Results of a recent study showed that a greater neurological reward was provided by intense sweetness than by the drug cocaine. In other words, sugar is more addicting than cocaine. Kicking the sugar habit isn’t any easier. Evidence suggests that withdrawal from sweets may cause the same neurological symptoms as withdrawing from nicotine, morphine and alcohol. The similarities between sugar and drugs are scarier than Halloween.
Unfortunately, sugar is readily available in our food supply as a cheap fix for our cravings, 24 hours a day, in thousands of different forms – many you wouldn’t even think of (like ketchup!). Sugar is used to reward good behavior starting in early childhood and reinforced as a celebratory substance each holiday, birthday, baby shower and promotion.
So given these studies and the vast availability of sugar, is there any hope of beating your addiction? Can you really fight your insatiable sweet tooth? Here are five easy steps to get you started:
Step 1: Don’t Replace Real Sugar with Artificial Sweeteners
In an effort to provide us with the sweetness we crave without the excess calories we dread, manufacturers created artificial sweeteners. As it turns out, a lack of calories doesn’t always equate to a lack of consequences. A 2013 study in the journal Diabetes Care found that artificial sweeteners can actually alter the way the body metabolizes sugar. A 2008 animal study found that rats given artificial sweeteners ate more calories throughout the day and as a result, gained weight. The researchers found that the ingestion of artificial sweeteners essentially caused confusion between the gut and the brain.
Step 2: Exercise and Drink Milk
Eating lots of sugar has been shown to enhance reward mechanisms in the brain, thus making it difficult to break the habit. Rats that were given sucrose for example, wanted more of it and self-fed with it if it was available in their cage. In reality, this is no different than your stash of candy bars, cookies and hard candies you have at home and at work. If it’s there, and you have a sweet tooth, chances are good that you will seek it out and eat lots of it. You’ll feel good, too, at least for a little while, until the sugar crash sets in. You’ll need to find something else that will release those same feel-good hormones. Exercise and milk can do just that. A recent study found that consumption of whey protein (a major protein found in milk) increased serotonin (the feel-good hormone). Other studies have found an association between exercise and serotonin increase as well.
Step 3: Improve Your Sleep Habits
A 2013 study found that our circadian sleep cycles have a lot to do with whether we reach for that late night sweet snack. Being tired also means we are less able to resist a high-calorie treat, according to another study. An additional study found that when individuals were sleep-deprived, their reward activation centers in the brain were actually greater, thereby making it more difficult to say no to the sweet stuff. While diet and exercise have a lot to do with staying away from sugar, neither of them will be as effective if you’re not getting enough sleep.
Step 4: Keep Healthy Snacks On Hand
If you can’t seem to avoid the temptation of sugar, keep something else on hand at all times. If you know you have to drive by Dunkin Donuts on your way to work and the smell of those fresh treats is too much, keep a small bag of trail mix in your car. When you drive by, reach for the trail mix. Sometimes just chewing something can take away your sugar craving. The same can be true at work. Keep a supply of healthy snack choices in your desk. When that afternoon slump hits and you think you want something sweet, opt for one of your healthy snacks instead. Figure out what your trigger is and have something on hand to distract yourself. It could be an apple in your purse, a bag of healthy popcorn in your pantry or a string-cheese stick in your office refrigerator.
Step 5: Chew Gum.
A 2009 study found that individuals who chewed gum hourly for at least three hours in the afternoon reduced their cravings for sweet snacks. While the study used a sugar-free gum variety, which does in fact contain artificial sweeteners, it nonetheless provides an interesting tactic to perhaps lower your sweet cravings.