Question. Does a Sugar Addicts Anonymous group exist? If anyone knows of one, can you please take me to a meeting?
In all seriousness, in my years of attempting to cut back on sugar, I’ve learned a few helpful tips and tricks. And I will compile them into a neat little list.
- Do NOT go cold turkey.
Or if you are a badass, I suppose you could go cold turkey. But the scientific, very academic, much professional research says most people who attempt this fail. If you are trying to cut out sugar and want to go cold turkey, just be prepared for the withdrawal symptoms and urges to binge worse than before. Beyond the withdrawal symptoms and extra strong urges, the big problem with the cold turkey method is a deprivation mindset. In another article I explained how, “when we deprive ourselves of something we find extremely reinforcing, the value of that reinforcer increases.” I’m a big fan of behavioral psychology, and studying conditioning and reinforcers has made a huge difference in understanding my own bad habits.
With sugar having such a large impact on our dopamine-reward pathway (aka why we become addicted) I’ve found that in cutting back sugar I need to find other activities that raise my dopamine levels. This is usually exercise or social activities (and usually lots of caffeine although I don’t recommend that), but music, meditation, and sunlight can also help. It’s also important to be eating adequate protein and getting enough sleep to help regulate this neurotransmitter.
2. Read nutrition labels.
I’ve also discussed the problem with food marketing. We see the words, “healthy”, “low fat”, or “keto” written in huge letters on the front of a food box, or hear how amazing yogurt is for our gut, how sports drinks will help us perform, or how cereal will give us a good start to the day and help lower cholesterol. Marketing gets us to buy the product. It doesn’t always tell the truth.
The truth is, sugar is not only addicting, but in the long term leads to heart disease – the leading cause of death in the US – diabetes, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, inflammation, mood swings, dental issues, and (*insert sarcastic voice*) maybe worst of all… acne. But this isn’t advertised to us. We don’t realize how much sugar is in that breakfast cereal, or in that flavored yogurt, or in those sauces, salad dressings, and condiments. In summary, always read the nutrition label and be on the lookout for sneaky sugar.
3. Make substitutions.
Okay, so you love your breakfast cereal, yogurt, and salad dressings. I do too. Rather than cutting out those favorite foods and then struggling with the restrict and binge over and over, focus on adding in other foods. Instead of flavored yogurt, buy plain yogurt and add in fresh fruit for sweetness. Swap out that breakfast cereal for some oatmeal (which actually reduces cholesterol). And let me tell you, olive oil with lots of seasoning is way better than most salad dressings and contains healthy unsaturated fats as opposed to lots of saturated fat and sugar. Replace baked goods with whole grain options and stick to homemade smoothies rather than store bought ones.
4. Meal prep.
Speaking of store bought, it’s hard to know what’s actually in the food you get at restaurants and how it’s prepared. I’ll be honest, I used to hate cooking and chose take out as the quick and easy option. But home cooked foods are so much better for your body, and your soul. Learning to prioritize meal prepping and finding a way to make cooking fun will make a world of a difference. I made a point to learn my grocery store in and out so food shopping became less of a hassle. If you have the money, a healthy food delivery service might be worth investing in. Having a fun cooking playlist or a small glass of red wine while learning a new healthy recipe can turn cooking from a chore to a hobby. Investing in good food containers and never shopping while hungry are a couple of my favorite tips as well.
5. Sleep more.
Less sleep equals more stress equals more sugar cravings. Enough said.
6. Know the difference between natural and added.
I talked with someone who refused to eat fruits or vegetables because of the carbs. Don’t be like him! When I say cutting back on sugar, I mostly mean the added sugar in processed foods. While that’s not permission to eat 20 servings of fruit a day (yes, I used to think that was healthy but it is unfortunately not), fruit contains fiber, antioxidants, and essential vitamins. Fruit is also a great dessert or candy substitute. Added sugar in processed foods provides no benefit and has a long long list of negative consequences. Now, you might be wondering about artificial sweeteners. They have a lot of mixed reviews. Research on weight loss suggests artificial sweeteners are not better than real sugar. In fact, they may promote inflammation. While the reviews are mixed, and what works for some people won’t work for others and vice versa, I generally avoid things with the word “artificial” in the name.
Ultimately, cutting back sugar intake can be a long journey that may include many failed attempts. But finding success is about finding resilience and persisting despite a setback or relapse. Sugar works on the brain like many drugs, only it’s something most of us have been hooked on since childhood. Again, if anyone wants to start a sugar addicts anonymous group, please send me an invite!