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Addicted to Sugar? 7 Steps You Need to Take Before You Can Break Free

Posted: 09/19/2013 8:28 am

Last month, I devoted my blog to reviewing some of the more surprising adverse health outcomes associated with excess sugar consumption. While most of us know that sugar is not the best substance to load our body with, many individuals struggle with tactics in actually breaking free of their addiction to sugar -- and yes, it can truly be an addiction.

In fact, the results of one study showed that a greater neurological reward was provided by intense sweetness than by the drug cocaine. Similar findings occur when we look at withdrawal from sweet as well, indicating that getting off sugar may cause the same neurological symptoms as withdrawing from nicotine, morphine and alcohol. Now more than ever, we are seeing more and more associations linking addictions of sugar and drugs in the same bucket.

Additionally, we all face the unfortunate reality that sugar is readily available in our food supply as a cheap fix for our cravings, 24 hours a day, in thousands of different venues and forms. Finally, we often use sugar as a reward (kid stops throwing a tantrum at the store, kid gets cookie at home) and the main food substance during celebrations (when is the last time you saw birthday candles sticking out of broccoli florets or a 1-year-old baby smashing lentils in his or her face for the quintessential first birthday picture)?

So given these studies and the vast availability of this stuff, is there any hope? Can you really break free from the chains of sugar addiction? The answer may be yes, and it doesn't necessarily include admitting yourself to a rehab facility for six weeks. The start of your sugarless healing could perhaps come in the form of seven easy steps.

Step 1: Don't replace real sugar with artificial sugar.
In an effort to provide us with the sweetness we crave without the excess calories we dread, manufacturers created artificial sweeteners. The first, saccharin, was discovered in the 1870s by a scientist at John Hopkins University. He wasn't trying to come up with a fake way to sweeten our foods, in fact, back then food actually was actually that -- food. He was actually working on coal tar derivatives and as the story goes, some of the white substance spilled onto his hand.

Later that evening, the substance on his hand transferred to the roll he was eating at dinner making it exceptionally sweet. After that fateful spill on the hands, the world of food has never been the same. Artificial sweeteners have been blamed for a lot of things that ail us -- but most recently, artificial sweeteners and their effect on our ability to lose weight have come into focus.

As it turns out, a lack of calories doesn't always equate to a lack of consequences. A 2013 study in the journal Diabetes Care found that artificial sweeteners can actually alter the way the body metabolizes sugar. A 2008 animal study found that rats given artificial sweeteners ate more calories throughout the day and as a result, gained weight. The researchers found that the ingestion of artificial sweeteners essentially caused confusion between the gut and the brain. The authors of the study stated that, "sweet foods provide a 'salient orosensory stimulus' that strongly predicts someone is about to take in a lot of calories. Ingestive and digestive reflexes gear up for that intake but when false sweetness isn't followed by lots of calories, the system gets confused. Thus, people may eat more or expend less energy than they otherwise would."

While these studies provide incentive from a weight approach to kick the fake sugar habit, it's what artificial sweeteners are doing to your sugar-laden diet that is most concerning for the true sugar addict. Why? Studies show that replacing regular sugar with artificial sweeteners is akin to kicking your cigarette habit by switching to cigars. You're still getting the sweetness you crave, so you're never really taking away the sweet taste that keeps calling your name. Chances are, you'll go back to the real stuff. I often tell my sugar addict patients on day one that in 60 days, I want them to crave salmon over licorice. They look at me like I have two heads of course, but after three months of truly sticking to a no-sugar plan, their cravings do actually turn.

Step 2: Start an exercise regimen and add milk to your diet.
Eating lots of sugar has been shown to enhance reward mechanisms in the brain, thus making it difficult to break the habit. Rats that were given sucrose for example, wanted more of it and self-fed with it if it was available in their cage. While the comparison may seem extreme, I see this as no different than the individual who keeps candy bars, cookies and hard candies in their home or office desk. If it's there, and you've got a preference for it, chances are high you'll eat lots of it and chances are even higher that you'll feel pretty good after eating it -- at least for a little while, until you crash and need more. But what if you could boost one of your most efficient acting "feel good" effects through foods other than sugar?

One study for example, showed that consumption of whey protein (a major protein found in milk) increased serotonin (a feel-good hormone first isolated at the Cleveland Clinic that is associated with mood elevation). Other studies have found an association between exercise and serotonin increase as well.

Step 3: Say "no" to fat-free products.
Here's the low down on fat-free foods. Fat (something we like that tastes really good) goes out and sugar (another thing we like that tastes really good) goes in. Why? Because manufacturers are selling you on the fact that the product is fat-free -- not sugar-free. Huge culprits include fat-free salad dressing (honey or high fructose corn syrup often coming in as the second or third ingredients), fat-free cookies or cakes (angel-food cake for example has a devilish 20 grams or more of sugar per slice), fat-free puddings, muffins and reduced-fat peanut butter are also offenders.

The solution? Keep your salad dressings and peanut butter the full-fat variety. The monounsaturated fats in them will actually help to increase your overall sense of satisfaction and slowly move away from the cookies, cakes, muffins and puddings by trying out some of the other tactics in this article.

Step 4: Improve your sleep habits.
A 2013 study found that our circadian sleep cycles have a whole lot to do with whether we reach for a cookie late at night. We also are less equipped to resist a high-calorie treat (sugar-laden doughnuts come to mind) if we are sleepy throughout the day, according to another study. An additional study found that when individuals were sleep-deprived, their reward activation centers in the brain were actually greater, thereby making it more difficult to say no to the candy bar. Bottom line, while diet and exercise have a lot to do with staying away from the sweets, neither of them will be as effective if you're not getting enough ZZZ's.

Step 5: Keep snacks close by.
One tactic that's worked with many of my patients is keeping healthy snacks on hand. I had one patient who told me that she'd be driving her car and would see an ice cream shop and without even realizing it, would be entering the parking lot to get a fix. Her impulses were reduced though, when she started to keep trail mix in her glove compartment. She could easily grab it and have a few satisfying bites of peanuts, raisins and whole-grain pretzels. Just this simple action distracted her from the ice cream shop. Figure out what your trigger is and have something on hand to distract yourself. It could be an apple in your purse, a bag of healthy popcorn in your pantry or a string-cheese stick in your office refrigerator.

Step 6: Chew gum.
A 2009 study found that individuals who chewed gum hourly and for at least three hours in the afternoon reduced their cravings for sweet snacks. While the study used a sugar-free gum variety, which does in fact contain artificial sweeteners, it nonetheless provides an interesting tactic to perhaps lower your sweet cravings.

Step 7: Never forget the benefit to your body.
One of my patients has a serious sugar addiction. The challenges with these patients are helping them gain a greater ability to lose their sugar cravings without gaining weight. One thing this patient told me was the secret to her success was remaining constantly aware of what sugar was doing to her body. She told me she's been able to stick to her no-sugar plan partly because her desire to be around for her grandkids had become more powerful than her desire to eat a bunch of gummy bears. Remain focused and never forget that reducing your sugar addiction has benefits well beyond the perfect body.

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