There was a time when you could find me hiding in the bathroom, sneaking handfuls of M&M’s. Or climbing on a stool to reach the top of my pantry for a cookie from my hidden stash of goodies.
Does this sound like you or someone you know?
When my children were younger and followed me around everywhere—and I mean everywhere—I had to be covert with my snacking as I would chow down on sweets. My goal was always to teach them about moderation, proper nutrition, and what it meant to be a healthful eater. I didn’t want to be another parent who was talking the talk but seen not walking the walk.
Despite that, I found myself longing for Snickers every time they were ready for their naps. Any moment away from them was a chance for me to dig into my stash, and I did this for a long time until…
I noticed my children sneaking candy too.
This aha-moment led me to explore my own sugar addiction. And I vowed to tackle it head on, not only to save myself, but to be a better example for my impressionable kids.
Why Does Sugar Addiction Exist
It’s a tough question to answer. Everyone’s sugar cravings are unique, but there are more similarities than differences, as you’ll see.
I craved sugar because it was my reward—a reward for completing a task, for going to the gym, for keeping my children alive another day. Okay, so maybe not that last one. 😉
I was raised to believe candy, junk food, and even soda were special treats for a job well done. How many times did you hear growing up that you couldn’t have dessert until you finished your vegetables? Probably too many to count.
Sweets are used as a tool to enhance non-reward-seeking behaviors. For instance, eating veggies, which are nutrient dense and provide long-term health benefits, typically does little to provide short-term pleasure (although I have a few recipes that might change that). How many of your kids eat Brussels sprouts and thoroughly enjoy them in the process? Not many, I imagine.
Sweet-tasting foods encourage and condition other behaviors that are healthful. For that reason, they’re beneficial. Yet, as you can see from my own experiences, the lines can (and most likely will) become blurred. People can start using snacks to make up for the fact that they’re not getting pleasure out of other things, like their work, home life, or relationships.
We’ve touched on the psychological component of cravings, and there’s more on that later. But there’s also a physical/physiological component to cravings. In fact, some studies suggest malnutrition and/or nutrient deficiencies lead to cravings. Dr. Colleen Huber, a naturopathic physician and owner of Nature Works Best Clinic, has said,
“Refined sugars deplete the body’s supplies of B vitamins, chromium, magnesium, zinc, and manganese, and the resulting deficiencies then manifest as cravings for other foods.”
Her book titled Choose Your Foods Like Your Life Depends on Them dives into the topic of choosing foods which nourish your body, rather than deplete them of necessary nutrients. It’s definitely worth the read if you’re looking for a book to dig into.
Below you’ll find deficiencies linked with sugar cravings, as well as what to consume instead of sugar to potentially combat them.
- Lacking carbon? Eat more fresh fruit.
- Don’t have enough chromium? Eat broccoli, grapes, cheese, chicken, or beans/legumes.
- Need phosphorous? Eat chicken, beef, eggs, poultry, liver, fish, dairy, nuts, legumes, and grains.
- Sulfur? Eat cranberries, cruciferous vegetables, kale, cabbage, and horseradish.
- Tryptophan? Eat cheese, liver, sweet potatoes, raisins, lamb, and spinach.
Dr. Mark Hyman also takes a unique approach to cravings. He suggests food addiction (and specifically sugar addiction) may be less of an emotional issue and more of a biochemistry issue, explaining:
“…to break free from these addictive substances, to stop overeating, and to reprogram your biology, you need to detox from the drug-like foods and beverages you’ve been hooked on.”
You may have heard sugar addiction being compared to drug addiction. This is due to the fact that when you consume sugar, your dopamine receptors are blunted. What does this mean for you? It means you need more sugar to experience satisfaction each time. Much in the same way one might become intolerant to a drug or other substance. Once a tolerance is developed, more is required each time to experience that “high.”
Emotional Eating and Sugar Addiction
In my experiences as a coach, I’d say a majority of people experience cravings as a coping mechanism for emotional/psychological reasons. You see, eating is a pleasant experience, and that experience should be coveted. At the same time, we have to be careful with eating, especially sweets, because it can be used to mask how we’re really feeling. It can also be used to increase feelings of well-being when other means fail to do so.
For instance, it’s not uncommon for folks to gravitate toward sweet food when they’re feeling depressed. This is normal to some extent, as sweet food is gratifying. Yet, eating sweet food when feeling sad/depressed could help create or solidify an unhealthful habit loop. This would be great for folks who gravitate toward eating kale or broccoli when they’re sad. Unfortunately, that’s not the case for most of us. Knowing this, it’s important to look at the real reasons you’re experiencing cravings.
Also of interest is the physiological component. When it comes to environmental cues or triggers, there’s a ton to be said about the “dependence” aspect of things. While this is not meant to delve into a discussion on disordered eating, it does provide a good illustration of the chemical/physiological basis for food addiction, which is very real.
Simply put, there is something to be said about the combinations of fat, sugar, and sodium in many processed foods. Those very foods, which are known as hyperpalatable foods, stimulate “feel-good” hormones and responses in the brain that help buffer negative emotions. As such, they can even become “drug-like” for those struggling to cope with stress.
The bottom line is emotional eating is psychological, physical, mental, emotional, etc. It is holistic. So it’s important to get to the root of why you are gravitating toward certain foods (e.g., sugars, junk food), before you can put an action plan into place for how to replace these “sugar addiction” emotions with healthy habits.
Out of Sight, Out of Mind
One place to begin is by removing the temptation, so you won’t have the option to consume it. Stephen Guyenet conducted his own scientific experiment, which he documents in the book The Hungry Brain that’s helpful in explaining this.
In this study, the first group of participants were instructed to consume as many healthy meal replacement shakes as they wanted throughout the course of the study. This was the only thing they could eat. The shakes were not sweetened and were somewhat bland. Yet they covered all the essential vitamins and nutrients necessary to be healthy.
At the end of this portion of the study, this group actually ended up consuming significantly less calories than their normal diet. None of the participants complained of hunger or cravings, and each of them agreed they were able to sustain their energy and perform at their best levels.
The second group of participants had free reign to consume “junk food” and were instructed to consume high-calorie, sugary snacks as often as they wanted throughout the duration of the study.
This group ended up consuming in excess of 1,000 additional calories than they normally would and had a harder time deciphering between hunger and cravings. Upon completion of the study, this group had a stronger desire to reach for unhealthy snacks, as opposed to the first group, which had no desire to seek out unhealthy foods, but were more drawn to healthier options.
This book dives head first into what triggers our food cravings, how we can manage those impulses, as well as the role our brain plays in what we eat and how much we eat.
What Happens When We Eat Sugar?
When we consume sugar, it stimulates dopamine (i.e., our feel-good hormone) and travels into our stomach. Once there, the digestive enzymes begin to break the sugar down into glucose, which is shuttled into your pancreas, or fructose, which ends up in your liver.
Too much glucose in your pancreas gives us what is commonly referred to as a “sugar rush.” This inevitably ends in a “sugar crash” because as Newton discovered—what comes up, must always come down.
This sugar crash is due to your brain reacting to too much glucose by producing serotonin, which makes you sleepy. Your pancreas, on the other hand, reacts by producing insulin, which blocks leptin (i.e., your hunger hormone), thereby making you feel hungry or perhaps crave more sugar, regardless of whether or not you have already eaten.
You see, sugar is not only dangerous to consume due to the fear of cavities or excess weight gain, but it can wreak havoc on your gut health. Studies indicate sugar delays the digestion of foods in your stomach, which creates discomfort by drawing water from your fecal matter. This can result in symptoms associated with irritable bowel syndrome, constipation, and bloating.
How to Stop Craving Sugar
The key to optimal health and wellness essentially lies in how well your body can maintain the balance between good and bad bacteria in your gut. Consuming a diet high in sugar has been shown to promote the growth of bad bacteria in the gut, hindering the growth of good bacteria. While probiotics such as Pro-X10 may help facilitate the improvement of healthy bacteria in your gut, the first line of defense is a healthy diet.
While I would like to offer a simple solution for how to overcome a sugar addiction, it requires some self awareness to discover what’s going on behind the scenes. Generally speaking, you could kick your sugar addiction cold turkey. Will it be easy? Nope. But nothing worth having ever comes easy. Will it be worth it? Absolutely!
Practice makes perfect—or so they say. I wouldn’t necessarily strive for perfection, but rather consistency. If you make a conscious effort to remove sugar from your diet and replace it with wholesome ingredients that provide your body with good nutrition, you will begin to reap the benefits almost immediately.
For me, the out of sight, out of mind approach worked best. And once I beat the sugar addiction, I was able to feel how great my body was really designed to feel. And it feels amazing!