A couple of years ago, a study conducted at Connecticut University sparked headlines in newspapers across the globe proclaiming that Oreos were more addictive than cocaine. Perhaps it was because the researchers used America’s favorite cookie that the media latched onto this news so enthusiastically, but the findings actually just confirmed what other scientists had found in previous studies: The brains and bodies of rats undergo the same chemical and physiological reactions when fed an intermittent diet high in sugar as they do when they’re administered habit-forming drugs. Several of those other studies also looked at the available research on human subjects and concluded that, for many individuals, sugar can indeed be an addictive substance.
Before you check yourself into rehab, it’s important to understand that not all sugar is bad, in fact a little bit of the right kind is essential. The average human brain requires around 420 calories-worth of glucose every day in order to function properly and, unlike muscle cells, the brain can’t store glucose, which means there needs to be a constant supply of it running through the blood stream. However, this is a relatively small amount of sugar, and more importantly, a different kind of sugar than what is routinely consumed in the typical modern western diet. Our diets tend to be high in fructose, which is processed differently than glucose, producing negative byproducts that can disrupt the insulin cycle and raise bad cholesterol, ultimately leading to diseases like obesity, diabetes and heart disease.
Making matters worse, it turns out that fructose is in just about everything, including processed foods, soda, fruits and vegetables, juices and of course, table sugar. It’s also present in high amounts in so-called “natural” sweeteners like honey, maple syrup and especially agave, which has a much higher fructose content than even high-fructose corn syrup. Among these, only whole fruits and vegetables are considered healthy, because they contain relatively low amounts of fructose, and they provide a bevy of micronutrients and fiber. What about juice, you ask? Fruit juice, it turns out, is nearly as bad for you as soda in terms of the sugar. A 20-ounce bottle of cola contains 250 calories and 69 grams of sugar, while a 20-ounce bottle of orange juice contains 279 calories and 52 grams of sugar. In sharp contrast, a whole navel orange has only 69 calories and 12 grams of sugar, and it provides 3 grams of fiber. 100% Vegetable juice is much lower in sugar than fruit juice: a 20-ounce serving of tomato juice has 125 calories, 15 grams of sugar and 5 grams of fiber.
While many of us do a good job of not adding sugar to the foods we eat, that’s often because we don’t have to – it’s already in there. Virtually everything you buy that comes in a bag, box or can has some kind of sugar added. This is especially true of foods labeled “low-fat”. The food industry knows that the low-fat label helps them sell their products, but low-fat processed food doesn’t taste very good, so sugar is added (and often salt, too) to make it more palatable. Indeed, the addictive nature of sugar makes it easier for these companies to sell us packaged wares labeled as “healthy.”
So what can a person do in order to reduce the amount of fructose in the diet and break the sugar addiction? There are a few tricks or rules you can follow that can go a long way toward helping.
1. Limit Exposure – By exercising good judgement and will power once at the grocery store, you can avoid dozens or even hundreds of moments of temptation at home. It’s estimated that the average person makes well over 200 food-related decisions every day. If you don’t have sugary processed junk in your house or your office or cubicle, then you’ve eliminated the possibility of making poor choices when your resolve isn’t at its peak. Similarly, don’t put yourself in situations outside the home where you’re likely to consume high amounts of sugar. Skip your mid-morning trip to the coffee shop that’s bursting with baked goods and sugar-laden coffee drinks. And here’s something really radical – don’t buy sugar! Next time you run out, don’t restock your pantry. This makes it impossible for you to pour it into your coffee, over your cereal or to add it to sauces or baked goods.
2. Paradoxically, Eat More Fruit – Since fructose is the enemy and all fruits derive most of their calories from fructose, it might seem odd that I’m recommending that you eat more of it. Using the soda/juice/whole fruit example above, though, you can see that you’d have to eat an awful lot of whole fruit to equal the amount of sugar in just one soda. Fruit is actually your best choice when you’re craving something sweet. The key, of course, is to substitute whole fruit for other sweets, and not simply add it to a diet already high in sugar.
3. Go Cold Turkey – This is not for the faint of heart, but it actually works very well. By putting yourself on a week-long sugar restriction, you can pretty quickly get your sugar cravings to subside. You can set your own rules, but generally try to limit sugar consumption to that contained only in whole foods. This means skipping processed carbs with sugar added, virtually all commercial breads, for example.
As with the withdrawal from any addictive substance, you can expect to go through a few unpleasant mental and physiological phases (headache, sleep disturbances, irritability), but by the end of the third day, most of these should have disappeared or at least be quite manageable. Still, it might be a good idea, to do this “detox” when you can spend a few days by yourself, locked in a cabin in the north woods far away from grocery stores and restaurants, not to mention those you love.
4. Post Reminders to Yourself and Others – You can do all of the above and things will be going great, and then your coworker will bring in and ice cream cake to work and offer you a piece the size of your head. Rather than be faced with this impossible temptation in that moment, avoid it altogether by reminding those around you that you’re kicking the sugar habit, so no, you don’t want any of that. Make an announcement on Facebook, post signs on your office door, wear a t-shirt that says:
By implementing these tips and just being more conscientious about reading labels, you can drastically reduce the amount of sugar you consume and finally break the sugar addiction.