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How to Break a Sugar Addiction

29 June 2022

Those cookies you smell at the holidays, the ice cream that makes your eyes light up in the summertime and the candy jar full of tempting chocolates all have one thing in common — they're loaded with sugar.

There's something about sugar that speaks to your brain, evoking feelings of happiness with each bite of food or each sip of your favorite sugary drink you consume. It's part nostalgia and part chemical reaction. The more you eat, the more you crave, which can lead you down a road of long-term health problems.

We're here to discuss what makes sugar so habit-inducing, how you can kick your cravings and which foods you can substitute to please your sweet tooth.


Why is sugar addicting?

Sugar addiction can turn into a vicious cycle. At first, the sugar you eat tastes good, bringing on a "high" when your brain initiates the dopamine release. Then, the sugar causes your insulin levels to increase, leading to a drop in blood sugar levels. As your blood sugar falls, your appetite and hunger levels increase. Your body then craves sugar again to fix any hunger deficiencies or feelings of unease, even if the fix is only temporary.

What's wrong with sugar, you ask? Everything. Outside of making things taste better, sugar has no nutritional value and is full of empty calories. These calories can create weight problems and, in turn, heighten your risk of heart disease and stroke.

That's only the physical downside. The psychological component is real, too. Sugar releases dopamine and can increase serotonin production, a hormone that can boost your mood.

In reality, sugar isn't any different than comfort food or a satisfying fast food meal loaded with simple carbohydrates. These carbohydrates are high on the glycemic index, meaning it takes less time to turn them into glucose. During this quicker digestion process, you may feel good in the short term, but hunger will quickly set in since sugary foods lack nutrients and leave you unsatisfied.

Kick the sugar habit

According to the American Heart Association, eight out of 10 adults are trying to lower their sugar intake. On average, adults consume around 77 grams of sugar a day. That equals about 60 pounds of sugar over the course of a year. Imagine lugging around a dozen five-pound sacks of sugar. That's what you're putting in your body!

If you're determined to kick your sugar habit, it's OK to stop cold turkey. The Mayo Clinic recommends taking a two-week break from sugar to reset your body. This doesn't have to be an outright cleanse, but try to limit yourself to foods with little to no added sugars or sweeteners — shoot for less than 5 grams of added sugars per serving.

Start by cutting out sugary drinks. They are the biggest culprit, accounting for almost half of the added sugars Americans consume. A 12-ounce can of soda can contain as much as 10 teaspoons of sugar. Think of it this way: The American Heart Association recommends men eat only nine teaspoons of added sugar each day, while women and children should consume six teaspoons. Just like that, you can exceed your daily sugar allotment in five or six gulps of your favorite soda.

The spoonful's and spoonful's of sugar in soda explain why there are so many calories in a drink the size of your hand. There are four calories in a gram, so a soda containing 40 grams of sugar has 160 calories. It's easy to see how calories add up when that 12-ounce soda turns into a 44-ounce drink at your favorite fast food restaurant.

You should also stay away from any baked goods, desserts and candy. Cereals, even the so-called "healthier" options, still have added sugars that can creep up on you. Then there are unassuming foods, such as pizza or pasta sauces, that you wouldn't normally associate with having added sugars. A half-cup of a store-bought marinara sauce contains anywhere from 2 to 4 grams of added sugar, which amounts to a teaspoon.

As a general rule, look for words that end in "ose" — sucrose, fructose, glucose, maltose, lactose or dextrose. This is an easy indicator to spot added sugars. Don't let ingredients that sound better for you fool you, either. Honey, agave, maple syrup, brown rice syrup and juice concentrate are still added sugars.

Making healthier choices

Now that you've reduced your sugar intake, what comes next? For starters, introduce more whole foods — whole grains, fruits, vegetables and lean meats — to your diet. Many fruits and vegetables still contain natural sugars, but the starch and fiber in these foods slows the digestion process and leaves you feeling more full. You can learn more by reading our blog post on healthy carbs.

Eating fruit for an after-dinner snack can satisfy your cravings for sugar without leaving you feeling like you've cheated. Certain fruits, such as grapes and bananas, have high sugar contents. Berries are generally a low-sugar choice, so sneak some blueberries, raspberries or blackberries into your yogurt or oatmeal.

Ditching sugary drinks isn't easy, but try swapping them for water or sparkling water. Better yet, try flavored sparkling water. The carbonation will mimic the fizz from soda without the added sugar or calories. For more on sparkling water, check out our blog post on carbonated drinks.

When making food selections at the grocery store, be wary of hidden sugars that are often added to low-fat products. Things with fat tend to have flavor, so removing fat from products can leave them bland. Food manufacturers add sugars back into products to make them more enjoyable. Any benefit you think you're getting from a product with less fat may be just as bad for you if it's loaded with additives or sugars.

It's important to remember correcting bad sugar habits doesn't mean an outright boycott of sweet foods. Instead, take control by adding small amounts of sugar. For example, drizzle a small amount of honey on your yogurt to treat yourself. It's better than the alternative, which is pre-packaged flavored yogurts loaded with added sugar.

Are artificial sweeteners safe? 

Artificial sweeteners received a bad reputation years ago for their link to cancer, but subsequent studies haven't found a clear connection to causing cancer in humans, according to the National Cancer Institute. 

With those concerns out of the way for now, the FDA has approved five artificial sweeteners for use: aspartame (Equal), acesulfame-K (Sweet One), neotame, saccharin (Sweet'N Low) and sucralose (Splenda).

But just because the FDA approves their use doesn't mean you should swap sugar for artificial sweeteners and keep the same diet. Artificial sweeteners can temporarily help by weaning you off added sugars, but long-term use could play a role in how you view foods.

Think of artificial sweeteners as a concentrated version without the calories — a little goes a long way. According to Harvard Health, the sweetness from artificial additives can make you more likely to develop a sweet tooth and crave sweets even more. Plus, the psychological component can alter the way you think. For example, if you tell yourself you're saving calories by drinking a diet soda instead of a regular soda, you may be more inclined to eat cake for dessert. In this case, you cancel out any benefits of drinking a diet soda with something full of added sugars.

Before you make any dietary changes or consider cutting sugar from your daily routine, connect with an INTEGRIS Health primary care physician to learn more about how to implement changes.


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