Thousands of years ago, humans tended to consume sugar found naturally in food and it did not cause many problems. Now things have changed over a period of several years, and it is estimated that around one-third of our calories are derived from refined sugar and white flour. However, our bodies were not designed to handle such a massive and unnatural load.
Ms. Amna Nawaz currently works as a clinical psychologist at Willing Ways, Lahore. She has done MS in clinical psychology and B.Sc (Hons.) from GC University, Lahore. Heath counseling, addiction counseling, subjective well-being, and intellectual disability are her areas of interest as well as her educational expertise. Earlier, she has also supervised trainee child psychologists working in a special education institute being run by the Government of Punjab.
Editor: Sahrish Sarfraz
Sugar provides fuel to every cell in the brain. Our brain also perceives sugar as a reward so it wants more of it. If one often eats a lot of sugar, then the reward gets reinforced, making it tougher to break the habit. Whenever we consume sugar, which is called a simple carbohydrate, it is quickly converted into glucose in our bloodstream, which increases our blood sugar levels. Our body is designed to move glucose out of the bloodstream and into the cells to provide energy. For that matter, our pancreas secretes a hormone called insulin. After the secretion of insulin, our blood sugar level reaches a sudden drop.
This sudden change in blood sugar can make you feel low in energy and you tend to search for more sweets to achieve that sugar “high” once again. This desire to eat more sweets can make you vulnerable to sugar addiction. Fruits, vegetables, and dairy products all contain carbohydrates but they slow the metabolic process due to the amount of fiber and protein in them. So they can give you a more lasting feeling of fulfillment. However, candies, cakes, ice creams are not metabolized in the same manner so they have the tendency to make you feel more deprived of energy quickly after consuming it.
Apart from the long term benefits of a significant decrease in the risk of developing chronic illnesses like diabetes, heart attack, stroke, and hypertension, cutting back on your sugar intake also help in various other health conditions such as obesity, chronic fatigue syndrome, immune functioning, anxiety and depression, irritable bowel syndrome, cholesterol functioning, hormonal problems, and even cancer. Moreover, it also helps in boosting the metabolism making it easy to lose weight.
When it comes to establishing the appropriate amount of sugar, American Heart Association suggests that women can consume no more than 6 teaspoons of sugar on a daily basis that makes about 100 calories, whereas, men can consume a maximum of 9 teaspoons of sugar making it about 150 calories.
According to research evidence, sugar is addictive in nature and it actually stimulates the same pleasure centers of the brain as the hardcore drugs like cocaine or heroin. Signs of sugar addiction involve intense sugar cravings, losing control over the consumption of sugar items, and eating more of it than you actually planned. Similarly, getting rid of sugar addiction also leads to withdrawal symptoms such as low mood, fatigue, anxiety, and cravings like other addictive drugs, and it also requires an actual detoxification process.
In order to recover from sugar addiction, one must consume more natural sources of sugar such as found in fruits that contain fructose. Fructose is metabolized in our body differently than refined sugar but it is still quite satisfying. However, a restricted amount of fruit intake is suggested as eating too much of it is found to be linked with increased belly fat which increases your chance of developing Type II diabetes. Also, make sure to eat less of those fruits that have high sugar content such as grapes, mangoes, bananas, or berries.
Experts also suggest avoiding artificial sweeteners. Although diet soda drinks, sugar-free gums, or other food items tend to help many people get through a rough patch of sugar cravings. However, large amounts of artificial sweeteners increase your desire for sweet food. It changes your taste palate leaving you need more and more of them to feel satisfied, eat more such food items, and can eventually cause weight gain.
Creating a beforehand backup plan in case of feeling uncontrollable against sugar cravings is also a crucial step. This involves establishing certain distractive strategies to divert one’s attention from sugar cravings such as going for a walk, eating a piece of fruit, listening to music, talking to someone, reading, browsing, etc. Since cravings do not last long. They reach their peak for around twenty minutes on average and then gradually start declining so it is helpful to distract oneself during the crucial time of cravings in order to overcome them.
Interestingly, studies have also found that the first bite of any food provides the most pleasure and the rest of the bites only add calories. Moreover, it is also concluded that people who consume large servings of food feel less satisfied as compared to those who prefer smaller portions of food. So it is suggested to try any sweet dish by just taking a taste of it. Since the total deprivation of a favorite food is not sustainable for many, by granting oneself the permission to enjoy one or two bites of a favorite food item, one can enjoy at maximum and that too with minimal damage.
Studies also suggest that a deficiency in magnesium also leads to increased sugar cravings. So, it is important to manage the magnesium levels in the body by consulting a doctor. Consuming plenty of food that is rich in magnesium such as nuts, dark green leafy vegetables and legumes can be helpful in maintaining magnesium levels and managing sugar cravings. Moreover, eating protein also helps in lessening sugar cravings. Since high-protein foods tend to digest more slowly in our body such as lean chicken, eggs, nuts, beans, or low-fat yogurt, so they can keep you feeling full for a longer duration. Furthermore, protein also doesn’t increase our blood sugar levels like refined carbohydrates and sugars. Foods rich in fiber can also help you in fighting a sugar craving. They keep you full, provide you with more energy, and also don’t increase your blood sugar level which won’t cause any hunger crash later on. So choosing more fruits, vegetables, and whole grains can be quite helpful.
Our body doesn’t need sugar as much as we think we do. We can actually train our taste buds to enjoy food items that aren’t as sweet. One can start with cutting out a little bit of sugar from the diet each week such as quitting the dessert after dinner, putting less sugar in tea or coffee. Gradually, the need for sugar taste will be decreased in an unconscious manner. Moreover, making small and simple changes in one’s diet is also suggested as it is easy to keep it going that way. Eating more fruits and vegetables, drinking extra water, checking the food labels, and picking the ones that don’t have a lot of sugar can be helpful, to begin with.
Exercise is another beneficial suggestion to fight sugar cravings. It can also change the way you eat in general. After adopting a lifestyle of exercise, one starts to feel better and wants healthier foods. The crash in one’s mood due to sugar cravings can also be improved with exercise. So it is recommended to choose any mode of exercise i.e. walking, running, riding a bicycle, or swimming. One must start out slow, work toward at least 30 minutes a day, and at least 5 days a week.
Keeping one’s blood sugar stable is also very crucial in the process of fighting sugar addiction. One must eat several small yet healthy meals throughout the day instead of three heavy portions of meals in order to avoid dips in blood sugar levels. In this way, the body will produce more serotonin, making one feel happier, sleep better and it will also help in avoiding emotional eating.
It is also very essential to make changes in our environment by throwing away all the stock of sugar items at home or at the workplace. It helps in getting rid of any sugary temptations. One must not rely solely on his willpower when it comes to fighting addictions, cravings, or temptations. Using too much willpower eventually sets the fatigue in and makes it more difficult to resist the temptations and keep one’s resolve intact. So making structural changes is beneficial in recovery from sugar addiction. Experts also suggest that “earning” a sweet treat can also be quite helpful in curbing sugar cravings. Setting sweets as a reward establishes that one is not saying no to something but making it harder to get. For example, if you want a cupcake after lunch then you must “earn” it by completing a task you’ve been delaying, or preferring the stairs instead of using the elevator. Such type of negotiation curbs impulsive eating enhances delayed gratification, gives self-satisfaction and also helps in task completion.