You likely know that a high intake of refined sugar causes problems like weight gain, brain fog, and fatigue, and can lead to diabetes, depression, heart disease, and more. So it goes without saying that one of the best things you can do for your health is to quit sugar. Yet, it can be quite challenging, because sugar stimulates the same pathway in the brain as cocaine - creating an addictive cycle that’s tough to break.
In this article, we cover why sugar is addictive, the benefits of kicking the habit, and how to break your sugar addiction successfully, so you can reap the health benefits that come with being sugar free.
Is sugar addiction real?
Sugar addiction is real, and is rapidly becoming a concern for health professionals worldwide.
The reasons for sugar addiction lie in the fact that sugar creates a short-term high and spark of energy in the body. This makes your brain want more, in a cycle that can be hard to break.
This cycle occurs because sugar consumption activates the brain’s reward system leading to the release of the neurotransmitter dopamine. Dopamine leads to a high feeling of reward that can, in turn, result in cravings and addiction. It’s the exact same system used by drugs such as cocaine to hijack the brain.
At a neurobiological level, the reward system activated by sugar consumption is very robust, because it goes back all the way to human evolution. We are evolutionarily wired to seek and consume foods high in sugar and calories to ensure our species’ survival when food availability was scarce. Now that most of us have access to an abundance of foods, including sugar-rich foods, it can be difficult to control the consumption of sugary foods because of this evolutionary wiring.
The benefits of quitting sugar
The good news is that you can break the cycle, and these are just some things you can look forward to when cutting down on sugar:
- Losing belly fat – research studies consistently show that reducing sugar intake leads to weight loss, especially in the belly.
- Feeling more energised – Eating sugar leads to an energy roller coaster associated with the release of insulin. By consuming less sugar, you help your body level out its blood glucose, giving you the sustained energy you need to be productive.
- Improving your heart health – sugar affects your heart in many ways. The effects of sugar in terms of increased inflammation, weight gain, diabetes, and high blood pressure are all detrimental to your heart. If you cut down on sugar, you’ll also drastically cut down on your risk of developing cardiovascular disease.
- Promoting a healthy immune system – there is a complex link between our immune system and our metabolism. Although a lot of research is still going on to find out more about it, we know that large quantities of sugar put the immune cells in a type of “coma”, making them less reactive.
- Clearing your skin – eating lots of refined sugar causes an increased production of insulin, which can cause oily skin and acne. Amongst all the other benefits, a decrease in sugar will help you clear your skin thanks to lower insulin levels.
- Boosting healthy gut bacteria – we know how much the bacteria in our gut are important for our health. High sugar promotes harmful bacteria, while a diet low in sugar and rich in fibres promotes a balance with more healthy bacteria in your gut.
- Enhancing your mental function – elevated sugar in your bloodstream results in impaired cognitive function (a fancy term for your post-lunch slump). Thus, avoiding sugar consumption will benefit your mind and performance.
What to expect when quitting sugar
Some people quickly adjust to functioning properly without sugar. However, for some, withdrawing from sugar can lead to several physical and mental symptoms. This depends on your individual sensitivity to sugar and how quickly your dopamine system adjusts to your new sugar-free life. Be prepared for and mindful of the following mental and physical signs and symptoms:
- Mood changes. The decreased dopamine release will be partly to blame.
- Anxiety and nervousness. You may experience drops in blood glucose which can make you irritable. Expect to be somewhat unpleasant to deal with while your hormones are normalising.
- Sleep issues. Your sleep pattern can change; you may have trouble falling asleep or wake up during unusual hours.
- Cognitive issues. You may have trouble concentrating on tasks that require mental focus.
- Food cravings. You may crave not only sugar but other simple carbs, such as potatoes, rice, or bread.
- Physical discomfort. You may feel tired, nauseated, or even dizzy at times.
These symptoms are usually mild and temporary and no cause for concern, and many of them can be avoided by following the strategies below.
How to quit sugar (without feeling awful)
- Be realistic – Rather than cutting out sugar all in one go, start with small, achievable changes in your daily life, aiming to reduce your sugar consumption week by week. Doing so will make your transition easier, and will reduce the likelihood of any of the symptoms described above.
- Skip sugary drinks, coffees and teas - Replace sugary drinks with flavoured sparkling or plain mineral water, adding a squeeze of lemon, lime, cucumber, berries or mint into them for flavour and interest. When looking to reduce sugar intake in your tea or coffee, start by cutting your usual amount of sugar by half and wean down from there, halving the amount every week until you’re down to zero. You could also try adding half a teaspoon of cinnamon in your tea or coffee, as a sweet alternative that will also help regular blood sugar, therefore energy, levels.
- Look for hidden sugars – get into the habit of reading the labels and choosing foods with the least added sugars. Where possible, consume real, unprocessed, wholesome food.
- Avoid artificial sweeteners – you will be pleased to know that there are plenty of natural sweeteners, for example, Stevia, xylitol, monk fruit, or honey. Keep in mind that these sweeteners, though natural, are only a crutch to help you resolve your sugar cravings altogether.
- Fill up with fibre, eat more protein and enjoy plenty of healthy fats – when looking to detox from sugar, consume a balanced diet with plenty of fibres from fruits and vegetables, proteins from different sources like meat, fish and eggs, and healthy fats like oily fish, avocado and olive oil. The reality is, if you eat too many calories, you will gain weight, no matter where they are from. However, the problem with calories deriving from sugar is that they don’t keep you full for long, making it more likely to overeat during the day. If you fill up with fibre, proteins and healthy fats, you’ll feel fuller for longer, and you’ll be less likely to crave the quick hunger fix that sugar provides.
- Consider getting additional nutritional support: a complaint from people coming off of sugar is fatigue. This can be improved by supplementing with nutrients that support energy production, such as B vitamins. In other cases, the mineral chromium may be used to reduce cravings, as will amino acids 5-HTP or tryptophan that are precursors to serotonin, as serotonin deficiency is often underlying a sugar addiction.
To increase your chances of avoiding withdrawal symptoms, here are a few extra strategies to follow:
- Stay hydrated – swap your sugary drinks for water and aim to drink at least 2L per day - more if you’re active and/or the weather is warm. Staying hydrated is so important for your overall health, and it will help you keep sugar cravings at bay.
- Get enough sleep – a good night of restful sleep will be a great ally to keep your sugar cravings under control. Sleep deprivation can disrupt the signalling of the satiety hormone leptin, and increase hunger hormone ghrelin, causing you to eat more. In one study, sleep deprivation led participants to consume 300 more calories than they usually do in one day! Lack of adequate sleep also changes what you crave, increasing cravings for sugar and carbohydrate-rich foods, and reduces your cells’ sensitivity to insulin, which over time can lead to insulin sensitivity and diabetes.
- Exercise regularly – exercising regularly can help you deal with withdrawal symptoms, by replacing the dopamine high that you get from sugar with the dopamine high you get from exercise. The overall positive impact exercise has on mood also keeps you feeling happy and stronger in your resolve to quit sugar.
- Satisfy sweet cravings with natural sugars – if a craving strikes and you really feel the need for something sweet, try fresh fruits like berries, stone fruits, and pineapple. They are naturally sweet and full of fibres, vitamins and minerals. It’s a win-win!
- Balance your palate with something bitter – bitter foods like green leafy vegetables like broccoli, cabbage, rocket, and Brussel sprouts, olives, apple cider vinegar, and artichokes can help to reduce the desire for sweet foods.
Cutting down on sugar can be challenging. But with the right strategies in place, and taking it step by step, you can do it.
If you’re looking to reduce your sugar intake, speak with your practitioner or health coach who will help you in your journey towards a better version of yourself.
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