If you’re like so many of the women I see in my practice, you’ve tried time and again to resist when sugar comes calling. You know it’s no good for you, but you can’t help going back for more. You’ve tried keeping sugar out of your house, but when fierce cravings hit, you find yourself running to the store or local ice cream shop to feed your habit. You have a little, then simply can’t stop, even knowing you’ll probably wake up with a headache, fatigue, and uncontrollable irritability the next day.
Sounds a lot like addiction, doesn’t it? That’s because it is! And while sugar addiction rarely has the same severe consequences as drug or alcohol addiction (you won’t find yourself in jail because of it, and your relationships probably won’t suffer as much), the impact on your body and your health is nothing to ignore.
Did you know that just like other addiction, there’s a genetic component to having a propensity for sweets? That’s right – nearly a third of the population has a biological sensitivity to sugar that makes it extremely difficult for them to stop craving it. And since sugar is absolutely everywhere, they might get hooked without even knowing it!
What is Sugar Sensitivity?
There’s so much debate about sugar, but it’s clear to me that sensitivity to sugar is a real, biological issue. True sugar allergy is rare, and just as with other intolerances (like gluten, for instance) if there’s no hard and fast evidence, the conventional medical community is reluctant to accept that some bodies just can’t handle sugar. But there’s so much anecdotal evidence and I’ve personally seen so many women respond positively when they avoid or eliminate sugar. I’m convinced! Hard evidence takes time to collect, and I am confident that in time science will support what functional medicine practitioners already believe.
Too often, people are told that they can’t stop eating sugar because they lack willpower, or they’re simply not motivated enough. But Kathleen DesMaisons, PhD, knows otherwise. It really is about biochemistry, about having a body that simply doesn’t respond to sugar in the same way as others. She has written several books and conducted extensive research on the impact of sugar in these people. And what she found is fascinating! There’s too much information for me to really dive in, but I highly recommend reading her book, Potatoes Not Prozac to learn more about the science behind her theory.
It’s not just added sugar that’s an issue. In sugar sensitive people, all sugar – including natural sugars, alcohol and refined carbohydrates, poses a problem. In their bodies, sugar acts like a drug, prompting the same brain responses as drugs like amphetamines and heroin.
With true sugar sensitivity, the way you eat will largely determine the way you feel. Fueling your body with a diet high in refined flour, sugar, processed foods (which often contain way more sugar than you realize) and alcohol will send your health – mental and physical – spiralling downward.
Sugar sensitivity is like any food intolerance. The more you eat of the substance you can’t process, the worse you feel. And the longer you eat these foods, the more the toxins build up in your system, causing lingering health problems that you just can’t explain. That’s why it’s so important to realize that you might be dealing with a biological response to what you’re putting in your mouth!
Is Sugar Addiction Real?
Like I said, there’s a fair amount of skepticism in the medical world about the validity of sugar addiction. But evidence is mounting that sugar addiction is an actual condition.
A 2017 review of studies published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine examined several studies and concluded that there was ample evidence that sugar produces symptoms of addiction. The authors of the review also determined that the evidence showed clear parallels, in both brain chemistry and behavior, between sugar and other drugs.
Another review, published in Neuroscience & Behavioral Reviews in 2008, found that the evidence supports the idea that rats can become sugar dependent under certain circumstances. These animal studies demonstrated that all four major components of addiction (bingeing, withdrawal, craving and cross-sensitization) have been observed in rats. These studies also showed that sugar increased release of dopamine, and that over time, more sugar was needed to activate these dopamine receptors.
While more research is certainly necessary, all of this information is enough to convince me that sugar is a substance to pay attention to. Even if we put the question of addiction aside for a minute, there is ample evidence that sugar impacts health in serious ways. Let’s take a look at these, then we’ll talk about how to cut back on – or even eliminate – sugar in your diet.
Our Emotional Attachment to Sugar
Why can sugar so easily seduce you into taking a bite…and another, and another? Part of it comes from your history with the sweet substance. These positive connections can reel you in, and then your sugar sensitivity makes it impossible to stop with just one taste.
Think about the memories you have of special occasions – birthdays, holidays, and rewards for getting good grades. So often, sweets are involved: a cake, traditional pies, the biggest ice cream sundae on the menu. Our memories of these events, and the loved ones we shared them with, can make those treats take on such special meaning that it’s hard to imagine a celebration without them.
People have been celebrating with sweet treats for generations, it’s true. But back even just a few decades ago, food was more often prepared from scratch, so these sweets truly were a “treat” rather than just more sugar piled on top of what we consume every day.
Sweeteners have always been used, but there’s a big difference between raw honey, berries or dates being thrown in for a touch of sweetness and the sugar we all consume these days. According the the National Institutes of Health, Americans consume an average of 22 teaspoons of added sugar per day. That’s almost four times the 6 tsp per day for women recommended by the American Heart Association!
Why is Sugar Such a Concern?
Added sugar offers no nutritious value but plenty of extra calories (16 calories per teaspoon). Calories that can’t be used for important body functions are often stored as fat, and too much sugar interferes with metabolism. Overconsumption of added sugar certainly contributes to the obesity epidemic in our country.
But the problems extend well beyond weight and calorie concerns. Sugar has been shown to impact a wide range of health issues. Sugar has been connected with many forms of cancer; can interfere with absorption of protein; causes gastrointestinal distress; and is linked to food allergies.
Sugar has been connected to high blood pressure, asthma, arthritis, kidney disease, diabetes, and heart disease. Aggressive behavior and compromised immune function, particularly in children, has been connected to sugar consumption. Blood sugar spikes and crashes have a huge impact on your brain functioning since your brain relies on glucose as its primary source of fuel.
As if that’s not enough, sugar also makes mineral absorption more difficult. Low levels of essential minerals can cause difficulty sleeping, anxiety, tooth decay and weaker bones.
That’s a lot of great health reasons to cut back or eliminate sugar. But how? Let’s take a look at where sugar hides, then we’ll talk about how to keep your sugar addiction at bay.
Sugar Hides Everywhere
Deciding to eliminate sugar isn’t quite as simple as it may seem. If you eat a lot of processed foods you could be consuming several teaspoons of added sugar every day. There are so many forms of sugar that even reading labels can be confusing! A good rule of thumb is to avoid anything with the -ose suffix, as these are all types of sugar. One piece of advice I offer that will help you avoid sneaky sugar is this: if you don’t know what an ingredient listed is, don’t eat the food!
Did you know that sugar is common in fruit drinks, salad dressing, cereals, sauces, and low fat foods marketed as healthier choices? One small yogurt with fruit can have as much added sugar as a can of soda! Of course the yogurt is still a better choice, but it seems like a case of the lesser of two evils!
If you’re sugar sensitive, your task is even more difficult, because natural sugars can have the same impact on you as added sugars. So even foods that are typically considered healthy – like fruit – might need to be off limits to you. If lactose intolerance is your issue, even dairy products won’t work. See how confusing it can get? But don’t worry – there are some steps you can take to get you on the path to conquering your sugar addiction and feeling great again.
How to Support Your Sugar Sensitivity
A sugar addiction, like any other addiction, won’t be easy to break. Quitting cold turkey rarely works. But when you take small steps towards your goal, you can gradually pull back without terrible withdrawal symptoms, until you’ve kicked the habit once and for all! Let’s look at a few tips to get you started.
Natural Foods Are Your Best Bet
Yes, natural sugar can still cause problems for those with sugar sensitivity. But whole foods are a much better choice than processed foods, and at least they have nutrients and fiber that will help your body process them more easily. If the choice you have before you is a candy bar or an apple — choose the apple! And if you add some peanut butter, that’s even better! Balancing naturally sweet snacks with protein and fiber can keep you satisfied much longer.
Make Sure You’re Eating for the Right Reason
Boredom and habit are not good reasons for eating. If your internal clock is set to crave a sweet treat at 3 pm, you might find yourself automatically reaching for that cookie even if you aren’t hungry! Eat mindfully, and try to break those habits. If you’re bored, instead of heading for the kitchen, go outside and take a five to ten minute walk. If you’re at a social event, avoid the buffet table and actively socialize instead. Food is fuel, not entertainment – so if you’ve been using it that way, find a new outlet. My favorite is dancing — what will yours be?
Pay Attention to How You Are Feeling
Sweets may be your go-to source of comfort. When you’re tired, or stressed, frustrated, angry or depressed you might find yourself reaching for the ice cream or craving chocolate. Our internal script is that we deserve to feel better, and these treats will help us get there. But remember, that pleasure is fleeting, and the feelings still need to be processed. Before you dive in, ask yourself if the sweets are what you really need.
One of the biggest reasons women default to snacking on candy or other junk foods is availability. Vending machines usually don’t offer fresh veggies or raw nuts. Preparing healthy options to have on hand – in your refrigerator or desk drawer – can keep you from grabbing sugar-laden choices by default.
Eat Fermented Foods
Fermented foods can do so much good for your digestive system, and they also seem to help decrease sugar cravings for many people. Also, these fermented foods or beverages can decrease the negative impact of sugar because the beneficial flora will use sugar as food. There are so many great fermented options: miso, tempeh, kimchi, kombucha, kefir, fermented pickles, sauerkraut, and condiments. Keep trying them – you’re bound to find some you like!
Don’t Rush It
Remember, your habits didn’t form overnight, so they won’t disappear that quickly either. Finding small ways to cut back can make a big difference. Try one less sugar packet in your morning coffee, or eat a couple of bites of a sweet treat instead of a full sized portion. And don’t give up if you have a setback — remind yourself that every bite is a new opportunity to change those habits!
Give Yourself a Nutrient Boost
Food is the most important medicine we can use, but sometimes we just can’t get all the nutrients we need for optimal health. Certain nutrients have been shown to reduce cravings and stabilize blood sugar levels. When you take a high quality multivitamin-mineral complex, you give your body a much needed boost of micronutrients like Vitamin C, Zinc and B-complex vitamins that influence serotonin production. Omega-3s help regulate mood and inflammation, both factors associated with cravings.
Related article: Sugar and Inflammation: Sugar’s Impact On Your Health
Sugar Sensitivity Doesn’t Need to Rule Your World
Sometimes, a little understanding is all you need to turn things around. Perhaps you never realized the impact sugar could be having on your health. Maybe you’ve been discouraged because no matter how hard you try, you haven’t been able to stay away from those sweet treats. Now that you know that biochemistry might have a hand in your sugar habit, you can stop beating yourself up and move forward. Remember that you don’t have to do it all yourself – seek out support from trusted friends and medical professionals. Step by step, you can take back control – and find yourself healthier and more energized than ever before!
Reviewed by Dr. Mark Menolascino, MD