Sugar is one of the most addictive foods we can put into our bodies. Sugar is the ingredient that I believe kept my animal brain caught in a repetitive cycle of binge eating.
Sugar addiction goes beyond candy and cakes… it’s the simple, refined carbohydrates that cause an insulin spike in our blood sugar. This also triggers parts of our brains which can become addicted, just like someone becomes addicted to heroin.
I’ve gotten many emails from readers asking questions about how to deal with their addiction to sugar, which is usually the triggering food for a binge. There are common themes in the questions, and I can relate to many people who are disgusted with their failed attempts to break the habit.
The most common reasons people try to stop eating sugar are usually due to poor health, feeling obsessed and «crazy» around it or trying to lose weight. Many people share that they can’t seem to break away from bread, pasta, sweets or alcohol. The most frustrating part, I think, is that most of us realize that junk food and processed foods aren’t good for us. But even though we know that, trying to break a habit of eating it regularly can be very challenging.
Before I pin-pointed sugar as the culprit for my addictive behaviors to binge eating, I would go most of the day eating very little (to make up for a binge the night before), and using sugar substitutes in my coffee or drinking diet soda to stave off hunger. By evening, I would be starving… and naturally craving foods with instant energy, like carbs and sweets. By this point, my animal brain was feeling deprived and looking for energy. My ability to consciously choose healthy food options was severely negated because my brain would be in survival mode.
Because I’d binged the night before, it made it very easy to again turn to binging because I had started creating a habit. Once a habit forms, your brain has begun creating neural pathways that make repeating the habitual behavior much easier the next time.
It wasn’t until I reached very low points in my habits, hating myself and my inability to stop binge eating, that I started seriously studying what was going on with my behavior. That’s when I discovered how addictive sugar can be, and realized I was battling a hormonal shift in my brain each time I ate sugar. Not only had I created a behavioral habit, but I was dealing with an addicted brain.
There’s no easy way to quit a habit when you have an addiction. To cure yourself from a habit and addiction to sugar, you have to stop eating it. In order to do that, it really helps to know what to expect from your brain as it breaks an addiction. When you know what to expect, you can deal with challenges as they come up.
The things I found most useful were understanding how the brain works and studying the psychology of habits. Then I began to apply what I’d learned and was able to break through my binge eating habit.
Quitting sugar meant also giving up my devotion to artificial sweeteners. I had to do this for two reasons: one, to adjust my taste buds so that I wouldn’t crave sweetness, and two, to restore the proper gut flora in my belly to begin to metabolize food normally again.
As I broke my addiction to sugar, I replaced sugary foods in my diet with healthy fats. I found that eating healthy fats, proteins and an abundance of vegetables curbed my cravings. For this period, I stayed away from carbohydrates (refined or whole grain) and fruits.
Once I had broken my addiction (it took about 2 1/2 months of focused effort), I had replaced my diet with all whole foods and began incorporating fruit and whole grains. The fruit tasted yummy and sweet at this point, and I would be satisfied having fruit or a bowl of oatmeal at the end of the day when I normally would have craved sweets or sugar-free candies.
Now, I notice that if I start to pine for sweets, it appears to be after I’ve gone several days without whole grains or unrefined carbs. I feel comfortable with having some whole grain toast, oatmeal or something similar… and the temptation goes away. For me, eating whole grains work better to curb the sugar craving than eating fruit, because fruit metabolizes quickly and raises blood sugar faster.
Here’s some key tips for how to start breaking your habit and stop eating sugar:
1. Don’t replace sugar with artificial sweeteners.
According to an article in the Huffington Post, 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. The authors of the study stated that, «sweet foods provide a ‘salient orosensory stimulus’ that strongly predicts someone is about to take in a lot of calories. Ingestive and digestive reflexes gear up for that intake but when false sweetness isn’t followed by lots of calories, the system gets confused. Thus, people may eat more or expend less energy than they otherwise would.»
Replacing sugar with sugar-free foods or sweeteners is like swapping out cigarettes for cigars. It does nothing to alter your taste preferences and cravings for sugar. And it appears that it can even trigger you to eat more, and change the bacteria in your gut… causing your body to actually metabolize more calories from the food you put into your body.
2. Try adding milk and exercise.
Sugar gives you a «feel good» response, and that’s part of what you become addicted to. So the key is to add in other ways to get that response instead of sugar.
What if you could boost one of your most efficient acting «feel good» effects through other things, like milk or exercise?
One study for example, showed that consumption of whey protein (a major protein found in milk) increased serotonin (a feel-good hormone first isolated at the Cleveland Clinic that is associated with mood elevation). Other studies have found an association between exercise and serotonin increase as well.
3. Try healthy fats and get away from «fat free» processed foods.
Healthy fats, like those from olive oil, avocados, coconuts, nuts and seeds, not only provide nutrients for your body, but they make you feel satiated. Though it seemed counter-intuitive to me at the time, I increased my fat intake when I first started working on breaking my habit. I used half-and-half in my coffee, started putting avocados and nuts in my salads, enjoyed cream cheese and ate whole eggs instead of egg whites. I was surprised (and grateful) to find that this really helped curb my sweet cravings.
Fat free varieties of foods are generally injected with a heap of chemicals and added sweeteners to make them taste decent even though they are fat free. This is similar to eating sugar-free stuff; it’s filler food that doesn’t help anything. It either triggers you to eat more («hey, it’s fat free, why not?») or leaves you wanting something more fulfilling.
4. Don’t get too hungry.
This was another hard one for me, because I was so used to depriving myself all day long in order to balance out the effect of my binge eating. So I had trained myself to completely ignore my hunger cues. By the time I would sit down to eat, I would be starving… and, obviously, binging was the natural result.
Eating small amounts of food throughout the day keeps your blood sugar on even keel. This keeps your body from craving simple carbohydrates in order to get quick energy. It also prevents you from feeling like you want to eat the kitchen sink when you finally allow yourself to eat. It can go a long way towards helping you break a binge habit or sugar addiction.
5. Get rest.
Stress is a huge activator for triggering a craving for sweets. Why? Because the sweets give that «feel good» response that provides a temporary respite. It’s also «comfort food» that your animal brain naturally wants when it feels threatened with stress.
How do you cure stress? Obviously, life sometimes has circumstances where you can’t avoid stress. But there are ways you can care for yourself during these times to help. Plus, at the rapid pace many people have today in their lives, we’re generally always under a certain level of stress.
Getting quality sleep and taking a day or two off once a week isn’t a luxury… it’s a necessity. If you’re sleep deprived or burned out, you’re not going to make quality choices. Your animal brain will kick in to help you survive… and we know how much the animal brain likes quick energy from simply carbs and comfort foods.
Add an hour to your sleep however you can – go to bed 15 minutes earlier, then 30, then 45, then an hour. Turn off your screens an hour before you want to go to bed. Arrange a 20-minute power nap in the afternoon. Go to a park and chill out when the weather’s nice, even if it’s only for a half hour.
6. Try gum and tea.
Gum and tea keep your mouth occupied when you’re feeling nibbly. Tea comes in hundreds of varieties and flavors-as does gum. Popping in a stick or having a cup of tea can get you over an afternoon slump or after a meal when you’re craving something sweet.
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