Everyone looks for a sweet fix now and then, but are you really addicted to sugar? Here’s how to tell if your sweet tooth is a real problem, and how to quit for good.
Sugar is addictive, fattening, inflammatory, and void of nutrients. Yet, we overlook all of its poorest qualities because it simply tastes so good.
Sugar addiction is a legitimate problem, but how do we know when it’s actually too much?
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Is Sugar Really “Addictive”?
While referring to sugar as “addictive” is controversial, research shows that sugar does have an addictive response in the brain. (1) This is because sugar influences dopamine, a neurotransmitter that is part of the reward loop in the brain. When you eat sugar, you feel good, which makes you want to eat even more. (2)
As the pattern continues for you to get those feel-good hits, the brain begins to release lower levels of dopamine because it assumes you’re going to continue getting the steady stream of supplementation. (3)
This is where quitting sugar begins to feel nearly as hard as quitting smoking or other forms of addictive substances. When you quit, the dopamine hit from your sugar intake isn’t there, but the brain can’t make more dopamine fast enough. As a result, you feel down, perhaps even depressed and fatigued, and your brain begins to send out cravings for sugar because it is well-acquainted with the fact that sugar has been your dopamine booster. (4)
Of course, this doesn’t mean that sugar is good for you – there are far better ways to maintain healthy dopamine levels. Still, handling the cravings when you quit sugar becomes a battle of will. As a sugar detox coach, I’ve seen people succumb to their cravings over and over, only to have a much harder time trying to quit the next time.
An even bigger problem with sugar is that it’s basically 100 percent socially acceptable – and when you do try to quit, people think you’re crazy. “Why aren’t you eating sugar?” “Sweets aren’t that bad for you!” “Just eat it in moderation!”
The problem for many people who’ve come to rely on sugar as their dopamine booster is that “moderation” isn’t possible, and so, like many other addiction rehab programs, it does need to be an “all or nothing” approach. That can become even more difficult to do socially, since the thing you’re quitting isn’t illegal or even frowned upon.
Why Quitting Sugar Is Essential + 13 Damaging Effects of Sugar
The detrimental effects of sugar are well-proven by research. So even though your coworkers, friends, or family members might think it’s “crazy” to quit sugar, when it’s not something you can effectively moderate in your life, it’s time to start viewing it for what it is: an addiction, and a roadblock to true health.
Sugar has been proven to be problematic for:
- Cardiovascular disease, increasing the risk for heart attack significantly (5)
- Obesity and weight management (6)
- Acne and other skin imbalances and disorders (7)
- Type II diabetes and insulin/glucose problems (8)
- Increased cancer risk (9)
- Depression (10)
- Premature aging (11)
- Increased levels of fatigue (12)
- Liver problems and disease (13)
- Inflammation (14)
- Kidney problems and disease (15)
- Cavities and periodontal disease (16)
- Dementia and Alzheimer’s (17)
This list is far from exhaustive. Sugar has the potential to damage every system in the body, down to the cellular level. It offers no nutritional value – and still, it’s a regular part of most people’s diets.
7 Signs You Might Have a Sugar Problem
For some, sugar can be eaten in moderation when rounded out with a healthy intake of vegetables, protein, and healthy fats. If you eat a significant amount of vegetables, say, 10 cups per day, a small amount of sugar once in a while will barely make a dent in your overall health, unless you have prevailing or chronic health issues. But if you barely eat any vegetables, and you eat a diet high in carbohydrates already, then any amount of sugar you add is not in moderation to the rest of your macronutrient intake.
When people say that they eat sugar “in moderation”, they often mean in moderation of itself. Instead of having four sodas a day like they used to, they cut back and have only two instead. When you’re reducing sugar intake, you also have to boost the things that counter the negative effects it has, like eating more vegetables and omega-3 fatty acids.
So how do you know if you have a sugar problem, and if you need to eat it in moderation or not at all?
You may need to quit sugar completely, in every possible form, for a significant amount of time if one or more of the following is true:
- You have sugar every single day and start to have cravings/withdrawal feelings within a few hours of missing a typical sugary treat.
- You admittedly “self-medicate” with sugar to handle stress.
- You think about sugar all the time, and always know where your next sugary treat will come from.
- You get near-immediate headaches if you’re a few hours late in having a typical sugary treat.
- You eat sugar daily, but get less than 2 cups of vegetables per day.
- You are overweight and eat a high-carb diet.
- You have thyroid or other hormone problems and rely on a daily “sugar hit” to ward off depression or sadness, usually in the evenings.
If you can relate to any of the above statements or scenarios, then you may need to make some dramatic changes to alter your dependence on sugar. (18)
3 Steps to Beat a Sugar Addiction
When it comes to quitting sugar, it can feel like an impossible battle. If you identify as a sugar addict, and you’ve ever tried to quit, you already know this. But there are ways to set yourself up for success and to minimize feelings of withdrawal.
1. Eat your nutrients first.
Before you quit sugar cold turkey, you need to boost the nutrients in your diet that will help to support a balanced gut, which will help to minimize sugar cravings and feelings of withdrawal.
While some cravings are produced from the brain’s reliance on sugar for dopamine, other cravings are derived from gut microbes that rely on sugar to survive. In the gut, there is a complex balance of good-to-bad bacteria, and the bad guys rely heavily on sugar, junk foods, and processed carbs. When you cut these out, the gut bacteria send out strong cravings because it’s literally do-or-die for them. When you understand that cravings are produced as a physiological response within your body – and not only from an emotional need or dependence on it – it becomes easier to mentally fight them.
To pre-support your body’s liberation from sugar, boost fermented foods and add in gut-healing and nourishing items like collagen, bone broth, and plenty of vegetables. Omega-3 fatty acids, like those found in salmon and sardines, are also essential for combating inflammation. Do this for at least a week before you plan to quit sugar.
2. Incorporate dopamine-boosting activities into your routine.
While your brain might be accustomed to getting regular boosts of dopamine from your sweet tooth, there are many other ways to get a healthier fix. Try one or more of these natural ways increase dopamine levels:
- Increase your protein intake and eat more of it throughout the day, including for breakfast (19)
- Take a daily probiotic supplement (20)
- Walk (or do another aerobic exercise) for 10-20 minutes daily (21)
- Create and stick to a healthy sleep routine, with seven to eight hours of sleep each night (22)
- Listen to music, play an instrument, or otherwise engage the right-brained creative center of your brain (23)
- Practice meditation (24)
- Get natural sunlight and outdoor exposure regularly (25)
3. Quit cold turkey.
After you’ve boosted the nutrients and habits that you need to replace your sugar-dopamine connection, it’s time to quit for good. For someone who’s truly addicted to sugar, weaning off too slowly will rarely work.
When you’re quitting sugar, you need to quit all forms, and that even includes natural forms of sweeteners like honey and coconut sugar, and in most cases, regular use of stevia. Even though stevia doesn’t impact blood sugar, for true sugar addicts, stevia can perpetuate the dependence because it still tells the brain it’s getting a sugar hit.
While you don’t have to quit forever, three to six weeks is needed to break the daily reliance on sugar. As they say, it takes 21 days to create a habit, so you need to be completely free from it for at least that long. But if you have serious sugar dependence issues or health problems you want to address, longer or even permanent sugar removal is a better approach. Once you’ve removed the initial supply from your life, cravings will go away.
If you find that you’re having trouble sticking to a no-sugar plan, find someone to be your accountability partner, or seek professional nutritional support.
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