Health & nutrition insights.
Are You Addicted to Sugar?
Today we are talking about SUGAARRR (cue the Maroon 5 song). Sugar is one of THE most consumed items across the US. Ideally, the American Heart Association would like for us to stay around 25g or less of ADDED sugar daily. This is about 4-5 tsp of sugar per day. This seems reasonable, but did you know the average person consumes 17 tsp per day?! This is about 68 g of sugar, almost triple the amount we want to hang around on any given day. So let’s break down the two main types of sugar, why it can have addictive properties, and if you are feeling dependent on it…what the heck do we do?!
To start, there are two main categories of sugar: natural & added sugar.
- Natural sugar are sugars that occur naturally in foods (fruits, vegetables, and dairy products). These sugars are typically accompanied by other beneficial nutrients like fiber, vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. Examples include fructose in fruits and lactose in milk.
- Added sugar refers to sugars that are added to food and beverages during processing. These sugars are not naturally present and are often in the form of refined sugars (processed foods, sodas, candies, baked goods, sweetened beverages). Regular consumption of foods high in added sugars can contribute to health issues such as obesity, type 2 DM, CVD, high triglycerides, and more.
Now that we have briefly defined the difference, let’s get into the nitty gritty of why sugar is hard to pass up. Sugar can absolutely become a fixation. Why is this the case? There could be a few reasons:
- Physiological factors: Consuming sugar triggers the release of dopamine, a neurotransmitter in the brain associated with pleasure (involved in other addictive things such as drugs, gambling, etc. ). This release creates a pleasurable sensation, leading to…..you guessed it, wanting more. Over time, repeated sugar intake results in a higher tolerance. Higher tolerance = larger amounts needed to achieve the same level of pleasure.
- Sugar is highly palatable: What does that mean? That it tastes damn good in your mouth (donuts, cookies, cakes, etc.) Sometimes when we eat foods that are highly palatable, it makes us feel like we need more of it (aka triggering those addictive thoughts). Do you hear people talking about craving broccoli? Not very often…it’s because food companies can’t pump it full of sugar, salt, fat, etc. to make it more palatable. Processed sweet and savory items are desirable due to high palatability, then spiking your dopamine when you have them (making you happy) and often leaving you wanting more.
- Psychological factors: Sugar can be emotionally comforting and provide temporary relief from stress/emotions. This emotional attachment can lead to using sweets as a coping mechanism.
- Marketing: Sugar is EVERYWHERE. It makes it hard to resist. The convenience and constant exposure to sugary foods and drinks can contribute to the development and maintenance of not so sweet habits. That’s why it’s important to learn how to control/regulate it (that’s where we can help!).
- Habit formation: Consistently consuming sugary foods and beverages can lead to the development of a habit. For example, feeling like we always need a sweet after dinner. Once a habit is established, it can be challenging to break, even if we are aware of the negative effects on our health.
- Underfueling or lack of balance: If you haven’t eaten enough, your brain may think of fast/quick energy for fuel. This often turns into something highly processed for a quick energy boost that is low fiber/protein/fat and will leave you feeling more hungry. Sugar consumption may increase when we lack quality fuel throughout the day, when we don’t eat enough, when we lack protein/fiber/fat and when timing is off.
- Insulin: Another reason we may be going back for seconds on sweets is due to insulin. The production of insulin is necessary to regulate blood sugar. If insulin is doing its job, glucose will come down fairly quickly when you ingest sugar. That can cause people to feel like they are “crashing” after a sugar rush. That insulin-induced crash can trigger our brain to say that the body needs more sugar, and it will send the message wanting us to eat more.
So now that we know why sweets may have us in the palm of its hand, let’s talk about how we may be able to break free. The quick answer is that everyone is different. However, here are some tips to consider:
- Set a clear goal: Define why you want to reduce sugar intake. Having a clear goal and understanding the reasons behind it can provide motivation and focus
- Gradually reduce sugar intake OR get it out of the house?: Trying to quit sugar cold turkey can be difficult for many people (but for some it may be the best option). Most find success in gradually reducing sugar intake over time. You could start by cutting back on sugary snacks or beverages and gradually decrease the amount of sugar you add to your meals or recipes.
- Identify triggers and plan alternatives: Pay attention to situations that trigger your sugar cravings. Once you identify these triggers, plan healthier alternatives. For example, if stress leads to sugar cravings, try stress-relieving activities like exercise, meditation, or engaging in hobbies.
- Focus on whole foods and what you are eating during the day: Choose whole, unprocessed foods that are naturally low in sugar. Focus on incorporating fruits, vegetables, lean proteins, whole grains, and healthy fats into your meals. These foods provide essential nutrients and can help satisfy your hunger, reducing the desire for sugary treats. Foods high in protein/fiber can help you feel fuller for longer and stabilize your blood sugar levels, reducing cravings.
- Stay hydrated: Sometimes, thirst can be mistaken for hunger/cravings. Stay hydrated by drinking plenty of water throughout the day. If you crave sweetness, try infusing water with fruits.
- Find healthier sweet alternatives: Instead of turning to sugary snacks or desserts, experiment with healthier alternatives. Satisfy your sweet tooth with naturally sweet foods like fresh fruits, dried fruits, or unsweetened yogurt with berries.
- Get enough sleep: Lack of sleep can disrupt your hormone balance, leading to increased cravings. Aim for 7-9 hours of quality sleep each night.
- Manage stress: Stress can contribute to cravings and emotional eating. Practice stress-management techniques such as exercise, meditation, deep breathing, or engaging in activities that bring you joy and relaxation.
- Be mindful when shopping: don’t shop hungry and stick to a shopping list. If you want to buy something sweet, do so consciously. For example: buying individually wrapped dark chocolates so that you can portion control and enjoy a sweet treat without overdoing it.
Overall, we all know that sugar is yummy. However, it can be tricky to navigate portion control and not overdoing it. But if we work to set realistic and sustainable ways to manage it, we can absolutely have our cake (in moderation) and eat it too!