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A Lesser Understood Addiction

Posted on Feb 07, 2019

It’s no secret that sugar is bad for you. In fact, it’s plain awful when it comes to diabetes, your waistline, cavities, acne, cholesterol, and inflammatory disease, to name a few conditions. So sugar is no good, but like alcohol, nicotine and drugs of abuse, is it also addicting? If sugar is addicting, what is the best way to quit?

The research on the addictive properties of sugar is a relatively new but burgeoning area of study. The medical definition of an addiction is compulsively seeking a substance despite its harmful consequences. Neuroimaging studies demonstrate that sugar releases opioids and dopamine in the central nervous system, thus acting upon the reward pathways in the brain much like drugs of abuse. Animal studies have shown that sugar induces binging, craving, tolerance and withdrawal, all properties attributed to an addiction. In one study, the withdrawal of sucrose in animals triggered symptoms of anxiety and depression. Reinstating the sucrose in these animals eradicated the anxiety and depression.

If sugar is in fact an addiction, and if withdrawal from a high sugar diet can induce cravings, anxiety and depression, how does one safely quit – and quit for a lifetime?  Here are a few thoughts to make the process of weaning off sugar a little easier:

1. Make a commitment to quitting sugary foods by reminding yourself that sugar is nothing more than a temporary pleasure with serious long term health consequences.

2. Understand that not all sugars are created equal. An orange is very different from a glass of orange juice which is very different from an orange cream popsicle. Go for eating the fruit in its natural form, which is full of fiber and has a much lower glycemic index that the other options, while still satisfying the sweet tooth.

3. Take a page out of the medical psychiatry manual for quitting caffeine. Cut down on sugar by no more than 25% per week. In other words, if you’re eating a bowl of ice cream after dinner 7 nights a week, eat only ¾ of a bowl of ice cream each night for a week, then ½ a bowl of ice cream for a week then ¼ bowl of ice cream for a week, then cut it out completely. This will help curtail the withdrawal symptoms, cravings and emotional side effects.

4. Avoid any and all artificial sweeteners. These are chemical-based compounds that have been linked to weight gain and diabetes. It may be safer to have a little of the real stuff than a little bit (or certainly a lot) of the artificial junk.

5. Stay hydrated. Not only does water quench our thirst and stop us from reaching for juice or sodas (which are an absolute sugar nightmare), but there is data that hydration, adequate sleep and exercise curtail our cravings for sugar.

6. Avoid Alcohol and Marijuana (as well as other illicit drugs). Both induce cravings for sugary foods and typically in an unregulated fashion.

7. When you do partake in a sweet treat for a birthday or holiday, cherish each bite much like cherishing a spa day or fancy night out. While these are not daily routines for most people, we all do deserve to splurge now and again.