It feels like a lifetime ago, but I recall a time when I was truly addicted to sugar. This may be a surprise to most people. I am a highly regarded dietitian and eat very well, yes, but there was a time in my life when the chewy and sweet not only stuck to my fingers but also tugged at my brain.
I remember being a uni student back in the 90s and my study evenings were fuelled with cups of tea with 4 or 5 teaspoons of sugar. I am ashamed to say that, but it was true. I’d go do a gym class and stop by the supermarket on the way home to buy a 3 pack of Sesame Snaps and I’d eat them all on the walk home. Let’s just say I was not studying nutrition at the time! My life was hectic and sugar laden.
Sugar and science
So it’s easy for me to understand how people can become addicted to sugar – and that it can become both mindless and habitual. I can understand because I lived it! I am happy to say I have broken my addiction, but it wasn’t easy.
Science reveals that sugary foods are linked to pleasure. They release chemicals known as opioids into the bloodstream that bind to receptors in our brain that signal pleasure. People feel much better after they have their ‘hit’. The euphoria that follows is hard to resist. Over time the brain becomes tolerant to sugar and to get that same ‘sugar high’, and more and more is needed to get that same feeling.
Also read: How to Change Your Relationship to Food
Coping with sugar withdrawal
The withdrawal from sugar is nasty. Irritability, tears, flu-like symptoms and tiredness are some of the responses people experience when cutting back on the ‘white stuff’.
The time period to overcome this can vary, but pushing through that first week is the toughest and the most defining. To make permanent change it can take as long as 21-30 days of focus and willpower.
The payoff from this month of hell is freedom. Freedom from the niggling and nagging ‘sugar bug’ and the freedom to choose good food. It’s at this point I need to stress that all sugars are not equal, and that we need to make smart choices to ensure we are fuelling our body appropriately – and not removing all the fun from food. Food should never be associated with guilt and a treat every now and again is OK. Developing a healthy relationship with all foods is critically important.
Being organised and preparing your meals in advance is also key to avoiding a sugar binge. Check out some of our recipes on the 12WBT program – a lot of them have little to no sugar, and will satisfy both your hunger and tastebuds.
Making smart food choices
Let’s talk about whole foods, and making smart choices that are naturally sweet! After all, we need to fuel our brain and replenish our muscle glygogen.
Nature’s candy! Fruit has been vilified over the last few years, but there is no reason to be scared of something so nutritious. Aim for just two serves each day – fruit makes a fabulous sweet snack and it gives your digestive system a good workout, breaking down those cellular walls!
Whether it is in your un-toasted muesli or trail mix, dried fruit provides sweetness, but in a condensed sense (so watch your portions). Try not to exceed 1.5 tablespoons, or 30g of dried fruit, per day.
The reason dairy is in this list is because it contains lactose, or milk sugar. This is not something to be fearful of. It’s naturally occurring, but be aware that it is not specified on the nutrition panel as ‘lactose’, just sugar. Note that sugar is not added to milk, but rather it has lactose which falls into the sugar category.
The range of yoghurts is huge – from bitter, all-natural varieties, to dairy based ‘desserts’, yogurts come in all forms. The best choice is to go for natural yoghurt and add freshly sliced fruit for a touch of sweetness. If you like flavoured yoghurts, be cautious! Reading ingredients lists and panels can be very useful and I always recommend going for one with less than 15g of sugar per 100g. That 15g includes the lactose and the fruit content. Any greater than that warrants another choice.
My advice with cereals (and most packaged goods) is to read the ingredient list. If sugar is in the top three ingredients, steer clear. Go for a cereal made with whole grains and contains a good amount of fibre – at least 7g per 100g.
My top tips for breaking a sugar addiction
- Stop adding sugar to tea and coffee – start by reducing it by 1 teaspoon at a time
- Read ingredient lists and shop wisely
- Make water your number one drink
- Source sweetness from whole foods, like fresh fruit
- Try sipping licorice tea or other herbal teas – ditch soft drinks and juices
- Get busy – don’t let sweets dominate your thoughts
- Swap flavoured yoghurt for natural varieties, and add your own fresh fruit
- Break habits associated with your addiction – ie. stopping to buy petrol and buying a chocolate bar
- Have snacks with a little fat or protein – ie. fruit and nuts/yoghurt, wholegrain toast with nut butter (not jam/honey)
- Eat three balanced meals each day and ensure you are satisfied
- Remove temptation from your house and workplace – no more charity chocolates and sugar laden staff morning teas
- Be organised at all times with a sensible snack and bottle of water in your bag!
If you are driven by an aggressive sugar desire and cannot get through a day without hunting down something sweet, it might be time to reduce your intake. This doesn’t mean quitting sugar – it simply means making smarter choices. Don’t label sweet foods evil or poisonous, they are simply delicious. When you can enjoy a small serve of something decadent without guilt or a tugging desire for a second, third, or fourth serving, that’s when you have truly broken the battle with sugar.