Pop quiz: Which of the following is the more addicting, cocaine or sugar?
If you chose sugary candy over “nose candy” — ding, ding, ding — you’d be right. Experts have found that respondents were more addicted, emotionally attached, and physically dependent on sugar, a kid-friendly treat, than an illegal narcotic.
How’s that for a sweet tooth?
But how much is too much? And how can we push past our sugar craving for a healthier, more energizing lifestyle? You’ve got questions; we've got answers.
The simple answer: yes, it is. But it goes deeper than corn syrups and satisfying snacks. Sugar, a group of carbohydrate molecules, triggers the sweet taste receptors on our tongues. The receptors, or tastebuds, send a subconscious message to the brain's cerebral cortex, the message being "More please!" And so, the cycle of dopamine and shoveling more sweets begins.
Ultimately, sugar knocks on the door of our brain’s reward system. The same system that is lit up with dopamine when we’re socializing with friends, having sex, or taking drugs. (Suddenly, Def Leppard’s “Pour Some Sugar On Me'' makes much more sense). And whether it’s sugar or sex, we’re all chasing our next wave of dopamine. It just so happens that sugar is more readily available, shared, and well, in just about everything we eat and drink.
The phrase “sugar addict” may elicit the image of a restless child covered in chocolate stains, but the truth is sugar addicts walk among us.
The Addiction Center reports that 75% of us are indulging in excess amounts of sugar. “People who suffer from constant tiredness may reach for carb-rich sugary foods for a boost. Sugar releases endorphins in the body and combines with other chemicals in the body, resulting in a surge of energy. Once someone mentally connects sugar with help providing energy, they may become dependent on it (usually inadvertently).”
How can you determine if your relationship with sugar is unhealthy or not?
We can look at the numbers. According to the World Health Organization, we shouldn’t be consuming more than 50 grams of additive sugars per day. Though if you ask the American Heart Association, they would suggest that women have no more than 25 grams, and men have no more than 37. For reference, one of your favorite frozen vegan meals could have you reaching your max by lunchtime.
We can also examine your emotional relationship with sugar, too. If you answer ‘yes’ to most of the following questions, it’s high time to reassess your relationship with sugar.
- You experience withdrawal symptoms, like irritability and fatigue, when you try to reduce your intake.
- You use sugar to self-soothe and cope with small, everyday stress. No judgment if you have a bowl of ice cream after a break-up. We’ve all been there. But do you instantly order a pizza at the first sign of stress?
- You experience spikes and dives in your energy levels throughout the day. Hate to break it to you, that plateau or “2:30 feeling” you get every afternoon isn’t a great sign of a balanced diet.
- When it comes to sugary foods and drinks, one bite or one drink is never enough. You find yourself binge-eating or binge-drinking until you’re sick to your stomach or impaired.
- There’s a history of alcohol dependence in your family.
- The idea of giving up carbs is your worst nightmare. Keto fads be damned.
How to recover from a sugar addiction
If you think that you and sugar need to take some time apart, you can take practical steps toward recovery and a more balanced lifestyle.
Mark Hyman, MD, Director of the Cleveland Clinic Center for Functional Medicine, gives hope to those looking to break the harmful habit of excess sugar consumption. “It takes only ten days to detox from sugar. The key is to consume foods that rewire your brain.” While Hyman suggests quitting cold turkey, we understand it’s easier said than done.
If quitting cold turkey isn’t your style, here are steps you can take today to reduce your sugar intake.
- Educate yourself. Not all sugars are created equal. For example, sugar isn’t inherently bad. You can find natural sugars in fruits and vegetables. (So, yes, you still have to eat your carrots and apples.) It’s added sugars in sodas, cereals, and candy bars that we need to steer clear of.
- Record what you’re eating. In the beginning, we recommend recording what you’re putting into your body so that you can perform a dietary audit. Compare your natural sugar intake to your additive sugar intake. When you see it listed, you may be surprised to see that your morning cup of coffee filled with delicious creamer isn’t the best way to start your day.
- Identify easy swaps. After recording what you eat on an average day, see where your diet could benefit from a replacement or a swap. For example, instead of creamer in your coffee, you try ‘bullet coffee’ for a week. You try swapping your nightly chocolate chip cookie for frozen grapes, and you cut back your drinking to 1 or 2 nights per week.
- Limit process foods. Packaged goods certainly have their purpose. They’re typically a fast, convenient option for professionals who barely have time to eat. But they are also going to be the biggest obstacle in the way of your sugar sobriety. When you can reach for something to eat, do your best to eat whole foods like legumes, raw vegetables, and nuts.
- Eat more protein. Health-focused content creator Ria Karen shared in her video on reducing sugar addiction, “To prevent sugar cravings, have enough protein every single meal. I recommend 15-20 grams per meal at a minimum!”
Reducing your sugar intake will lead to more energy, more agency over your health, and a lifestyle that can last you well into older age. Life is unpredictable, but we can control the fuel we put in our bodies.