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Sugar Addiction: How to Recognize and Stop Excessive Sugar Intake

By Fitoru | 12 July 2019
lady standing on weight scale looking at junk food

Many Americans know they eat too much sugar, but what’s the difference between an occasional sugar overdose and a sugar addiction? If you get sugar cravings or dearly treasure your sweet treats, you might actually have a sugar addiction. Let’s explore exactly what sugar addiction is, and how to recognize and beat it so you can protect your blood sugar levels and your overall health.

What Is a Sugar Addiction?

Though it’s not a drug with the same amount of devastation attached to it as opioids or cocaine, sugar still functions like a drug for us humans. Sugar is legal and socially acceptable, and yet still dangerous to our health if consumed in too-high quantities. Sugar triggers the same reward centers of our brains as street drugs do, according to experts. While liking sugar is different than needing it, too much added sugar really could cause a true addiction. What makes sugar such an addictive substance?

Addiction Defined

Addictive behavior has to do with with the opioids and dopamine released by our brains when we take in an addictive substance. The neurotransmitter dopamine is part of what’s known as the “reward circuit” in the brain. Activities that release extra dopamine, like consuming a drug, cause us to feel a pleasurable “high” that by nature human beings are inclined to repeat. The more the behavior is repeated, the more your brain will adjust, releasing a little less dopamine each time. To chase that high, the repeated behavior becomes more frequent, and the drug of choice being consumed goes up in amount. This cycle results in substance abuse.

Researchers have suggested that sugar can be more addictive than cocaine, activating opiate receptors and triggering the reward circuit. Sugar addiction can then lead to compulsive behaviors that cause hormone imbalances, headaches, dangerous weight gain, and more. Sugar consumption will build up a tolerance just like any other drug, and solidify certain neuropathways that, over time, cause sugar cravings to be hardwired into the brain.

A 2013 study out of Connecticut College found that Oreo cookies activated more pleasure center neurons than cocaine (interestingly, the rats ate the filling of the cookies first, just like many humans do). Likewise, this 2008 study from Princeton University showed that not only could rats develop a sugar dependency, but this dependency also correlated with several addiction facets, including binging habits, cravings, and withdrawal symptoms.

Yet another study from 2013 found that the link between sugar and street and illegal drugs is not only shocking, but also true, and researchers asserted that the effects of sugar are “more rewarding and attractive” than those of cocaine.

Long story short, sugar does have addictive properties, and added sugars and sugary foods can lead to addictive behaviors that are wildly dangerous to your health.

What Is Added Sugar?

Lowering your consumption of “free sugars” to below 10% each day can drop your risk of tooth decay and obesity according to the World Health Organization (WHO). Free sugars include both natural sugars found in foods like fruit or honey, as well as added sugars like corn syrup, sorghum, cane sugar, glucose, dextrose, sucrose, and maltose in commercially produced foods.

The average American has been found to regularly consume 14% of their calories from sugar. Let’s put that into perspective: consuming 5% of your calories from sugar is equivalent to 6 teaspoons of straight sugar. 

Most of that sugar consumption comes from beverages. Drinking fruit drinks, sodas, energy drinks, sweetened teas and coffees, or alcoholic drinks involves guzzling a lot sugar, but other foods contain sugar too. 

Refined sugar you might expect to find in cookies, ice cream, doughnuts, etc., but it’s also hidden in granola bars, salad dressings, and fat-free yogurts—foods many people nosh on when they are trying to eat healthy. Added sugars are often a silent threat, and weening your taste buds off of sweet foods is harder than people expect.

What’s So Dangerous About Sugar?

Added sugar can be found in just about everything—from peanut butter to pasta sauce—and just because you’re not eating cake doesn’t mean you’re not still being dosed with sugar. Maybe it wouldn’t be such an issue if all that did was make our food sweeter, but too much sugar consumption can create chronic conditions like obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and more. Read on to discover the dangers of excessive sugar.

1. Weight Gain

Obesity is on the rise with every passing year, and the added sugars in beverages and foods only exacerbate the problem. Simple sugars like fructose in sodas and juices can actually increase feelings of hunger more than the glucose naturally obtained from starchy foods like carbohydrates

Consuming excessive amounts of fructose has been linked to a resistance to the hormone leptin, which is the hormone that tells your body when you’re no longer hungry and it’s time to stop eating. That means sugary drinks not only don’t satisfy your hunger, but can also increase it, leading to excessive weight gain from liquid calories and more.

Studies show that those who drink sodas and sugary juices consistently weigh more than people who don’t, and that kind of weight gain is scientifically linked with an increased risk of heart disease and diabetes.

2. Acne

A diet full of sugary foods and refined carbs (white bread, pasta, rice) has been linked to a higher risk of acne. High glycemic index foods spike your insulin and blood sugar levels, which increases your oil production, inflammation levels, and androgen secretion, all of which contribute to acne

Low-glycemic foods can reduce acne while high-glycemic foods increase its risk, and one study from 2012 showed that teenagers who frequently ate food with added sugars had a 30% higher risk of developing acne. This leads researchers to believe there is a causation effect between sugar intake and acne, and though it can be devastating to have unhealthy skin, this is one of the milder dangers of eating too much sugar.

3. Cancer

Excessive amounts of sugar may increase the risk factors for certain cancers. Sugary food intake can lead to obesity, itself a risk factor for cancer, and high-sugar diets can increase levels of inflammation and insulin resistance, two more risk factors for cancers of the esophagus and the small intestine.

As an example, this 2011 study found that women who ate cookies or sweet foods more than 3 times a week were 1.42 times more at risk of developing endometrial cancer than women who ate sugary foods like sweet buns less than 0.5 times each week. Those little bites of sugar really add up week after week and month after month, and could be the straw that breaks the camel’s back when it comes to cancer.

4. Heart Disease

Excessive sugar intake can contribute to heart disease, which is the top cause of death across the world. By increasing inflammation, obesity, blood sugar, blood pressure, and triglyceride levels, sugar intake raises the risk for heart disease

Sugary drinks have been linked to the development of atherosclerosis (the clogging of the arteries with fatty deposits), and one study from 2013 found that those who ingested 17-21% of their calories from added sugar products had a whopping 38% greater chance of death from heart disease than did people who ate sugar calories at 8%.

5. Diabetes

Probably no surprise here: too much sugar increases your risk of developing type 2 diabetes. Diabetes diagnoses are on the rise in recent decades, and sugar consumption is a huge contributor. Obesity, too, increases one’s risk for diabetes, and sugar intake is a culprit across the board.

Long periods of high-sugar consumption lead to insulin resistance, which causes your blood sugar levels to rise regularly, spikes which can lead directly to developing diabetes. A 2013 population study found that for every 150 calories of sugar consumed (about the amount in one soda can), the risk of developing diabetes increased by 1.1%, and those numbers can add up very quickly.

Sugar addiction explained, plus tips for quitting.

How Can I Reduce My Sugar Intake?

If you’re good and worried about sugar, now’s a great time to tell you how to stop sugar addiction, which includes eating a few foods that can help you curb those hardwired sugar cravings you’ve developed. First things first, a few tips to start changing your habits.

  • Drink your coffee black. Drink creamer-free coffee, or use Stevia instead of sugar to sweeten that cup of java.
  • Eat plain yogurt. Use natural sweeteners like fresh berries instead of commercially sweetened yogurts.
  • Make sugar-free replacements. Swap sodas for seltzer, candy for healthy trail mix, salad dressing for olive oil, and Nutella for natural nut butters (almond, peanut, hazelnut).
  • Eat whole foods. Eating whole fruits, veggies, meats, etc. as much as possible over processed foods will save you from a lot of unnaturally added ingredients, including sugar.
  • Moderate alcoholic beverages. Limit your alcohol intake, and be sure to avoid those alcoholic drinks mixed with juice, soda, or other sweetened liqueurs.
  • Read food labels. As a general rule, read and compare the grams of sugar on labels, even for supposedly “healthy” foods like granola bars—hidden and added sugars are pervasive, so keep an eye out for brands you can trust.

Foods for Fighting Sugar Cravings

So, how to break sugar addiction? The symptoms of sugar detox are real, but here are some foods that can help by being either naturally sweet or hitting the reward center of your brain and curbing those cravings when you make the decision to cut back on sugar.

1. Fruit and Berries

Most people think of junk food like cookies and candies when they think of sugary foods, but fruits and berries have natural sugars that can satisfy those cravings while providing you with more bang for your buck: antioxidants, fiber, and restorative plant compounds

Fruits like mangoes and grapes are higher in sugars than other fruits, and dark berries like blueberries and cranberries are full of anti-inflammatory and antioxidant components. Half the battle with cutting back on sugar is the cravings, the other half is the habit of eating a sugary snack for afternoon or morning energy. Fruit can help stand in for that sweet pick-me-up without being dangerous for your blood sugar levels.

2. Dark Chocolate

Just because it’s chocolate doesn’t mean it’s candy in the same sense that a bag of M&Ms is. If you have a weakness for chocolate, then dark chocolate might be your best way through the woods of quitting refined sugar. With a similar taste to a Hershey bar but way less added sugar, dark chocolate also brings you some health benefits if you choose a product containing at least 70% cocoa. 

The polyphenols in dark chocolate may help improve your heart health and provide antioxidant and anti-inflammatory support, so just because you’re trying to ween yourself off sugar doesn’t mean you have to say goodbye to chocolate.

3. Chia Seeds

Not only do chia seeds have omega-3 fatty acids and a good dose of soluble fiber for your digestive health, but they can also be made into deliciously healthy treats. Chia seeds absorb liquid, becoming gel-like when soaked in liquids such as almond or coconut milk. Making some chia seed pudding with healthy sweet ingredients can be a tasty way to start your day, minus all the added sugars in foods like pre-sweetened oatmeals and cereals.

4. Sugar-Free Gum and Mints

If you’ve got sugar cravings, gum or mints could be a quick way to shut the cravings down and get on with your day. While many sugar-free alternatives contain artificial sweeteners, so long as they are sugar-free and zero-calorie, gum and mints can help you get over the hump of a dietary change. 

Researchers have actually shown in studies on appetite control and daily calorie intake that those who chew gum consume fewer calories. This may be a way not only to quit sugar, but also to lose weight. Chewing sugar-free gum after a meal is even good for your teeth, removing food residue that could cause cavities down the line.

5. Legumes

Legumes include chickpeas, lentils, and beans, and are wonderful plant-based sources of protein and fiber. They lead to increased feelings of satiety and fullness and are scientifically linked with successful weight-loss efforts. While they may not taste very sweet to you, they will help you feel fuller for longer—having some legumes for lunch could mean you don’t crave a Twinkie at your desk that afternoon.

6. Yogurt

Full of calcium and protein, yogurt is a great healthy snack so long as you’re eating the right kind. Starting with plain or Greek yogurt and adding your own dried fruit or natural sweeteners like honey can go a long way to not only curbing your appetite and satisfying your sweet tooth, but also to improving your energy throughout the day and promoting healthier digestion.

7. Sweet Potatoes

Sweet potatoes are another naturally sweet food, and are full of potassium and vitamins A and C to boot. Sweet potatoes are filling, and roasting sweet potato fries with cinnamon and spice means you get all the joy of eating sweets and fries with none of the backlash of eating fried food or refined sugar.

8. Animal Protein

Meat, fish, chicken, and eggs can all help you prevent sugar cravings. How? Protein is more complex than the simple refined sugars in so many sweetened foods and so helps increase satiety with every meal. Eggs for breakfast, chicken for lunch, and fish for dinner means your body is well-fed all day, and won’t have time to bother you with cravings as it breaks down protein for your muscles to use. 

This 2010 study found that those who got at least 25% of their calories each day from protein had reduced food cravings of about 60% while they were trying to lose weight and their desire for late-night snacks was reduced by half. If you’re a vegetarian, don’t worry: plant-based proteins have the same effect.

9. Trail Mix

A little bit sweet and a little bit salty: a trail mix of dried fruits and nuts can satisfy your sweet tooth and give you an easy way to include more nuts and seeds in your daily diet so you can enjoy the health benefits of their fiber, protein, and healthy fat content.

10. Whole Grains

Whole grains are full of iron, phosphorous, manganese, B vitamins, magnesium, and more, and eating whole grains not only feeds your good gut bacteria, but also increases your lifespan. Whole wheat bread, brown rice, and whole wheat pasta can give you all the joys you’ve come to associate with the carbs and sugars they provide, but with much more quality nutrition in every bite.

Combat Your Cravings

While sugar is as addictive as any substance that releases dopamine in our brains, it’s not stronger than you. Sugar itself isn’t all that bad if you’re talking about the natural sugars in whole foods, but with refined and processed sugar being added to all of our food products willy-nilly, it’s literally starting to kill us. 

If you suspect you’re consuming way more sugar than is good for you, start investigating labels, replacing sugar-soaked products with more natural foods, and tricking your brain into letting you out of the reward circuit, thus setting you free from a sugar addiction. With a few replacements and modifications, you can still have your sweets without feeling sour about it later!

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