Sugar is a drug and there's a dealer on every corner!
After receiving a box of scrumptious cookies, two hours later you're sitting alone in a pile of crumbs. Are you a bad person? Did your willpower fail you? Have you done something wrong? No, no, and no. Sugar is complex. It interacts with the brain in a way similar to highly addictive drugs. It plays on emotions, and it tastes so darn good. However, excessive consumption can lead to a decrease in overall health and is linked with many chronic lifestyle diseases. Learning to stop sugar cravings begins with an understanding of where they come from. So let’s explore the root cause of sugar addiction and how you can decrease your reliance on it.
What causes sugar cravings?
While a relationship with sugar is complex, there are the four areas that I focus on with my clients to get to the root cause of a sugar addiction.
- Imbalanced Diet. The Standard American Diet (SAD) is rich in carbohydrates. Foods like chips, french fries, pizza, hamburgers, cookies, barbecue sauce, corn, peas, and soda are staples of the SAD and are quickly turned into sugar in the body. Large amounts of quickly digesting carbohydrates increase sugar in the blood stream, and insulin is released. This is great news because insulin pulls sugar into the cells to create energy; however, high levels of sugar provide too much energy, in which case the sugar is stored as fat. Once sugar is quickly pulled into cells, the body feels the need for more energy and will start to signal the brain to crave quickly digesting carbohydrates. This is one part of the sugar addiction pathway. It’s also important to take into consideration the quality of our food. With conventional farming methods, the nutrient content of the soil is not what it used to be. There are many key minerals in vegetables, whole grains, and fruit—but if they are not present in the soil, they will not be present in these foods. Chromium is an important mineral in insulin pathways and research shows that it may help people with insulin resistance process carbohydrates more efficiently.
Solution: Eat a balanced diet. I tell clients to aim to fill half of their plate with veggies, one-fourth of their plate with a clean source of protein, a half-cup of complex carbohydrates, and one to two tablespoons of high quality fat. If you experience cravings immediately after you eat, that usually means you that consumed insufficient protein or fat, and you had too many carbohydrates and too much salt. If your cravings hit in the afternoon timeframe, this could indicate insufficient protein. In addition to a balanced diet, some may benefit from a multivitamin that can help fill in any nutritional gaps the diet is lacking. I work with clients to assess personalized needs for individual nutrients. In some cases, clients that are experiencing insulin sensitivity will be recommended certain products that contain beneficial trace minerals.
- Fast-Paced Lifestyle. It seems like everything we could ever want or imagine is at our fingertips—which is both exciting and overwhelming. Constant connection means higher expectations about what we can accomplish in work, in our relationships, and in social media. With so much going on, it can be hard to make the time to prepare balanced meals or find the right foods to eat. Leaning on convenience foods like chips, candy, and prepackaged meals is a great solution when hunger hits, but it is not fueling health in the long run. Convenience foods are filled with empty calories: calories that don’t nourish our bodies but rather keep us feeling satiated for a short period of time.
Solution: Arm yourself with quality snacks. While you won’t always have time to whip up a snack in your kitchen, having some things on hand can ensure that you keep your blood sugar balanced and don’t eat foods that spike your insulin levels. These are some of my favorites: Epic bars, Dang unsweetened toasted coconut chips, Brick bars, Epic jerky, and an apple or pear with almond butter to-go packs.
- Bacterial Imbalance. If you follow me on social media, read my blog, or have met me in person, then you know my obsession with gut health. I don’t think a day goes by where I don’t enthusiastically talk about the gut microbiota and the benefit of healthy bacteria. Well, guess what? An imbalance in good bacteria and bad bacteria, much like an imbalanced diet, can lead to a cycle of sugar cravings. We all have bad bacteria or yeast in our bodies. They live there synergistically with good bacteria. However, bad bacteria are opportunistic and will flourish in response to stress, medications (e.g., antibiotics and contraceptives), and an imbalanced diet. Signs that you may have imbalance in bacteria can include sugar cravings, digestive irregularity, reflux, thrush, skin rashes, psoriasis, rosacea, brain fog, fatigue, and detoxification problems.
Solution: The most effective way to treat bacterial overgrowth is through diet modification and supplements. Following a balanced diet, eliminating processed sugar, and decreasing your fruit intake to two times per day are the best ways to start. A functional medicine practitioner can help get you on the right balance of botanicals and enzymes to break down yeast and bad bacteria and clear it out of your body. When the removal is complete, it’s important to repopulate the gut with healthy bacteria. I like to focus on increasing fermented foods in the diet like kimchi, sauerkraut, kefir, miso, and yogurt. It’s also extremely important to examine the levels of stress in your life. Stress causes your body to release cortisol, a hormone that directly impacts digestion. Taking time to breathe deeply, meditate, take a bath, get a massage, sit with your legs up against the wall, or color are all important methods to decrease daily stress.
- Emotional and Behavioral Attachment. This is probably one of the harder aspects of sugar addiction to address. It is very personal and can manifest in different ways. From an emotional perspective, it’s important to understand that sugar acts in a similar manner to psychoactive drugs. Neurons in the brain fire in relationship to sweet, salt, and fat intake. When sugar is ingested, it stimulates the release of natural opioids and dopamine, creating a fleeting high. The body builds a tolerance to these chemicals and continually need a larger hit to feel the high, leading to a dependency on sugar. We often need that hit when stress levels are high, boredom sets in, or there is an overall feeling of sadness or depression. Sugar can provide a quick change in our emotions based on the chemical reactions that take place in the brain. MRI scans show that pleasure centers of the brain light up when they are given sugar, even more than cocaine! Behavioral attachments to sugar get a little more complex. Some cravings are related to habits that create an expectation for sugar at a certain time. For example, eating sugar after a meal can become more habitual than craving-centered. Sometimes the anticipation of completing the habit is more powerful than the actual sugar consumed. Social settings or parties are centered around the need to let loose and celebrate, and using sugar as a reward is very common.
Solution: Define your WHY. When you embark on a lifestyle change, it is very important to identify why you want to make the change. Think about it from an internal point of view. How do you want to feel? Why is it time to make this change? How do you want to transform your life? When your answer reflects a deeper emotion—e.g., to feel happy, to feel empowered, to feel whole—there is a better chance of you sticking to the change when the going gets tough. Reminding yourself that you are making this change because you want to shift your feelings can help you stay on the right path. Retrain your habits. Habits are not something we were born with; they are something we were trained to do. Just like we were taught to ride a bike, we can train ourselves to use something other than sugar as a reward.
The Bottom Line
Sugar is complex. In order to stop sugar cravings, you must examine your diet, your bacterial balance, and your habits. It is not easy to make lifestyle changes, but awareness is the best place to start. Now that you are empowered to make these changes, think about the easiest place in your life to get started. Remember that change is slow and can be uncomfortable. Surround yourself with a supportive community, define your WHY, and start your journey to stop sugar cravings today!