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Breaking Your Relationship with Sugar

Kim Stoeger, MS Clinical Nutritionist

Have you ever tried to break a sweet tooth addiction only to find yourself still craving cookies, soda, or other refined carbohydrates? Do you want to know why it is hard to break your sweet tooth addiction? The answer is simple: Because it is a real addiction.
So while you might beat yourself up inside for not being strong enough to fight your sweet tooth, you should cut yourself some slack because it’s not “a piece of cake.”
Research shows that sugar is a highly refined substance that actually acts a lot like heroin when it hits the brain. Although the idea that sugar is addictive was controversial among scientists for years, studies have shown that sugar affects the brain chemistry and thus might be expected to cause addictive behavior. Sugar has also been shown to cause withdrawal symptoms and cravings. The behavioral effects are similar to the neurochemical changes in the brain that also occur with addictive drugs. Both sugar and the taste of something sweet activate beta endorphin receptor sites in the brain, the same receptor sites that are activated by heroin and morphine.
Needless to say, sugar is usually found in simple carbohydrates, which are not exactly “healthy” foods. They are considered high glycemic index (GI) foods which produce high levels of blood sugar. A diet that consists primarily of high GI foods can lead to carbohydrate cravings and an overall increase in appetite–potentially resulting in unwanted weight gain. These foods can cause large fluctuations of both blood sugar and insulin levels, leading to a vicious cycle of overeating (even overeating foods that are good for us). And studies have shown that each time you give into this cycle, “the chronic consumption of a diet with a high glycemic load is independently associated with an increased risk of obesity, developing type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and certain cancers.”
As far as choosing products without refined sugar, unfortunately, so many of these “better alternatives” contain artificial sweeteners, which studies have shown do not ultimately control your cravings for sweets. Some people do use these to bridge a gap here and there, but should never be used long term. The reason being is that they are unnatural, and hundreds of times sweeter, tricking your body into thinking it craves even more of that sweet flavor. So replacing things with sugar-free and diet beverages will definitely not break the sugar addiction. The body sees sugar as sugar, and you would just end up compensating by taking in more calories later on.
To break your sweet tooth addiction, focus on products that contain natural forms of sweeteners (i.e. stevia) in small amounts. Also slowly replace one unhealthy sweet food (i.e. cookies) with another food that is naturally sweet like fresh fruits, small portions of dried fruits, Greek yogurt and unsweetened dairy alternatives, etc. Even adding things like a little honey, cinnamon, or cocoa powder could be helpful in satisfying a sweet tooth in a healthy way. Be creative! Break the cookie cycle!
Sugar and Fat Bingeing Have Notable Differences in Addictive-Like Behavior. Journal of Nutrition in 2009.
Ciok, J., Dolna, A. The role of glycemic index concept in carbohydrate metabolism. Przegla̧dlekarski 63 (5), pp. 287-291. 2006.

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