A couple of weeks ago, I started a discussion group about sugar addiction on my weight management board. And since then, I’ve been flooded with posts from many of you identifying with what you can only refer to as an addictive drive to eat refined sugar in any form (e.g. refined sugar in drinks, cookies, candy). We researchers and experts are still trying to understand refined sugar’s hold on people, driving them to binge on foods they know full well aren’t going to help them shed their nagging weight. Here’s a classic from Sarah:
“…I definitely think I’m addicted to sugar. I do go completely off sugar, but it seems that if I have one bite of something sugary, I’m back on the downward path. Though it’s that one bite of sugar that pulls me back to the addiction, I find that when I start eating sugary foods, then I lose control over most of what I’m eating. Instead of eating regular meals and snacks, I find I’m just grabbing foods when passing through the kitchen, etc. The good thing about an alcohol addiction is that you can get through life without alcohol, but a food addiction? You have to eat, and it’s harder to make yourself avoid those sugary foods when they are OK for most other people. Ugh.”
So what’s the answer here? We don’t have the definitive answer, but we have a good enough understanding of how cravings affect brain function, that we can recommend how to minimize trouble with sugar in your life. Here are some thoughts.
Not all sugars are the same. The worst ones are refined, processed sugars and they’re usually white – table sugar, white rice, white pasta, white bread. They’ve literally been stripped of all of their original healthy nutrients and fibers and you’re left with, well, a lump of sugar! These sugars are nothing but trouble. And, like so many people on my board have noted, if you’ve effectively avoided them for a time, and then, whoops you have just one serving, you’re off and running because you can never have just one serving of this stuff. It’s like awakening a sleeping giant. If this sounds like you, quit tempting fate. Your brain has attached such reward to having a sweet something, that you’ll always over eat it and binge. Instead, avoid it. Another thing I have noted is that many people with addictive family histories (e.g. alcohol, drugs, cigarettes) also have some level of problem with feeling addicted to sugary foods. You yourself may not have the substance addiction, but if you carry it in your genes, we’ve observed that it may manifest itself in you with feelings of being addicted to sugary foods. It’s interesting to note the number of people who have undergone bariatric surgery (e.g. often 100 pounds over ideal body weight) who are or come from addictive family backgrounds, especially alcoholism.
What can you eat? Why, natural sugars. These healthy carbs are primarily derived from plants, have lots of satisfying fiber (that’ll fill you up the right way and keep you regular), and include whole grains, veggies, fruits and beans. When you read the food pyramid recommendations, they note most people should be ingesting about 45-65% of their calories as carbs as healthy carbs, not the refined stuff. So, if you feel you have a similar addictive situation, I would steer clear of refined sugars and substitute with healthy natural sugars instead. It will take you about a week or so to make the taste switch and a month to really effect a longer term change. And once you’ve achieved this, don’t wake up that sleeping giant by tempting fate. Reward yourself not with a moment of fake bliss after devouring refined sugar, but with new energy, a leaner body and a satisfaction greater than any lump of sugar can ever provide you.