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While most of us know that it’s not a good idea to load our bodies with sugar, many struggle with how to actually breaking free of their addiction to sugar — and, yes, it can truly be an addiction. In fact, one study showed that intense sweetness provided a greater neurological reward than cocaine! Similar findings show that kicking sugar may cause the same neurological symptoms as withdrawing from nicotine, morphine and alcohol. Now more than ever, we are seeing more comparisons between sugar and drugs when it comes to addiction.
To make matters worse, we all face the unfortunate reality that sugar is readily available in our food supply as a cheap fix for our cravings — 24 hours a day. And, culturally, we often use sugar as a reward (e.g., kid stops throwing a tantrum at the store, kid gets a cookie at home) or as the quintessential celebratory food. (When is the last time you saw birthday candles sticking out of broccoli florets at a birthday party?)
Given what we now know about sugar from these latest studies, as well as the vast availability of the stuff, you may be asking yourself, “Is there any hope?” Can you really break free from the chains of sugar addiction? The answer may be yes! Here’s how to begin distancing yourself from sugar and start healing your body.
Step 1: Don’t replace real sugar with artificial sugar
In an effort to provide the sweetness we crave without the excess calories we dread, manufacturers created artificial sweeteners. These sweeteners have been blamed for a lot of things that ail us, including the idea that artificial sweeteners can actually alter the way the body metabolizes sugar, according to a 2013 study in the journal Diabetes Care. A 2008 animal study found that rats given artificial sweeteners ate more calories throughout the day and, as a result, gained weight. The researchers found that the ingestion of artificial sweeteners essentially caused confusion between the gut and the brain.
If you’re trying to lose weight, these studies might motivate you to kick the sugar habit. But it’s what artificial sweeteners are doing to your sugar-laden diet that is most concerning. Replacing regular sugar with artificial sweeteners is a little like kicking your cigarette habit by switching to cigars. You’re still getting the sweetness you crave, so you’re never really avoiding the sweet taste that keeps calling your name. Chances are, you’ll go back to the real stuff. I often tell my sugar-addict patients on day one that in 60 days I want them to crave salmon over licorice. They look at me like I have two heads, of course, but after two to three months of truly sticking to a no-sugar plan, their cravings actually do change.
Step 2: Start an exercise regimen, and add milk to your diet
Eating lots of sugar has been shown to enhance reward mechanisms in the brain, thus making it difficult to break the habit. That means if you keep candy bars, cookies and hard candies in your home or office desk, you’re going to want to eat them. If it’s there and you’ve got a preference for it, chances are high that you’ll want to eat lots of it, and chances are even higher that you’ll feel pretty good after eating it — at least for a little while, until you crash and need more. But what if you could get that rush of good feelings another way, without all the negative effects of sugar?
One study, for example, showed that consumption of whey protein (a major protein found in milk) increased serotonin (a feel-good hormone), and other studies have shown a boost in serotonin levels through exercise.
Step 3: Say no to fat-free products
Here’s the lowdown on fat-free foods: Fat (something we like and that tastes really good) comes out, and sugar (another thing we like that tastes really good) goes in. Why? Because manufacturers are selling you on the fact that the product is fat-free — not sugar-free. Notorious culprits include fat-free salad dressings, cookies, cakes, puddings, muffins and reduced-fat peanut butter.
The solution: Eat the full-fat varieties of salad dressings and peanut butter. The monounsaturated fats in them will actually help to increase your overall sense of satisfaction. Just stay away from the cookies, cakes, muffins and puddings altogether.
Step 4: Improve your sleep habits
A 2013 study found that our circadian sleep cycles have a whole lot to do with whether we reach for a cookie late at night. We are also less equipped to resist a high-calorie treat (sugar-laden doughnuts come to mind) if we are sleepy throughout the day. Bottom line: While diet and exercise have a lot to do with staying away from the sweets, neither of them will be as effective if you’re not getting enough zzz’s.
Step 5: Keep snacks close by
One tactic that has worked with many of my patients is to keep healthy snacks on hand. One patient told me that she found herself pulling into ice cream shops while driving, without even realizing it. Her impulses were reduced when she started to keep trail mix in her glove compartment. She could easily grab a few satisfying bites of peanuts, raisins and whole-grain pretzels. Figure out what your trigger is and have something on hand to distract yourself. It could be an apple in your purse, a bag of healthy popcorn in your pantry or a stick of string cheese the office refrigerator.
Step 6: Chew gum
A 2009 study found that people who chewed gum hourly, and for at least three hours in the afternoon, reduced their cravings for sweet snacks. While the study used a sugar-free gum variety, which does in fact contain artificial sweeteners, it does provide an interesting tactic to perhaps reduce your sweet cravings.
Step 7: Never forget the benefit to your body
One of my patients with a serious sugar addiction told me that her secret to kicking the habit was remaining constantly aware of what sugar was doing to her body. She told me that her success was due, in part, to her desire to be around for her grandkids. Remain focused, and never forget that reducing your sugar addiction has benefits that go well beyond achieving the perfect body.
Kristin Kirkpatrick, MS, RD, LD is a Wellness Manager at the Cleveland Clinic Wellness Institute, and oversees the nutrition component of Cleveland Clinic’s Lifestyle 180 program, which is focused on disease reversal. Read more of Kristin’s blog posts.