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Is your New Year’s resolution to lay off the sweet stuff already in the rearview mirror? Breaking sugar addiction can take trial and error. It’s every bit as challenging as overcoming alcohol or drug use — in some ways, even more so. However, people do it all the time, and you can too.
If you haven’t succeeded in the past, you may need a different approach. Understanding the science of the sweet stuff provides agency as you see the reason behind the compulsions that drive your behavior. Understanding psychology lets you treat yourself with grace, as you would a friend, instead of beating yourself up, which often makes things worse.
If you’re ready to reclaim your health and sense of control, here’s how to break sugar addiction and six strategies for sticking to your guns.
The reason that it is so hard to break a sugar addiction is that the substance activates your brain’s reward circuitry, making you feel good when you eat it — at least, until the guilt kicks in. You might have read that sugar is as addictive as cocaine! Guess what? It’s true in a way, as both affect brain chemical levels, although the science is complicated.
It’s good news, however. Recent studies show that both cocaine and sugar activate similar brain regions upon initial exposure. These changes affected neuroplasticity, causing an increase in certain structures associated with processing rewards. However, the brains of those on drugs showed a greater level of reorganization.
What does this mean? A single exposure to sugar lights up your brain, similar to a cocaine hit. However, this effect fades with repeated exposure to the sweet stuff. Conversely, it increases in the brains of people exposed to cocaine, meaning you crave more and more to get the same effect.
The good news is that you’re unlikely to go on a fatal sugar bender. Eventually, the resulting sick feeling will compel you to stop eating, which doesn’t happen with cocaine. The bad is that once the icky side effects of too much sugar fade, you seek out another “hit.” Here’s where mindfulness comes into play, as many things drive humans to eat besides hunger.
Why did you last eat? If you’re in tune with your body and have relative freedom over your schedule, you might answer, “Because I was hungry.” However, other equally valid responses include:
One of the biggest challenges you face in breaking a sugar addiction is that you have to eat. Unlike people addicted to alcohol or drugs, you can’t go “cold turkey” with food. Further mucking up the mix is that you don’t only eat when you’re hungry — people use food for various purposes, including emotional regulation or coping with challenging feelings.
To break sugar addiction, therefore, you must get mindful. Before you put something in your mouth, ask yourself:
Am I eating because I am hungry or is it something else?
If you’re hungry, you can tame your tummy-tiger with nutritious foods. If it’s something else, you know it’s time to pause and consider other coping strategies, such as those described below.
Here’s the deal: your body breaks down everything you eat into smaller parts. Carbohydrates become glucose for energy, protein becomes amino acids and fats transform into glycerol and various fatty acids. Some foods take longer than others to digest, affecting your hunger levels. For example, even complex carbohydrates break down more quickly than protein or fat, providing ready energy for fight or flight.
Your body requires a steady supply of glucose for energy. The blessing and curse of sugar is that your body doesn’t have to work to process it, resulting in a blood glucose spike. That’s one reason you crave the sweet stuff — it gives you a rapid energy boost in a pinch. However, too much of it throws your body’s systems out of balance. Your pancreas can’t make enough insulin fast enough to keep up, causing disease, including Type 2 diabetes.
Therefore, tune in mindfully. If hunger prompts cravings, a snack high in protein, fat and complex carbs should satisfy you. For example, a cup of yogurt with granola and chia seeds provides healthy probiotics, lean protein and nutrients your body needs for good health.
However, if only a chocolate bar sounds good, you probably crave sugar in response to mental or emotional, not physical stress. That means you need a different strategy. You can break sugar addiction by treating it like any other type of substance abuse. Although you cannot stop eating, you can cut out foods with added sugar without harm. Here’s how.
You know the physical science behind sugar addiction. Now, it’s time to tackle psychology. Your first step, as many 12-step problems cite, is admitting you have a problem. Only then can you move through the stages of breaking your addiction, which are:
Please note: You might not work through all these stages linearly. It’s common, for example, to flip-flop between the contemplation and preparation stages, doing well for a while before a relapse. What matters is not letting one setback derail your progress — chalk it up to a bad day and try again tomorrow.
Now that you’re ready to dig into the nitty-gritty of how to break your sugar addiction, take these steps.
It’s yoga mat or zafu time, although you can practice this mindful exercise anywhere. All you have to do is ask yourself one question, then sit back and nonjudgmentally observe the responses that arise:
Remember, any response is valid — please don’t bog yourself down by judging yourself. For example, criticizing yourself for loving chocolate bars or cake is unproductive. You know when you lie to yourself, so accept that loving sweets is a part of who you are — but you choose to engage with the side that prefers good health.
Are there bartenders who have successfully kicked alcohol addiction? Yes. However, there are also scores of others who leave the profession because the temptation is simply too great.
Most people find it helps to remove temptation. Declare a moratorium on buying foods with added sugar. If you live with others who consume such foods, dedicate a separate cabinet or pantry storage area for their goodies to keep them out of sight.
Be kind to your human side, too. Although some people succeed by going cold turkey, others prefer to gradually wean themselves or reserve a small, permissible treat. For example, you might let yourself chew gum for a taste of the sweetness you crave without all the calories.
A solid support system is a must for beating addiction — it’s why 12-step programs are so popular. You can find food addiction support groups even if you have a supportive family and friends. They can be valuable sources of connection if you feel isolated.
What is a trigger? Although they’re often used to describe trauma responses, their simplest explanation is a pattern of thoughts, feelings and behaviors that occur after you encounter a stimulus.
Distracting yourself from your triggers can depend on your environment. For example, practicing yoga is an excellent choice — but you aren’t likely to whip out your mat at the office when the urge for a donut strikes. While you can rely on healthier coping mechanisms like working out sometimes, it helps to have a list you can turn to anytime, anywhere, even in public, such as:
The more you learn about what excess sugar consumption does to your body, the better. For example, you might also decide to eliminate bleached flour, which contains a chemical byproduct that further harms your pancreatic beta cells, the ones responsible for making insulin.
Your body responds to this substance as if it were sugar, which is bad news for your health. It definitely impacts your blood sugar levels, which drives cravings. Saying no to bleached flour might make it easier to keep your commitment to no added sugars by easing the physical urge to snack.
Would you shame someone for seeking help with drug addiction? Of course not. You’d support their progress. Remember, sugar lights up your brain in much the same way, at least at first, causing changes in how you process all the various stimuli bombarding you constantly. A little professional guidance could help you identify triggers you haven’t yet recognized and develop new coping strategies that fit your lifestyle.
Additionally, beating sugar addiction can make feelings you previously stuffed down with food arise in force. For example, many people overeat to cope with the trauma of sexual abuse, and they need guidance to manage the emotions that emerge.
You can be addicted to sugar. Fortunately, you can overcome your addiction using many of the same techniques used by people who struggle with other substance use disorders.
Follow the tips above to break your sugar addiction and stay clean. You’ll improve your health and feel more in control of your life.