydrated and also you feel more satisfied with your meals. With my clients, we find that simply adding in vegetables with every meal helps them feel more satisfied and reduces their cravings overall.
Eliminate hidden sugars and artificial sweeteners.
Turn yourself into a sugar detective and educate yourself on what you are putting in your mouth on a daily basis. Sugar in your pasta sauce? Unnecessary. Artificially sweetened yogurts? That too. Artificial sweeteners like aspartame, while they are calorie free, contribute to the craving for sweet flavors even though we consider them ‘healthier’ because they are low in calories. This blog post on how to shop healthier can help you in the grocery store!
Eat enough protein and healthy fats.
The ‘standard’ diet tends to be very high in carbohydrates and fat, and lower in lean proteins. Eating enough high quality proteins and healthy fats helps you feel satisfied while also controlling your blood sugar and keeping stable energy levels.
Pay attention when you eat.
If you are constantly distracted while eating, thinking about your dessert, who won the football game, or what you’re doing after work, you’ll finish a meal without actually registering what you’ve just eaten! Read this blog post for more information about why and how to slow down your eating speed.
Reduce the added sugar in your diet, and you’ll taste whole foods even more.
When you start reducing the sugar in your diet and increasing your intake of whole, nutritious foods, the flavors in fruit and vegetables really start to pop.
You might notice flavors that you never knew existed, and food with less salt, fat or sugar will taste amazing. This doesn’t mean you can NEVER enjoy a piece of cake or a cookie- in fact, I hope you DO enjoy those things.
Food cravings increase when food is restricted.
Cutting out sugar from your diet 100% works for very few people in the long term. However, taking some time to ‘reset’ your tastes while making sure to eat enough vegetables, fruit, protein, healthy fats and other carbohydrates (whole grains, legumes, tubers, etc) can help you discover other foods that you love AND improve your overall health.
I HIGHLY RECOMMEND keeping a journal or some sort of tracking method to better understand your relationship to sugar and food in general. If you find that your sugar cravings always appear at a certain time of day, or are triggered by certain emotions or events, the ‘sugar addiction’ is a coping mechanism for something else that is going on in your life.
On the other hand, you may simply find you are ‘addicted’ to sugar because that is what is convenient, easy and comfortable for you to reach for in your everyday life. You might simply need better tools to help you make different food choices.
This isn’t about following yet ANOTHER diet- this is about an overall healthier, sustainable lifestyle.
Breaking a sugar habit takes patience, determination, and an open mind, especially if you are just learning how to include healthier foods in your diet.
Is sugar addiction a problem for you?
This post is also available in: Español (Spanish)