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Sugar Cravings and How You Can Beat Them

Sugar Cravings
Quantum University


Why Do You Crave It?

Sugar is addicting. Traditionally, addiction has been associated only with drugs, such as cocaine and heroin. Today, however, science has shown that people can become addicted to things other than drugs, including sugar. Sugar addiction has the same cycle as drug addiction: craving, binging/tolerance and feelings of withdrawal.

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Cravings can display themselves in multiple ways. One craving common with sugar addiction is dissatisfaction after finishing a meal without sugar. Tolerance, the second phase, occurs when the reward center of one’s brain is unable to detect sugar. As a result, more sugar is required to activate this part of the brain. The next part of the cycle is withdrawal. Withdrawal occurs when the brain does not have access to sugar. As a result, unpleasant side effects occur. A sugar withdrawal might present as irritability, anxiety, headache and depression. To alleviate the withdrawal, the brain seeks the deprived substance. This begins the cycle over again, creating an endless loop that is sugar addiction.

Why Is Sugar So Addicting?

Food, in general, can be addicting. Since we need food to survive, our brain is trained to like the taste of food and drives us to seek food when we are hungry. Essentially, food can be addicting because it is a vital part of survival. However, research has shown that only certain foods can cause problematic addictions. These foods tend to be rich in carbohydrates and sugar. There are multiple possible explanations for this. First, laboratory studies have shown that animals prefer the taste of carbohydrates to protein. In addition, animals showed a preference for carbohydrates even without the traditional sweet taste, suggesting there might be post-ingestive factors that encourage the consumption of carbohydrates. Further, when sugar is consumed, the pattern of dopamine that is released changes as more sugar is consumed. In essence, the brain starts to react to sugar as it normally does to drugs.

How Can You Stop Craving It?

Stopping your craving for sugar and improving your health is achievable. In my book, Why Diets Fail: Because You’re Addicted to Sugar, which is now out in paperback, I introduce a five-phased plan to help to reduce and eliminate sugar cravings. The phased plan ensures that you are not quitting cold turkey, which any addict would admit is very difficult and tends to be unsuccessful. In addition, slowly reducing your sugar intake will allow you to recognize your withdrawal behaviors and healthily approach them. The phased plan offers a new sustainable way of eating, not a diet. It results in sugar-free eating throughout life, not for a limited time.

The first phase lasts one to two weeks and focuses on completely cutting out sugary beverages, such as soft drinks, energy drinks, sports drinks, fruit drinks and iced teas. The second phase lasts two to three weeks and requires you to cut out junk foods, such as cakes, cookies, candy bars and ice cream. The third phase lasts three to four weeks and emphasizes decreasing carbohydrates, including cereal, bread, pasta, rice and complex carbohydrates. The fourth phase of the plan lasts one to two weeks and focuses on replacing hidden sugars, such as those in salad dressings, sauces, marinades, condiments and peanut butter, with sugar-free versions. The final phase, phase 5, focuses on maintaining the changes made in the previous stages.

What Foods Should I Eat, and What Foods Should I Avoid?

Knowing what to eat is just as important as knowing what not to eat. One of the most important things is to ensure that you are drinking enough liquid, with water being the most beneficial liquid. Carrying a water bottle with you throughout the day is an easy way to have access to water, and can remind you to drink it throughout the day. Drinks that are artificially sweetened are often a popular substitute. While no studies have shown that artificial sugars can cause the same addiction as sugar and carbohydrates, they have been linked to other negative consequences, such as obesity.

Vegetables, such as cauliflower, zucchini, carrots and broccoli, are all good options to regularly include in your diet. Some vegetables, including potatoes and sweet potatoes, are considered starchy vegetables and can be just as rich in carbohydrates as bread and cereals. Therefore, it is important to limit the consumption of these vegetables.

Fruits are naturally rich in sugars, especially fructose. However, given the vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and dietary fiber in fruits, they are still a vital part of the diet that should not be eliminated. Eating one or two pieces of fruit each day will ensure that you are receiving the benefits from the fruit without becoming addicted to sugar.

Protein is naturally a poor source of sugar. In addition, protein is very satisfying, reducing your overall desire to consume foods. Preparing meat in various ways, such as grilling, baking, sautéing and flavoring with different seasonings will provide endless options that ensure your diet does not become repetitive and boring.

If you want to read more about sugar cravings and addiction, check out Dr. Avena’s book Why Diets Fail: Because You’re Addicted to Sugar, which is now out in paperback.

Dr. Nicole Avena is a research neuroscientist and expert in the fields of nutrition, diet and addiction, with a special focus on nutrition during early life and pregnancy. Her research achievements have been honored by awards from several groups including the New York Academy of Sciences, the American Psychological Association, and the National Institute on Drug Abuse. She is an assistant professor of neuroscience at the Ichan School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, in New York, NY and is a visiting professor of health psychology at Princeton University in New Jersey. Dr. Avena has written several books, including What to Eat When You’re Pregnant and What to Feed Your Baby and Toddler. She regularly appears as a science expert on the Dr. Oz Show, Good Day NY and The Doctors, as well as many other news programs. Her work has been featured in Bloomberg Business Week, Time Magazine for Kids, The New York Times, Shape, Men’s Health, Details, as well as many other periodicals. Dr. Avena blogs for Psychology Today, is a member of the Penguin Random House Speakers Bureau and has the No. 2 most watched TED-ED Health talk, “How Sugar Affects Your Brain.” You can follow Dr. Avena on Twitter (@DrNicoleAvena), Facebook (www.facebook.com/DrNicoleAvena) and Instagram (@drnicoleavena), or visit www.drnicoleavena.com.