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Curbing Your Sugar Addiction

I am probably the only dietitian out there who hasn't seen the movie "Fed Up" yet. From what I've heard, it is mostly on track, but with some serious fear mongering thrown in for good measure. That's what sells, people!

And I'm not here to defend or rebuke the movie. I want to talk about what to do with it. Because whether it is all true or just Hollywood shocking us, it has gotten people talking about the issue and evaluating their diet. People want to be educated, and then given the ability to take action to make changes. I count that as a win.

So let's review a few key details about sugar.

1. You need sugar.

More specifically, you need carbohydrates, and all carbohydrates break down in the body to glucose. So whether you eat an apple, an apple pie, or sour apple candy, the carbohydrates end up as glucose in your bloodstream. Same thing with pinto beans, broccoli, bread, pasta, and milk. Our body's main source of fuel is glucose. And our brain works EXCLUSIVELY on glucose. 

2. Not all sugars are equal.

When carbohydrates are found naturally in foods, there are many other health benefits. Vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and phytochemicals all come with the foods. I'm talking about fruits and vegetables, milk and yogurt, beans and lentils, and whole grains. These foods provide great nutritional benefit.

Where we are getting in trouble is the added sugar. Whether it is in the form of table sugar, high fructose corn syrup (HFCS), honey, agave or the myriad of other names it goes by, added sugar is no bueno. Added sugar is just a source of empty calories - no real nutritional benefit.

3. Sugar is addictive.

Turns out, the more we eat, the more we want. There are a few things going on in the body that can cause this. It might be the sugar causes a spike in our blood sugar, followed by a crash, which signals to our body that we are hungry - for sugar. Additionally, sugar consumption is associated with increased serotonin levels. Serotonin, sometimes called the happy chemical, acts on your brain to control your mood. As "Fed Up" points out, some studies have shown sugar to be as addictive as drugs like cocaine. 

4. Sugar is everywhere.

It's rather frightening how easy it is to get sugar. (Listen to me, talking about it like a street drug.) Sugar is a great preservative, it tastes good, and it can improve the texture of foods (think: baked goods). Food manufacturers know this, and they want to put out products that people will buy. I don't believe that it's a massive conspiracy to make us fat, or addicted, or something truly thoughtful. I think it's about money - capitalism at its...best. Reading the label is super important. Or better yet, cook your own food, and then you know what's in it!

5. You can do something.

This isn't doom and gloom. Let's take action! Keep reading for tips on how to reduce your sugar addiction, cravings, and take back some control of the situation.

Go Cold Turkey

Take a week - just a week - and cut out added sugar. Read your food labels, and if there are more than 5g of sugar in a serving (unless it's milk or plain yogurt), skip it this week. Say no to dessert. Don't add it to your coffee or tea. As I said above, I don't care if it's agave, honey, raw sugar, Splenda(R), stevia or Sweet n Low(R). This week - just say no. 

It will be hard. But it is worth it. It will help you hit the reset button on those cravings, and hit reset on your natural response to give in to them! You will also realize how often you turn to sugar. I practice this at least once a year, and it is helpful!

Come Back Slowly

You may be tempted to dive bomb into something sweet when the week is up. But the whole point was to curb your cravings, right? So ease back in. You can actually train your tastebuds to appreciate less sweet flavor.

Think about where you can cut or dilute your sugar intake.

  • Dilute drinks with water or club soda.
  • Buy a plain cereal to mix in with your normal sugary one. Like cornflakes and Frosted Flakes(R), or regular Cheerios(R) with Honey Nut Cheerios(R).
  • Buy plain yogurt and mix in your own fruit. Or mix half plain yogurt with half flavored yogurt.

Do it Yourself

Consider condiments that have added sugar that you make yourself.

  • Salad dressing
  • Pasta sauce
  • BBQ sauce

Modify your recipes for desserts or baked goods. Many recipes will be just fine with a reduced amount of sugar. Don't cut it out completely, but reduce it. Try cutting it back by 25% and see what happens. You might not even notice a difference. 

Don't Add Fake Sugar

This is where I may lose some of you. But I think it makes a big difference. This isn't just about the calories. If you really want to reduce your cravings for sugar, you have to reduce the intensity of the sweet that you eat. A sugar-free ice cream might help you lose weight, but you still have that same desire for a very sweet product. This is one of the reasons I can't recommend diet sodas or sugar-free products to people. It's not that they don't have sweeteners, it's that the sweetener isn't going to add calories to your diet. Learn to like things that are less sweet.

Don't Get Extreme - Eat Only the Best

All of these tips might make you go a little overboard. It's unrealistic to think that you'll never enjoy dessert again. It's unrealistic to believe that you can honestly cut out some of your favorite foods forever. So consider what you really love the most. And enjoy that in moderation. As a treat. On occasion. And truly relish it!

Anyone struggling with sugar addiction? What has helped you move past it? What are your pitfalls?