Many Americans struggle with sugar or health complications that result from too much sugar in their diet. Some are very aware they have a problem with sugar, but many have no idea that sugar may be a destructive force in their lives. And the funny thing is, it is less about “choice” and “willpower” than you might think – it is about two major factors: biochemistry + habit.
How do you know if you have a problem with sugar?
You may have one or more of these common symptoms:
As a National Board Certified Health & Wellness coach (NBC-HWC), I have engaged with many clients over the years who have worked hard to achieve a balanced relationship with sugar, which includes refined carbohydrates.
I have seen clients go from feeling like they have no control or “will power” to experiencing “food freedom” and enjoying the natural sweetness in healthy, whole foods along with the occasional sweet treat. It is a significant journey for sure, but it is one of the most important and rewarding changes you can make for your health. And it is very doable! 👍
This article covers how and why excessive sugar is an issue and how it is a major driver of chronic disease in this country. We’ll also explore steps you can take to overcome hurdles and create a healthy balanced relationship with sugar and with food in general.
Three Not-So-Sweet Facts
#1 Sugar is an addictive substance
In a National Institutes for Health (NIH) study, the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) concluded, “In the aggregate, this is evidence that sugar can be addictive.”
They based this on four components of addiction: bingeing, withdrawal, craving, cross-sensitization
They also looked at those behaviors related to neurochemical changes in the brain that also occur with addictive drugs. (1) There are numerous references to the addictive nature of sugar by many different doctors and researchers.
All sugar addictions are not created equal. Someone may be so addicted that getting their next “fix” overwhelms their thoughts. For others, cravings and other symptoms seem like part of the day-to-day condition.
Bottom line: the more sugar you eat, the more sugar you crave! You will also experience energy highs and lows throughout the day. We refer to all of this as the sugar rollercoaster.
#2 Sugar is now considered by many to be a primary driver of chronic disease, such as obesity, heart disease, high blood pressure, Type 2 diabetes and liver disease (2, 3, 4, 5, 6).
All of the conditions mentioned above are considered chronic diseases that can lead to life threatening complications. The other trait they all have in common is that they can be managed, and often reversed, by lifestyle factors and habits.
A primary factor is a healthy diet that doesn’t include excessive sugar and refined carbohydrates (e.g. cookies, white bread, pizza, pasta). This doesn’t mean you can never have sugar, it is all about balance, which we will talk more about later!
I found this quote to be very telling—in “Sweet and Vicious, Is Sugar Toxic?,” the April 2011 New York Times magazine cover story, the President of Memorial Sloan-Kettering was quoted, “I have eliminated refined sugar from my diet. Ultimately, it’s something I can do to decrease my risk of cancer.”
Note also these chronic conditions are all underlying risk factors for complications of COVID-19. Getting these chronic conditions under control and working to strengthen your immune system can help you become more resistant to potentially life threatening health issues.
#3 Many people are addicted to sugar and don’t realize it (because sugar hides everywhere).
Of the 600,000+ food items in the United States, 80 percent are laced with added sugar, according to Dr. David Lustig, because sugar makes things taste better at a lower cost than other flavorings. “Processed food is cheap: Good for your wallet, good for the industry, bad for your health,” he said. (2)
Additionally, sugar goes by at least 56 different names (7), e.g. high fructose corn syrup, brown rice syrup, cane sugar, honey, dextrose, etc. This makes finding sugar on your food labels challenging.
Did you know that everyday items like ketchup, bottled salad dressing, flavored yogurt, packaged or canned soups, protein bars, cereals and marinara sauce (and the list goes on!) typically have a lot of added sugar in them?
For example, 1 tablespoon of Heinz ketchup has 1 teaspoon of sugar in it—that is 1/3 by volume! And look at what a little container of yogurt has in it—the same amount of sugar that is in 2.7 glazed donuts!
A Day in the Life of a Sugar Addict
Sugar releases good-mood brain chemicals and neurotransmitters such as:
In fact, sugar lights up the exact same parts of the brain as opiates do! You may hear some say that sugar is as addictive as cocaine—there was a study using rats that supported this! (9)
After that initial spurt of euphoria, what happens next? All aboard for the sugar rollercoaster! You experience the high-energy jolt and then… crash—maybe feeling tired, with a headache, moody, impatient and anxious.
If you start your day with a breakfast that is largely comprised of sugar or refined carbs, say a bagel and a glass of orange juice or a pastry with a Starbucks® Grande Latte (14 grams of sugar, about 3.5 teaspoons) or a big bowl of cereal, you will feel a good burst of energy. Just a few hours later, you may feel tired and find yourself thinking about needing a coffee or something sweet to eat.
If you do something similar at lunch, you then experience the mid-afternoon slump and you might grab a cookie or two and another coffee.
By dinner time, you may feel “hangry”—headachy, tired and crabby. You walk in the door from work and may find yourself standing at the pantry, grabbing the first easy thing you can find to eat to get over that slump. After all, who has the patience or energy to wait for dinner?
Does this sound familiar? Would you like to get off this roller coaster?
Here’s what’s going on in the body. Sugar enters our bloodstream and wreaks havoc with a rapid rise in glucose levels, AKA a “sugar rush.” The body sees the high level of sugar as an emergency state. It works hard to burn it up as quickly as possible and triggers the pancreas to secrete insulin to bring the body back into balance.
Insulin decreases blood sugar levels by moving glucose out of the blood and into the cells where it can be used as energy. However when you consume more sugar than the body needs for energy, that sugar ends up being stored as body fat!
Our daily sugar rollercoaster begins with what we choose to eat for breakfast.
We eat it, we crash, we crave it, and we eat it again!
It’s an endless ride that we can’t seem to get off. And not surprisingly, the process exhausts our bodies. All throughout the day there’s that little voice in your head saying, “I just feel like having something sweet. Maybe just one little chocolate chip cookie.” and then another .... and another...
Does sugar still seem so sweet?
Lose the Sugar Addiction, Gain Food Freedom
I like author Melissa Hartwig’s description of food freedom:
“Food freedom is feeling in control of the food that you eat, instead of food controlling you. Food freedom is about indulging when it’s worth it, passing when it isn’t, and never feeling guilt or shame for doing either. It’s about taking morality out of food, and recognizing you are not a “good” or “bad” person based on what’s on your plate. True food freedom means you never again feel powerless over food.”
Doesn’t that sound lovely? And the good news is, it IS attainable.👌
Remember I mentioned earlier, that sugar addiction is biochemistry + habit? The biochemistry is primarily about eating in a way that wreaks havoc on your blood sugar which in turn throws your hormones out of whack and has a negative cascade effect on your whole body. It is the crazy swings in blood sugar levels that are behind all the madness.
The other side of the equation is habit.
Similar to biochemistry, habit is stronger than will power!
Habit is how we have been programmed, it is in our neural pathways and our programmed behaviors are done without thinking.
We have all kinds of habits around food, some of which are harder than others to break.
Here are some examples of habits around sugar:
Does this sound like your day?
The good news: you can reprogram your brain to create healthier habits.
There are strategies to handle all of the situations I mentioned above and many others you can come up with yourself. Once you break those habits and people tell you how disciplined you are, you will realize it isn’t discipline at all—it is the result of both fixing your biochemistry and the systematic behavior change process that created new healthier habits.
This is the shift you can experience! I have experienced this personally and I have seen it in my clients and my friends.
When you achieve true food freedom, your blood sugar is balanced and you have developed healthier habits. Your energy is more stable throughout the day. You (typically) have the patience to wait until dinner is ready before diving headfirst into a box of crackers with cheese washed down with wine every night.
The food you eat is a conscious choice. You learn to taste the natural sweetness in foods. You’ll actually still have cravings! But now, the foods you crave are almost always healthy.
Will you ever eat pizza, pasta, or ice cream again? Sure, if you decide you want to and it is worth it to you.
The point is you are now making conscious choices that serve you well. Your approach to food is more balanced and you aren’t being “good” or “bad.”
You learn what foods are your trigger foods—these foods are a slippery slope and you may choose to avoid them except for an occasional treat.
After all these years of work I still have two active trigger foods! Ice cream and raw cashews. Once I start, I can’t stop. What’s my solution? I just don’t keep them in the house anymore, but I do enjoy them occasionally.
How Much Sugar is OK to Have?
Ultimately, you want to eat naturally occurring sugars—those found in whole foods and complex carbohydrates such as fruit, vegetables, beans, sweet potato, and quinoa; while avoiding added sugar and refined carbohydrates on a regular basis.
The main difference between added and natural sugar is how fast each is broken down in your body.
"Because the sugar in fruits is paired with fiber and water, it’s released much more slowly into your body, providing you with a consistent stream of energy," says Rania Batayneh, MPH.
"Added sugar, without fiber and water, is broken down immediately, leading to a surge in insulin and blood sugar levels. As a result, you don’t feel full at all—you just crave more sugar." (10) Also, whole foods with naturally occurring sugar contain important nutrients, such as vitamins and minerals, protein, healthy fats, etc. that our bodies need to thrive.
Having an occasional ice cream cone or dessert isn’t a problem. What we are trying to avoid is the regular overconsumption of harmful sugars.
The American Heart Association recommends:
Nutrition labels are changing to call out added sugars vs. naturally occurring sugars, which you can see on the nutrition label indicated by the numbers 1 and 2.
You can also read your food labels which list the ingredients in descending order, so in general the higher sugar (and remember sugar goes by at least 50 different names) appears in the list, the more that product contains.
Two Ways to Break Up with Sugar
If you suspect you have a problem with sugar (remember, this includes refined carbohydrates), there are two possible paths to break the cycle. One is to go cold turkey and do a sugar detox, the other is “crowding out,” where you slowly start to replace your sugary refined foods with healthier foods.
Regardless of the method you choose, remember sugar addiction = biochemistry + habit, so both aspects need to be addressed.
In both approaches, the goal is to balance your blood sugar by eating complex carbohydrates with a healthy balance of quality protein, healthy fats, and plenty of fiber. The protein, fat and fiber help you stay full longer, feel more satisfied, and keep your blood sugar stable by burning sugars more slowly.
Let’s look at both approaches.
1. Sugar Detox
In my opinion, this is the ideal way to start your journey! It nails the biochemistry right out of the gate and within about 10 days most people notice their cravings are gone and it feels like magic! There are many different sugar detoxes on the market today, but two of the most popular are The 21 Day Sugar Detox and The Whole30.
All of the detoxes are based on an elimination diet, where you eliminate all processed foods, sugar, refined carbohydrates, alcohol (remember all alcohol is processed like sugar in your body), gluten and typically some other foods. The additional foods that are eliminated depend on the specific program.
I am a particular fan of the The 21-Day Sugar Detox® (21DSD), so much so that I took their course to become a certified 21DSD coach.
This is a 5-week program, with one week of preparation, 3 weeks of detox, and one week of reintroducing foods. There is a 21DSD Daily Guide which is structured like a workbook and is full of information that works on the habit side of the equation as well.
You can do the program on your own and use the support of the public Facebook group (The 21-Day Sugar Detox®️ Community) or you can do it with a coach for added accountability, support and deeper work on the habit side of the equation.
There are numerous accounts of Type 2 diabetics successfully getting off their medication from doing this program—you can see some of their stories in the Facebook group.
Regardless of which detox you choose, developing a healthy relationship with sugar and getting to a state of consistent food freedom is a journey. It is an iterative process of discovery and refinement as you learn to handle slips and strategies to develop healthier habits.
2. Crowding Out
If you don’t feel ready to dive into a detox, you can take small steps over time to slowly change your diet and create healthier habits. For some, this works very well. For others, the cravings (biochemistry) are so strong that it may be difficult to succeed with this method. I strongly recommend working with a certified coach to help support and guide you through this process.
Working with a coach, you set small manageable goals designed to help you find healthier substitutions for the sugary foods and refined carbohydrates. You will also have goals designed to replace habits that don’t serve you well with healthier habits.
Once you achieve success with one goal, you can move onto the next one. Over time, you can successfully “crowd out” the unhealthy foods you were eating with the healthier substitutions. You proceed at your own pace, and build on your successes one step at a time.
I am doing this method with a client now. She started by changing her breakfast. Once that became a new habit, she slowly started trying new foods and “crowding out” some previous unhealthy options. During the process, we also looked at habits and food triggers, and found healthier strategies.
This process may be slower but can work better in the long run for many people. What works best for you is very personal and highly dependent on how ready you are to make changes.
four Facts to Remember About Sugar
The good news is there are proven methods to get off the sugar roller coaster and create a healthy balanced relationship with sugar and food in general. Balancing your blood sugar is key and achieving food freedom is attainable, no matter where you are right now!
Regardless of which method you choose, it is an iterative process of discovery and refinement. There will be slips along the way. Not only are these slips ok, they are critical to the learning process.
Working with a certified health coach can provide much needed support throughout the process and can help you stay motivated and accountable while you dig deeply into your habits and strategies to overcome them.
As we have seen, food is very powerful on many levels. I will leave you with one of my favorite quotes, “The food you eat can be either the safest & most powerful form of medicine or the slowest form of poison.”
What choice would you like to make?