I have a confession to make.
For decades, I struggled with an addiction. Then, when I finally realized I was destroying my body—the only body I’ve got—I rushed to do something about it. I quit—cold turkey. I stopped consuming sugar completely.
Or so I thought.
Actually, even when it seemed I was doing everything I could to break free of the hold sugar had over me, I wasn’t. Because sugar is a sneaky little bugger. It hides from us.
I’d given up soda, donuts, syrups, and all of my favorite candy, but I was still trapped and I didn’t even know it.
In fact, I went on doing more damage to my body for years. Oh, sure, I lost a little weight initially. I slept a little better too, at first. But, even though I thought I was eating a “healthy diet” and making great strides in conquering my sugar addiction, I still craved sweet things. And though my weight loss plateaued, I still had weight to lose.
So, I dug in deeper and constructed a plan.
And that’s what I want to talk about: The best ways to really beat sugar addiction.
I wasn’t the only person having a hard time kicking sugar to the curb.
Many of my patients have confessed that their need for sugar feels as serious to them as if they were craving hard drugs or alcohol. And sometimes, their withdrawal from sugar has been painful.
They lost sleep. They got terrible headaches. They felt totally lethargic.
Having been there, I could totally sympathize. It turns out, sugar is in almost everything the food industry pushes at us. And it might be even more dangerous than we know.
But, before I address the dark details about how sugar can wreak havoc on our bodies, why don’t we start with a quick lesson about sugar.
Carbohydrates—or carbs—has been a buzzword in the health world for years. But to be clear, carbohydrates are the sugary and starchy compounds in the food we eat. Usually, they’re broken down and transformed into energy in our bodies.
An interesting fact about carbs: Even if they’re more starchy than sweet (like a potato), they still turn into sugar. Glucose, to be exact. And then, the body is supposed to convert all that glucose into energy. But not all carbohydrates are created equal.
Complex carbs—certain vegetables, grains, and even legumes—can be truly beneficial to our health. It takes time to digest complex carbs, and that time allows blood sugar levels stay within a healthy range. So, when we ingest complex carbs, we don’t experience that uncontrollable energy rush—nor do we feel an annoying sugar crash.
Moreover, complex carbohydrates are full of fiber, essential vitamins, minerals, and protein—all things our bodies need to keep us running in tip-top shape.
On the flip side, however, are simple carbs. They’re pretty much useless. Simple carbs include all kinds of processed sugars: chips, cookies, sweets, cola, candy, and, believe it or not, fruit! (But, I’ll say more about fruit in a bit.)
Now, the pancreas is the first organ to get to work when glucose infiltrates the bloodstream. It releases insulin, which is the primary metabolic hormone. Insulin keeps glucose levels healthy by running it through the body so cells can use it as energy.
Only, the body will store that glucose as fat if its cells already have enough glucose to operate for the time being. So, if the body has already consumed a large amount of simple sugar, glucose will flood the bloodstream, and the pancreas will produce a bunch of excess insulin.
The problem is that our bodies can adapt to the flood and become insulin resistant. Then our bodies will have a harder time keeping our blood sugar in check. And guess what else? It gets even harder to convert all that fat we stored to energy. So, we can’t lose weight.
Moreover, excess glucose and insulin resistance are key components in major health issues.
As a cardiac surgeon, I know firsthand the over-consumption of simple carbohydrates and sugar can impact health in big ways.
Ingesting too much can lead to sugar-related health issues:
When we consume a lot of sugar, our innate immune system can fire right up and cause inflammation. This happens as a result of overproducing tiny proteins secreted by the immune system called cytokines. Cytokines send really important signals to other cells and organs in our bodies, so we need them to be in concert to keep us functioning at optimal health.
But, when there aren’t enough anti-inflammatory cytokines being produced, it can cause real problems. And too much sugar screws up the way this system is meant to function.
2. Significant weight gain.
A study was recently published showing an increase in the intake of beverages sweetened with sugar and the ways in which the surge was linked to significantly increased weight gain.
In fact, the study examined over 500 students (of varying ethnic backgrounds). Researchers followed these students’ consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages for a little over a year and a half. For every added serving of sweetened beverage ingested every day, the students’ Body Mass Indexes—and the occurrences of obesity—were significantly increased.
There’s no denying it. The fact is, sugar can really pull one over on our metabolism. It can sneak in and deactivate the very system responsible for telling our bodies we’re hungry. When the body misses these signals, we’re naturally inclined to eat more and more—which means gaining more and more weight.
3. Upped risk of various diseases.
Now, sugar has been known to increase the possibility of hypertension, nonalcoholic fatty liver disease, and even diabetes (just to name a few).
Hypertension—more commonly referred to as high blood pressure—occurs when the force of blood pushing up against the artery walls is way too high. Eventually, the pressure can cause concerning health issues.
The narrower our arteries get, the higher our blood pressure climbs. But, we can have hypertension for years and fail to notice any symptoms. So, it’s a good idea to see a doctor to check our blood pressure when we’ve been eating lots of sugar.
Also, nonalcoholic fatty liver disease applies to those who drink little or no alcohol, yet suffer from a variety of liver issues. The disease is often diagnosed when there’s a significant amount of fat stored in the liver. Sometimes the liver can become so inflamed, scarring and irreparable damage can occur. This kind of damage mirrors the kind of damage done to the liver when a person regularly abuses alcohol. And again, it can happen to a person even if she’s never had a sip of alcohol. Sugar can be that bad!
So, one of the crazy things about sugar is the way in which it can mess with the brain. Research suggests sugar—and sweetness in general, so this includes artificial sweeteners—can stimulate reward responses.
In fact, some scientists propose sugar cravings can be compared to cravings induced by various addictive drugs. That’s because sugar stimulates the brain’s pleasure center. When this occurs, a set of habits can form, causing people to become dependent on sugar in the the same way addicts crave certain drugs.
Now, I know, all that’s a lot to digest, right? So the question becomes: Just how much sugar are we eating?
Well, according to the New Hampshire Department of Health and Human Services, the average American eats over 150 pounds of sugar every year! For reference, that’s the about the size of a newborn giraffe.
Hard to believe, right? But, it’s true. And for more shocking information about sugar, watch my quick video about sugar addiction and four steps to nip it in the bud.
Our bodies were simply not built to process such insanely high amounts of sugar. And, nature certainly never intended for us to have to deal with the processed sugars pumped into all our favorite boxed, bagged, and pre-cooked foods.
So, how can we conquer our dependence on sweet treats?
First, we’ve got to admit to ourselves that sugar is in almost everything—even things labeled “healthy.” Remember when I mentioned quitting sugar cold turkey, but still struggling with cravings and weight loss?
Well, even though I’d quit eating donuts, sugary cereals, desserts, and my all time favorite—cola, I never realized how much sugar was hiding in salad dressing, bread, and even the “healthy” things I was consuming. The green juices I was drinking before exercise, the “light” cream I was putting in my coffee, and the “good for me” fruit-filled yogurts I was downing day after day were all loaded with sugar.
It’s no wonder I still felt hooked on the stuff. I didn’t realize I was still eating significant amounts of sugar. It was time to come up with a plan to beat sugar once and for all.
1. Play hide ‘n seek with sugar.
Sugar rarely goes by its name. In fact, there are over 60 names for sugar, according to the FDA. So, when reading an ingredients list on food packaging or in a menu, make sure to avoid the following:
Brown rice syrup
High-fructose corn syrup
And remember, most artificial sweeteners can cause concern as well. (I know, I know, but these sweeteners really can be as dangerous as sugar itself. To sweeten tea or coffee, it’s best to go for stevia.)
2. Kick fruit to the curb.
Now, I happen to steer clear of all fruits. Some of my patients find it difficult to do, so if it feels too tough to ditch fruit entirely, make sure it’s fresh and in season.
Not only that, choose from fruits high in polyphenols—they’re the natural, “good for you” chemicals found in plants and plant foods (like coffee or cocoa powder) known to help protect against certain health issues.
Blueberries, pomegranates, and blackberries are great for satisfying cravings as we start to cut sugar from our diets, but still need a little “fix.” Though again, it’s best to cut all fruit out as soon as possible.
3. Chug water, coffee, tea (and wine). Okay, okay…don’t chug wine.
But, make sure to eliminate soda, sweet tea, and fruit juice completely. And stay away from any caramel, creamy, super-nilla latté type drinks, or any drink that begins with the word “frappa.”
Water is the body’s best friend. Plain tea or coffee works too. Even a glass of wine every now and again can be healthy.
The Sweet Solution
When in doubt, make meals at home. Anything that comes in a bag, box, or even on a restaurant menu can hide tons of weird ingredients. So, focus on choosing whole foods and cook at home to know exactly what’s finding its way into your body.
I know it won’t be easy. It wasn’t for me. But I can honestly say I still really enjoy great-tasting food. And on top of that, I enjoy knowing the food I’m eating is the food my body was meant to eat.
Have you drastically reduced sugar? What strategies helped you most? I’d love to hear from you in the comments below or on my Facebook page.
Author: Dr. Steven Gundry
Image: Orin Zebest/Flickr
Editor: Catherine Monkman