Picture of lisa fournace winn, dnp, aprn

lisa fournace winn, dnp, aprn

Sugar Addiction: The Sweetest Drug of Them All

Tobacco, alcohol, opioids, pornography, and sex. What do these words have in common? They are the source of many addictions. Another word that could be added to that list is sugar. That’s right. Sugar. The same sugar you consume in your coffee every day, in your morning breakfast pastry, in your white-bread sandwich and soda at lunch, and in your after-dinner dessert. The same sugar that many feasted on as you came through the recent holidays.

Sugar seems benign, right? You can buy it at the grocery store. It tastes good. It is traditionally the highlight of any celebration. It is added to countless processed foods. We even feed it to our kids for goodness’ sake! How can sugar be addicting?!?

Well, let me explain. Sugar stimulates the reward centers of the brain which develop compulsive and addictive behaviors similar to those seen in drug and alcohol abuse. So when you eat sugar, the opiate receptors in your brain light up (this means your brain likes it). Your brain wants more. Cue the cravings. 

There is also a biochemical response to sugar that encourages dependency. When you eat a large amount of sugar, your body releases a large amount of insulin. Insulin quickly removes that sugar from your blood stream and converts it to fat. Your body responds by feeling sluggish and tired. You need something that will give you a quick “pick-me-up”. You grab for more sugar. Lather, rinse, repeat. The cycle perpetuates itself. The more sugar you eat, the more you want. 

Sugar addiction is hard to quantify because we all eat sugar, it is legal to purchase, and rarely do we seek treatment for a sugar addiction. According to the Department of Health and Human Services, the average American consumes 170 grams of sugar a day; that is equivalent to a third of a pound of sugar daily. It is 4.5 times the amount of sugar recommended for an adult male and almost 7 times the amount of sugar recommended for an adult female. More than 3 million Americans die each year of disease related to high blood sugar. Houston, we have a problem. 

But do you have a problem with sugar? Ask yourself this:

  • Do you hide your sugar intake from others?
  • Do you eat sugar even when you are not hungry?
  • Do you feel guilty after eating sugar? 
  • Do you use sugar to soothe feelings of stress, depression, or anxiety?

If you answered yes to these questions, you may be addicted to sugar.  

Consuming excessive amounts of sugar can result in a host of health problems including obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, dementia, anxiety, depression, and some cancers. It can make hot flashes worse if you are a menopausal woman. It can cause erectile dysfunction in men. Vascular damage caused by diabetes can lead to vision changes or blindness, neuropathy (nerve damage), kidney damage, and skin infections. And let’s just be honest; sugar addiction can make you feel bloated, tired, out of control, and ashamed.  

The good news is you can break a sugar addiction. There will be a period of withdrawals. Be prepared for that. You may experience intense cravings for sugar, headaches, insomnia, depression, dizziness, or nausea. These symptoms are all temporary. They will go away once your blood sugar levels even out and become more stable. 

Put an end to your sugar addiction with these tips:

  • Engage in moderate- to high-intensity exercise. Exercise draws sugar out of the blood and into the muscle cells to stabilize blood sugar levels. 
  • Avoid obviously high-sugar foods like sodas, candy, and pastries. Don’t eat that crap. There is absolutely no nutritional value to those foods. 
  • Consume high-fiber foods that take longer to digest and do not create blood sugar spikes: whole grains, legumes, fruits and vegetables, nuts, milk, butter, meats, and eggs.  
  • Drink more water. Water contains no calories, therefore, does not raise blood sugar levels. Water helps to flush excessive sugar from the body.

Until you get your sugar addiction under control, you may also need to avoid sticky situations (pun intended). If you know there is cake in the breakroom at work, then just don’t go in there. Throw out all the refined sugars in your pantry. If you are experiencing a strong craving, distract yourself by going on a walk or cleaning the bathroom. Nothing makes you lose your appetite like cleaning a toilet, right? 

There is life after sugar, I promise. You will get to a point where you don’t need sugar anymore. You may choose to consume a little every now and then. After all, who wants to celebrate a birthday with a salad? The difference will be that when you do consume sugar, it is an intentional treat. You will eat it, you will enjoy it (although maybe not as much as you expected to), and then you will walk away. You will no longer be driven to eat more sugar because your body is now more adept at handling those sugar spikes. Besides, you will know how much better you feel off the sweet stuff, and you will be very careful not to slide back down that slippery slope of sugar addiction.

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