Curbing your Sugar Addiction
Sugar. You merely say the word in a restaurant, and it gets people immediately sharing their diet secrets. And hey- I’m guilty too! Whether it’s good ole’ table sugar, honey, agave, aspartame, splenda, and even sugar alcohols like xylitol… there is SO much drama around these substances! And for good reason.
Sugar is one of the most controversial food items and nutritional debates of the century. And honestly, you really see two sides of the spectrum: you’re either completely anti-sugar promoting a ketogenic diet as the cure for all chronic diseases, or you’re pro-sugar and fail to recognize the negative health effects of eating candy every day. And most importantly, at the core of the debate is the concept of sugar addiction.
Is Sugar Really Addictive?
To understand if sugar can be addictive for the human body, you have to understand the physiological and psychological aspects of addiction. In particular, some research has demonstrated that sugar elicits similar neurochemical responses in the brain as addictive drugs like cocaine. In particular, repeated exposure to sugar releases a flood of dopamine and feelings of well-being. This is why many health experts and researchers suggest that sugar is just as addictive as alcohol, cocaine or even heroin. Sometimes these experts even argue that certain foods are worse for you than smoking cigarettes.
With this in mind, the Diagnostic Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, a reference book used by mental-health professionals in the United States, does not currently have any type of clinical diagnosis for food addictions… including sugar addiction. This is because there are few clinical research studies in humans on this topic, coupled with the argument that food is a necessity to life as compared to other addictive substances like illicit drugs and tobacco. Proponents of this statement even believe obesity itself should be added to this manual as a psychological illness.
And more recently, the public was made aware that the sugar industry had paid scientists back in 1960 to shift the blame from sugar to saturated fats as the culprit of many chronic diseases. Once these reports from JAMA Internal Medicine became available, the conversation on sugar addiction definitely hit headlines more powerfully.
Even with all this data, as a registered dietitian I immediately think about the dieting industry. The whole success of this 66 billion dollar industry centers around pseudoscience, fear mongering, ideal body image, and negative self esteem. Quite frankly, sometimes I feel the debate around sugar addiction feels quite similar to the conversation around diets.
And let’s say sugar isn’t “truly” addictive… it’s still indisputable the impact food engineering and food marketing has on what so many people eat. Put it this way; there are specific jobs in the food industry dedicated to manufacturing food products that have the “perfect” ratio of sugar and salt to make you want them!
So What Should I Eat?
If I’m going to be honest, this is a really hard question to answer. For most people, committing to cut back on added sugar consumption and instead emphasizing real, whole foods are key to improving your health. Period. End of story!! At the same time, the more active you are… the more your body burns carbohydrates as an energy source; which is why competitive athletes rely on simple sources of sugar around the time they workout.
Put simply… nutrition is way more complicated than this! Want to know what I care more about? Eating a balanced diet emphasizing whole foods. Yes I said it.. It’s not the sexy answer you were looking for in this blog post but it’s exactly what is actually crucial to your health, physique, and even performance in the gym.
I will say this though; sugar is sweet! Especially artificial sweeteners. In fact, consistent consumption of sugar and artificial sweeteners can alter your taste preferences due to how sweet they are… making you dislike natural foods even more! For this reason, I recommend these 3 tips to break your sugar habit and commit to a healthy lifestyle:
- Avoid added sugars when possible. This means learning to read nutrition facts labels and ingredients lists to avoid added sugars. They are often disguised as “syrups” and ingredients that end with the word “-ose” such as glucose, sucrose, and fructose.
- Kick your soda habit. Honestly the easiest way to cut back on unhealthful sugars is to avoid one food (or should I say drink) in particular… soda. As of 2000, carbonated sodas provide 22% of the refined and added sugars in our food supply. Not to mention, soda provides “empty calories” in the sense that it does not provide high quality vitamins and minerals like other foods. And lastly, it’s pretty obvious that 200 calories of pure sugar from soda does not satisfy you like 200 calories from a balanced snack that contains carbohydrates, proteins, and fats.
- Focus on whole foods. Instead of dwelling on cutting sugar from your diet, understand that the balance of all the nutrients and foods you consume overall is far more important than individual food choices. And it’s not that you have to avoid all foods with carbohydrates and sugar in them like candy, ice cream, or even your favorite pumpkin spice syrup at Starbucks. You can still have these foods and still be truly healthy. What I care more about is that my clients are making more informed choices, applying moderation, and predominantly choosing the most nutritious sugar sources like those from whole foods such as sweet potatoes, quinoa, fresh fruit, and brown rice!