The Scoop on Shaking Off Sugar. What happens when you ditch the drug?
Sugar? A drug?
Through refinement, sugar is depleted of any redeeming fiber, minerals, and vitamins, so yes, some classify refined sugar as a drug and poison. Additionally, according to research conducted by Avena, Rada, and Hoebel at Princeton, NJ in 2009, sugar is shown to have classic characteristics of addictive drugs displaying both behavioral and neurochemical effects. According to the researchers, “A well-known characteristic of addictive drugs is their ability to cause repeated, intermittent increases in extracellular dopamine (DA) in the nucleus accumbens (NAc) (Di Chiara and Imperato, 1988, Hernandez and Hoebel, 1988, Wise et al., 1995). We find that rats with intermittent access to sugar will drink in a binge-like manner that releases DA in the NAc each time, like the classic effect of most substances of abuse (Avena et al., 2006, Rada et al., 2005b).”
What does that mean?
Sugar acts on the brain in the same manner as addictive drugs like opiods, albeit smaller in magnitude. The overall effect of this neurochemical adaptation is well-defined dependency. Other research has shown that sugar lights up the same pleasure center of the brain (the NAc) as does heroin and cocaine. For some, sugar acts as a powerful drug.
The sweetening of America
Added sugar is everywhere. It is so prevalent in our diets today that the average person consumes over 360 calories per day of added sugar with 20% of the population consuming an alarming 700 calories per day. This equates to about ¼ to ½ a pound of added sugar daily. Over the course of a year, the average sugar consumption has risen dramatically to an average of 156 pounds of added sugar (imagine THIRTY-ONE x 5 POUND-BAGS of SUGAR on your counter….). For every one person who is eating a low sugar diet, there is another consuming a massive 295 pounds of added sugar per year.
To put this in perspective, during the 1800s the average intake of sugar was 4-6 pounds per person per year. Consumption has steadily increased until 1999 where it has remained fairly steady.
This vast consumption is the result of not only the usual suspects: sodas, candy, sweets, etc., but also and more so the result of hidden sugars in processed foods, some of which we regard as “staples” in our diet. Only about 29- of the 156-pounds of sugar per year are from the sugar bowl. More often than not, crackers, yogurt, peanut butter, pasta sauce, bread, and a host of other store-bought processed products are loaded with sugar.
The average breakdown:
- 33% on average from soft drinks
- 10% from sweetened fruit drinks
- 5% from candy and 5% from cake
- 26% from prepared foods like ketchup, canned vegetables and fruits, and peanut butter.
- Another high-sugar category: LOW-FAT products labeled ‘Fat-Free’ or ‘Low Fat’ (like salad dressings, dairy products, etc.).
Stealth Sugar: Where is it?
Read your food labels. Sugar has many names, some of which are deceptively “healthy” sounding:
- Agave Nectar
- Barley Malt Syrup
- Beet Sugar
- Brown Rice Syrup
- Brown Sugar
- Cane Crystals (or, even better, “cane juice crystals”)
- Cane Sugar
- Coconut Sugar, or Coconut Palm Sugar
- Corn sweetener
- Corn syrup, or corn syrup solids
- Dehydrated Cane Juice
- Evaporated Cane Juice
- Fruit juice concentrate
- High-fructose corn syrup
- Invert sugar
- Malt syrup
- Maple syrup
- Palm Sugar
- Raw sugar
- Rice Syrup
- Sorghum or sorghum syrup
- Turbinado Sugar
Is there a recommended daily amount of sugar?
According to the American Heart Association (AHA) the maximum amount of sugar recommended for the average diet is:
- Men: 150 calories per day, which is about 9 teaspoons (or 37.5 grams).
- Women: 100 calories per day, which is about 6 teaspoons (or 25 grams).
- NOTE: there are 3 teaspoons to ONE Tablespoon.
- KIDS: Their daily consumption of sugar is almost twice the average adult, with a lot of those calories coming from sodas, sports drinks, and sweetened beverages. The recommended level of added sugar for children is similar to those stated for men and women.
Is sugar as addictive as cocaine?
For some people, yes.
Am I addicted to sugar?
According to sugar expert Dan DeFigio, the author of Beating Sugar Addition for Dummies, look for these signs and symptoms of sugar addition.
- You eat sugar and junk food compulsively, even though you know there are negative consequences. You may promise yourself to never binge again, but when the rubber hits the road, your compulsion/cravings take over and the cycle repeats.
- You hide your sugar consumption from other people.
- You lie about your eating behavior.
- You turn to sugar for an emotional lift when you are feeling stressed, bored, lonely, or unhappy.
- You do not feel “done” at the end of a healthy meal. You feel like you are missing something….
How to check if you have a sugar addiction:
Cut it out of your diet. If cravings become severe, you have some level of addiction. If you become an agitated, irritable, impatient mess, and your brain and hormones are screaming for something sweet even though you just ate, you have a sugar addiction.
Why cut out added sugar?
A sugar addition can be serious. It can be a precursor to many diseases including diabetes, liver disease, overweight or obesity (which are precursors to heart disease and stroke), as well as affect your mental outlook increasing your risk for anxiety, depression, and low self-esteem. Cutting out sugar can help you lose weight, increase your energy, ease mood swings, improve blood sugar and lipid profiles, increase the effectiveness of your immune system, reset your hormonal balances, reduce bloating and lower inflammation. Moreover, cutting out sugar from your diet will give you a sense of accomplishment and pride, boosting self-esteem. A nutritious diet, low in added sugars, can have a profound positive effect on your health and wellness.
SIDENOTE: Naturally occurring sugars.
To be clear, added sugars are the sugars added to what might have normally been a healthy product. For example, yogurt is made up of lactose, a milk sugar. We are not talking about these kinds of naturally occurring “sugars” that make up a carbohydrate. But yogurt with ADDED sugar (like strawberry flavoring) should be substituted for PLAIN yogurt with ADDED FRESH STRAWBERRIES. There should be no added sugar to yogurt.
Oats, wheat, rye, rice, etc. are all grains that are made up with “sugars” which make them a complex carbohydrate. Any naturally occurring carbohydrate foods with their original fiber are good choices for a healthy diet. The problem arises when the wheat is stripped of its fiber, sugar is added in the processing, and “wheat bread” becomes the product. For a bread to be a good choice the word WHOLE needs to be added to the word WHEAT. Wheat Bread has the fiber stripped in processing. WHOLE WHEAT BREAD has the fiber intact. And then look at the ingredients list to see if there are added sugars to the product.
Fresh fruit have the “sugar” fructose, which in nature, with the original fiber, is part of a healthy diet. “Fruit juice” devoid of its fiber is not the optimal choice. “Fruit drinks” are largely sugar (with some kind of fruity flavor) and should be substituted for fresh fruit.
Should I slowly cut out sugar or go cold turkey?
If you can manage the cravings and irritability of cutting sugar down to the recommended 6- (women) to 9 – (men) teaspoons of sugar per day, do it. The withdrawals will be more severe, but you will get through the process faster. If you decide to take a more moderate approach of cutting it out gradually, it may seem easier, but if you are constantly hitting triggers that make you want to indulge in your cravings, you may have a longer period of time dealing with your cravings. Things get easier once you have managed the cravings for a while; they will abate. For those who can manage it, to shorten the withdrawal time, it may be better to muscle through it cold turkey.
Here are some suggestions to help reset your sugar tolerance. We are encouraging a lifestyle change that is manageable and sustainable for the long haul.
- Start by reading food labels and cut out the hidden sugar from your diet.
- When you do choose a product with added sugar, watch your portion size.
- Avoid processed foods as much as possible.
- Avoid sodas and other sweetened beverages.
- Clean up your environment. Sugar cravings can be severe and it is best to have any trigger foods out of the house and away from your work environment.
- Eat often enough through the day to minimize cravings. Skipping meals is often the trigger that sends cravings into overdrive.
- Drink enough water. It is easy to confuse thirst with hunger, especially when first resetting your brain to not crave sugar.
- Be prepared! Have your meals planned and have a snack available such as raw almonds that do not, for you, trigger a sugar craving.
- Journal your food intake for some level of accountability.
- Enlist a Registered Dietician or counselor if you need specialized care.
- Recruit a friend to boost accountability.
- Exercise daily. Regular exercise helps regulate blood glucose levels and becomes a major ally in resetting your body’s hormonal and neurotransmitter balance for minimal sugar consumption.
- If you decide to go cold turkey, be ready for cravings and irritability. These symptoms can be severe, but will subside in a few days.
- Some people need a few weeks to completely cut the cravings, and others need a month or two depending on their individual system. Be prepared with coping strategies, such as going on a short walk when cravings are strong. If your habit has been to get fast food at lunch with co-workers, a strategy might be to ask for their support; there might be someone in that group who would rather join you on a walk at lunch and bring a healthy meal from home. Find your allies.
Cutting out added sugar could very well be your game changer that penetrates all levels of your wellness, whether it encompass the physical (lose those pounds, improve blood lipid levels, etc.), emotional (decreased depression, anxiety, better self esteem), spiritual (alignment between your intentions and your actions), or intellectual (knowing the right thing to do, understanding why, and being able to carry it out).
For help in behavior change, lifestyle coaching, nutritional guidance, and personal training, call the front desk at Pivotal Fitness or Eco Fitness and ask for the Personal Training Manager to pair you with one of our certified trainers who has specialty training in Health Coaching, Behavior Change, or Fitness Nutrition. No one should go it alone; we are here to help and can support you in your goals for a healthy, vibrant, energetic life.
SIDEBAR: The FDA is taking added sugar seriously. By July 26, 2018 manufacturers must comply with new FDA labeling rules. New labels need to identify added sugar. Below are 2 info-graphics identifying fictional product labeling for illustrative purposes.
Label Format: Original vs. New: