Visions of sugar plums dancing in your head is a cute concept and all, but if you've been cursed with a persuasive sweet tooth, you know the damage it can do to your healthy living goals. If you have a weakness for the sweet stuff and feel powerless to pass up cookies, candy and cola, you're not alone—and you're not imagining it.|
Becky Hand, SparkPeople's registered dietitian, says there's a chemical reason for those sugar cravings. "When we eat sugar, there is a release of the brain chemical called dopamine," says Hand. "Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that activates the brain’s pleasure center, making you feel happy. So you eat more sugar because you want to feel that pleasure sensation."
As you repeat the behavior, whether it's sprinkling sugar into your morning coffee or reaching for a chocolate treat every afternoon, your brain adjusts, essentially building up a tolerance for the sweet taste. Ultimately, you have to keep increasing the amount of sugar and/or the frequency of your splurges to continue experiencing the attractive reward.
Is Sugar Truly an Addiction?
Medically speaking, no, sugar isn't considered to be addictive according to the technical definition, but that doesn't mean its consumption should be taken lightly. Some preliminary research shows that sugar can stimulate the brain’s reward center in a manner that is similar to recreational drugs. Plus, it doesn't help that sugar makes an appearance in practically everything we eat and drink these days, even in seemingly innocent foods like pasta sauces, energy bars and yogurt.
Hand suggests monitoring your sugar intake and the impact it may be having on your wellness goals. "If sugar seems to be controlling your life, then make a plan to cut back," she recommends. When you reduce your sugar intake, though, Hand warns that you could experience intense cravings for the first couple of weeks. As your taste buds adapt to less sugar, those cravings should start to subside.
When fitness trainer Kasey Shuler cut out caffeine and sugar, she experienced painful withdrawal headaches for around 10 days. "After that, it felt like my entire body and emotions calmed down," she says. "I had fewer mood swings, was satisfied after meals and felt a greater sense of well-being."
9 Tips from People Who Kicked the Sugar Habit
Does the thought of saying sayonara to sugar have you feeling far from sweet? Difficult as it may sound, it is possible to kick the habit while keeping your sanity intact. Try these tips from real people who have succeeded at what may have initially seemed impossible.
1. Enjoy in moderation.
"I have to do with sugar what I do with every other food—I have to control it. I tried Sugar Busters years ago and, like all the restrictive things I've tried, it was a big fail in the end. The balanced and common sense approach used by SparkPeople is the only thing that works for me. I don't quit anything for good except overeating and unhealthy habits." NITEMAN3D
As our expert Dean Anderson points out, moderation is key to maintaining a balanced diet. Although some foods do offer more nutritional value than others, you don’t necessarily have to cut out everything you enjoy. “Refined sugar isn't evil or bad—it can have a place in a healthy diet,” says Anderson. “It's important to know what you need nutritionally and where you can find it, so you can take charge of balancing your needs for pleasure, nutrition and fuel.”
2. Increase the frequency of meals.
"Skipping meals led me to crave sugar. Today, I aim for three to five meals per day." Registered dietitian nutritionist Gabriella Vetere, founder of MACROBALANCED
While it may seem like the calories saved by skipping meals will cause you to lose weight faster, experts agree that this strategy usually backfires. When you deprive your body of food for an extended period of time, you’ll be more likely to crave the temporary boost from refined sugars and overindulge next time you eat.
3. Eat more protein.
"I increased my protein intake to 90 grams per day. Protein is helpful in maintaining consistent blood sugar and helps me feel full longer. When I go to protein first, I tend to stop thinking about sugar." Gabriella Vetere
Eating a protein-rich diet has been shown to reduce cravings for less healthy foods, including sugar. In one study, people who added protein to their breakfast reported fewer cravings for “savory and sweet” foods. The protein eaters also had higher levels of dopamine—which means they reaped the rewards of eating yummy foods, even when those foods weren’t loaded with sugar.
4. Stop using sugar as an energy boost.
"When feeling tired, I used to eat a leftover cookie on the counter or a piece of candy to help me feel more awake. To replace this habit, I poured myself a seltzer water with lime juice for a zip to my taste buds and walked around to get the blood pumping." Personal trainer Kasey Shuler
While sugar may give you a quick rush of energy initially, the ensuing "crash" can leave you feeling even more tired than before you consumed it, according to a 2006 study. You’re better off reaching for complex carbohydrates like veggies, fruits and whole grains, which pack plenty of nutrients in addition to energy-boosting glucose.
5. Reduce sugar intake gradually.
"As I slowly switched to less sugar and no artificial sweeteners, I was able to release the addiction and became more sensitive to the taste. I can now even taste the sugar in carrots!" Gabriella Vetere
Although artificial sweeteners have the benefit of delivering the taste of sugar without adding calories to your diet, one concern is that that they could cause people to seek out the "lost" calories from other foods. Regular consumption also conditions your taste buds to expect the extra sweetness, rather than training them to enjoy clean, whole foods.
6. Identify hidden sugar sources.
"To help my body forget about sugar, I had to stop eating it without knowing it. That meant checking labels for hidden sources of sugar, like any type of syrups, sucrose, dextrose and maltose. I was surprised to find sugar in dressings, bottled sauces and the vast majority of packaged foods." Kasey Shuler
You might be surprised to find out how much sugar is lurking in your favorite foods. The typical American consumes around 31 teaspoons (124 grams) of added sugar every day, which is equivalent to 500 extra calories. SparkPeople’s registered dietitian Becky Hand offers her expert tips on determining sugar content and maximum sugar intake.
7. Reset your taste buds.
"The most important thing to do when trying to kick a sugar addiction is to stay away from sugar long enough to 'reset your taste buds.' Personally, I did this by eating mainly natural, unprocessed foods for a month. Most of the food I ate was bought in its natural form and cooked at home. Instead of focusing on not eating sugar, I focused on eating real, healthy foods, like lean steak, crunchy red bell peppers and sweet raspberries. By focusing on what you can eat instead of what you can't, you'll find it much easier to avoid the sugar." Weight-loss expert Neil O'Nova
Candice Kumai, author of “Clean Green Eats,” recommends taking 10 days off processed sugar to start the process of resetting your taste buds. See her other tips for training your body to crave clean, whole foods instead of empty calories.
8. Replace sweet with savory.
"I threw my taste buds a curveball: When I craved something sweet, I ate something savory like a pickle or olive. This satisfied my need for something intense while not reinforcing the sugar craving." Nutrition coach Phillip Barone
When you’re overcome by sugar cravings, reach for something savory instead. These 10 savory recipes offer so much flavor that soon you'll be saying, “Sugar who?”
9. Eat more fermented foods.
"A strategy I have used myself—and also recommend to clients trying to reduce sugar cravings—is to start including fermented foods in the diet. Foods like raw sauerkraut, fermented beets, kimchi and miso are good sources of probiotics. Probiotics help to improve gut health and can naturally diminish sugar cravings by working to restore the balance of bacteria in the gut. Fermented foods also have a naturally sour taste, so, often, having a forkful of raw sauerkraut would keep me from then wanting to grab a chocolate bar." Nutrition coach Danika Schweim
Fermented foods—such as yogurt, miso, kefir, sauerkraut, fermented tofu and pickled foods—contain probiotics, also known as the "good" bacteria that help achieve healthy digestion and diminish sugar cravings. Instead of reaching for candy or cookies, try incorporating some of these nine fermented foods into your diet.
With a few smart swaps and some good old-fashioned willpower, it is possible to cut back your sugar intake and curb even the strongest cravings. Between improved heart health, a brighter mood, more restful sleep and a slimmer physique, you'll likely find that the benefits far outweigh the momentary sweetness.