Breaking the Sugar Addiction
Considering that the average adult consumes 22 teaspoons of sugar per day (more than 3 times the amount recommended), it’s safe to say most of us are addicted to sugar. This amount seems like a crazy amount, but to be honest, it adds up quickly. Even with a good diet, you may be eating sugar-rich foods. You could easily consume this amount with so-called “healthy” foods: a bowl of raisin bran cereal for breakfast (18 grams added sugar), yogurt for a snack (13 grams added sugar), a salad with chicken and raspberry vinaigrette dressing (5 grams added sugar), a granola bar for a snack (11 grams added sugar), and a bottle of sweet tea with dinner (44 grams added sugar). Let’s discuss more about why we crave sugar, what happens when we consume excessive amounts of sugar, and how to kick the sugar habit.
Why do we crave sugar? Our bodies, especially our brains and muscle, use glucose or sugar for energy; sugar is a quick and easy way to get that energy. When we consume excessive amounts of sugar, our bodies change it into fat and store it, which serves to help us survive when food isn’t readily available. Sugar consumption causes increased dopamine in the brain, which leads to an additive effect. This same biochemical process is behind other addictions, so we shouldn’t take sugar addiction lightly. Unfortunately, our brain perceives sugar as a reward, so the more we crave, the more we eat. Therefore, finding healthy substitutions without added sugar is essential to break the habit and make this change maintainable.
Why excessive sugar is harmful? When we consume sugar in desserts or refined carbohydrates like white bread, pasta, or rice, our body digests and absorbs the sugar quickly because there is no fiber, fat, or protein to slow it down. This results in a sharp blood sugar spike and inflammation. Our pancreas releases insulin which helps the sugar enter our cells, and sometimes our body overcompensates, leading to a sugar low. When this happens, we might feel shaky, nauseous, or fatigued, and our brain craves something sweet to boost energy. The inflammation related to the continuous cycling of blood sugar highs and lows is associated with many chronic diseases, such as type II diabetes, metabolic syndrome, PCOS, cardiovascular disease, non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, and obesity, not to mention chronic fatigue and depression. Because sugar increases dopamine levels (heroin has the same effect) over time, the brain requires more and more sugar for you to receive the same satisfaction and pleasure. Eventually, sugar begins to deplete your dopamine levels, leading to depression. Additionally, those with IC tend to also struggle with gut dysbiosis, leaky gut, gut infections, candida overgrowth, and chronic UTIs, all of which are linked to a diet high in sugar. The bad bacteria in your gut and bladder feed off the sugar, so cutting sugar out can really serve to reduce IC symptoms and improve gut health.
Sugar Kicking Protocol:
Make the decision to cut out sugar: It’s important to identify your why and keep this motivation at the forefront of your mind. For some, writing a positive message on a sticky note and putting it on the pantry or fridge as a reminder may be helpful.
Decide how to quit.
Cold turkey: While this option is challenging due to withdrawal symptoms, it’s the fastest and most efficient way to kick the sugar habit, and with adequate water, symptoms such as headache, fatigue, and irritability should subside within a few days or weeks.
Weaning: This option is often the most realistic and maintainable. To start, consider cutting out one food with added sugar each week. You can skip dessert, avoid sugar in your coffee, or find healthy substitutes for your favorite breakfast options.
Read food labels: Every packaged food will have a nutrition facts label, which includes grams of sugar. With recent changes to the label, most companies will specify added sugars and the current recommendation is less than 24 grams of added sugar for women and less than 36 grams of added sugar for men.
Recognize ingredients: When looking through the ingredient list, sugar may be labeled in a variety of ways, such as agave nectar, brown rice syrup, high fructose corn syrup, dextrose, cane sugar, glucose, lactose, malt syrup, diglycerides, disaccharides, isomalt, maltodextrin, molasses or sucrose.
Retrain your brain: Once we cut out sugar, our taste buds begin to perceive naturally sweet foods as sweeter.
Studies suggest artificial sweeteners can lead to increased sugar cravings, so it’s essential to focus on foods without any added sweetness.
Rethink your drink: Focus on unsweetened tea, black coffee, and water, avoiding soda, sweetened tea, and other sugar-sweetened beverages.
Refocus on healthy sweet foods: Consider enjoying whole fruit as a substitute for a sweet treat or dessert.
Pair protein-rich foods with each meal/snack: When we have protein-rich foods such as meat, fish, eggs, or nuts, it takes longer to digest, which helps us digest and absorb natural sugars in fruit and whole grains slowly.
Fill up on fiber: Similar to protein, fiber helps us digest food slowly. Consider filling your plate with fiber-rich foods such as whole fruits, veggies, whole grains, beans, nuts, and seeds.
Limit “healthy” sugars: While honey and maple syrup are natural, they still result in blood sugar spikes. Though stevia and monk fruit won't raise your blood sugars, they alter your sweetness perception. Limiting these sweeteners as you break the sugar addiction and be mindful while using them in the future is important. I encourage everyone only to add them where absolutely necessary, as it’s a slippery slope.
Move your body: When we’re active, our cells open up to our natural insulin and help us naturally lower blood sugars, especially when we’re active after a meal.
Manage stress: stress raises cortisol, which can increase hunger and cravings
Prioritize sleep: Getting 7-9 hours of sleep allows our body to better listen to hunger and fullness cues and prevent giving in to cravings
Sample low-sugar meal plan: -Breakfast: ½ cup raw oatmeal with 1 cup fresh fruit, a handful of nuts, and cinnamon -Lunch: grilled fish with a salad -Snack: veggies and hummus -Dinner: 1 cup quinoa or wild rice with grilled chicken or fish and steamed vegetables -Dessert: baked apple or pear with cinnamon
Breaking a sugar addiction is tough, but you don’t have to do it alone! If you’re ready to kick the sugar habit, we’re here to support you – reach out to us to begin your journey to better health.