See Ya, Sugar:
Beating Sugar Addiction
Dan DeFigio provides ten ways to outwit your cravings.
It’s three o’clock on a Thursday afternoon. You’re sitting at your desk, stressing over a project your boss wants in two hours. But you’re not making much progress, because all you can think about is how badly you want a candy bar.
You can practically taste the sweet, melty chocolate encasing just the right amount of salty peanuts and fluffy marshmallow filling. As you begin to salivate, you give up your internal struggle, dig some quarters out of your desk drawer, and head to the snack machine. You know you’ll never accomplish anything productive until your sugar craving is satisfied.
If this scenario sounds all too familiar, you’re not alone. Millions of people crave and consume all sorts of sweets – in large quantities – every day. That’s not surprising; processed foods, sweetened beverages, engineered sweeteners, and refined grains are pervasive in the Western food supply. In fact, the average American consumes over one hundred and thirty – that’s right, 130 – pounds of sugar each year!
“If that amount seems excessive, it is,” confirms Dan DeFigio, author of Beating Sugar Addiction For Dummies® (Wiley, 2013). “Such large amounts of sugar can spark a myriad of health problems such as obesity, diabetes, chronic fatigue, high cholesterol, metabolic syndrome, and much more.” And to make matters worse, he says, sugar acts on your brain’s pleasure center just like alcohol and is as addictive as cocaine.
The more sugar you eat, the more you want. “Sugar is everywhere, and resisting the urge to overindulge isn’t always easy,” he acknowledges. “Stress, poor nutrition, dehydration, and lack of sleep can all drive you to grab whatever sugar-laden junk food is handy. That’s why building good habits – specifically, good lifelong habits – is an essential task for staying off sugar.”
In his book, DeFigio explains the science behind sugar addiction and why it’s so harmful for your body. He also helps readers identify whether they might be sugar addicts and gives them the tools to create a sustainable and more nutritious diet, including exercise recommendations and healthy recipes. One of the first steps in decreasing your reliance on sugar, he says, is making healthy changes in your nutritional, mental, and physical habits.
Heart damage: According to a 2013 study in the Journal of the American Heart Association, sugar can affect the pumping mechanism of your heart, increasing heart failure.
Belly fat: A 2010 study in children found that excess fructose caused visceral fat cells to mature, setting the stage for a big belly and risk for heart disease and diabetes.
Silent killer: A 2008 study found that excess fructose consumption was linked to an increase in leptin resistance, which fails to let you know when you’ve had enough food and leads to obesity.
Cancer: A 2013 study found that sugars in the intestine triggered the formation of a hormone that increases insulin released by the pancreas and can affect cells’ susceptibility to cancer.
Toxic liver effects: A 2012 paper in the journal Nature showed that fructose and glucose in excess can have a toxic effect on the liver similar to that of alcoholic beverages.
Brain power: A 2012 study found that excess sugar consumption was linked to deficiencies in memory and overall cognitive health.
Wendy Priesnitz, Editor
“For any major change to stick, it has to be sustainable,” DeFigio asserts. “That’s why you shouldn’t completely overhaul your daily routine and your diet overnight. Start with one small, doable change. Once you’re comfortable with it, move on to the next change. Using the baby-steps method, it’s possible for anyone to wave goodbye to what was once an overwhelming sugar addiction.”
Here, DeFigio shares ten healthy habits and lifestyle changes that can help minimize both the number and the intensity of your sugar cravings:
1. Eat small amounts of food every three to four hours. Low blood sugar can fire up cravings for high-sugar food. When blood sugar plummets, your energy drops, and your brain has trouble focusing, making turning to sugar for a quick pick-me-up all too easy. “Eating every three or four hours throughout the day helps keep your blood sugar levels more even and holds sugar cravings at bay,” explains DeFigio. “With this strategy you also won’t be as hungry at night, so resisting late-night sweet fixes is easier. Every time you eat, try to combine a protein and a plant to keep your body feeling satisfied.”
2. Drink enough water throughout the day. Even a small amount of dehydration can trigger the hypothalamus to activate the hunger and thirst centers. That’s why drinking enough water—at least sixty-four ounces (roughly two liters) a day – is one of the easiest ways to keep sugar cravings in check. Doing so also cuts down on your desire for other less-healthy (read: sugary) beverages. “Downing a glass of cold water is one of the first things you should do when a sugar craving strikes!” says DeFigio.
3. Take your vitamins. A deficiency of one or more important vitamins or minerals can cause your brain to turn on its craving center in an attempt to take in more nutrients. “A smart nutrition supplementation program ensures that you have all the vital nutrients you need to stay healthy, vibrant, and sugar-free,” confirms DeFigio.
4. Stay mindful. To stay on track with a sensible nutrition plan and to avoid eating according to unconscious cues and temptations, you must remain mindful about when you eat, what you choose, and how much you consume. Before you begin eating, set out your portion so you’re not eating from bags or serving dishes. Chew thoroughly and pay careful attention to the whole experience of eating. What does your food really taste like? How does the smell affect what your mouth is doing? In between every bite, assess whether you’ve had enough to eat so that you’re not using external cues like an empty plate to tell you when it’s time to stop. “You may even want to consider learning some basic meditation techniques,” recommends DeFigio. “They’ll help you stay more centered and present throughout your whole day, which will help make mindful eating second nature.”
5. Eat lots of vegetables every day. Mom was right: You really should eat your veggies. Most of your carbohydrates should come from vegetables. Though whole grains contain some quality nutrients, they’re also higher in calories and typically have a higher glycemic load than vegetables. Fibrous vegetables like broccoli, squash, and greens are low in calories and high in nutrients and fiber, so they should make up the bulk of your carbohydrate intake. “When it comes to complete nutrition, variety is key,” comments DeFigio. “A good rule of thumb is to regularly try to eat a wide spectrum of vegetables and fruits of various colors.”
6. Exercise. Regular exercise unquestionably helps you lose weight, improves your insulin sensitivity, and increases your metabolism. It can also help you look and feel great and give you something to do besides eat. “If you’re not comfortable at a gym, you can start doing some workouts at home or begin a modest walking program four or five days per week,” suggests DeFigio.
7. Choose a positive substitute behavior when a craving strikes. Whenever a sugar craving strikes, making a conscious decision to do something other than eating sugar is a healthy and empowering alternative. For example, instead of going to the snack machine at work when a craving hits, you might decide to step outside and walk a lap around your building to refocus your mind. “Positive activities like exercising, learning, creating something new, connecting with friends, and helping other people give you an alternative activity to gobbling down the sweet stuff,” says DeFigio. “They also add more love and enjoyment to a world that desperately needs it. Experiment with various positive substitute activities and see what floats your boat.”
8. Avoid boredom. Some people eat when they’re bored. However, mindless or reactive eating is never a good idea, especially if the convenient snacks lying around are the high-sugar or high-carb type. If your brain is craving some stimulation, give it something better to do than catatonic chewing! “Keep your mind active with crossword or Sudoku puzzles, reading, creative writing, or other brain-nourishing tasks,” recommends DeFigio. “Getting up and doing something also helps – take a walk or practice a musical instrument to replace mindless eating and to limit your consumption of extra empty calories.”
9. Get enough sleep. Lack of sleep has been proven to contribute to increases in both body fat and appetite. Sleep deprivation also impairs problem solving, alertness, concentration, reasoning, and attention (that’s why it’s one of the leading causes of auto accidents and workplace injuries). When you don’t sleep well, you feel tired and crave sugar to artificially generate energy. Try to get at least seven hours of solid sleep each night. “To help increase your sleep quality, consider taking a melatonin supplement before bed,” suggests DeFigio. “Melatonin is a hormone that helps regulate sleep patterns and may even offer protection against cancer. Or try a cup of valerian or chamomile tea.”
10. Don’t let triggers make decisions for you. It’s easy to fall into the trap of reactive behavior, including making poor food choices, when you feel stressed. The key to overcoming stress eating (and reactive behavior in general) is to become very clear about what you really want. When you experience an emotional trigger, force yourself to do a quick reality check to determine what you really need. For example, if you feel stressed and over- whelmed, what you really want is peacefulness and personal power, not sugar. If you’re unhappy with the behavior of your spouse, what you probably need is to feel reassured and reconnected with him or her—sugar can’t give you that. “Once you have identified what you really need when you feel stressed, you’ll be in a much better position to make a conscious – not reactive – decision,” confirms DeFigio.
“If you make these principles part of how you live every day, soon your life as a sugar junkie will be just a distant memory,” DeFigio concludes. “Once again, remember to take these changes slowly, incorporating one or two at a time into your daily life. Moving away from sugar dependency isn’t a short-term task but an enduring lifestyle.”
Dan DeFigio is the author of Beating Sugar Addiction For Dummies®. He is one of the most respected names in the fitness and nutrition industry. His articles have appeared in numerous professional journals, and his workshops have been presented in many cities across the United States. He has appeared on the Dr. Phil show and was featured in SELF Magazine, MD News, Personal Fitness Professional, and a host of other publications. Photo © Madlen/Shutterstock