Here’s a little test: Imagine that you have just had a big lunch. You are not remotely hungry but when you come home, you find a plate of warm chocolate chip cookies, smelling delicious, on the kitchen counter. No one else is around. Do you dive into those cookies?
If you answer yes, and can’t imagine why anyone would say no, you may be a sugar addict—a biochemical problem that can set the stage not only for unhealthy weight gain, but also for depression, mood swings and impulsive behavior.
To learn more, Bottom Line Health spoke with Kathleen DesMaisons, PhD, who has spent several decades helping people with out-of-control sugar cravings.
The roots of sugar addiction
There’s a growing scientific consensus that too much sugar is a leading cause of America’s biggest health problems, from obesity to heart disease and diabetes. But not everyone appears to have the same risk. Why?
According to theories of “addictive nutrition,” some people are more sensitive than others to the brain-altering effects of sugar. People who are affected by “sugar sensitivity” are believed to have a genetic makeup that makes them especially vulnerable to the blood sugar swings that can happen after eating sweets, white bread, white pasta and other highly processed carbohydrates. The roller coaster is both emotional and physical.
But that’s not all. According to this theory, you also may have chronically low levels of two key brain chemicals—serotonin and beta-endorphin. Serotonin helps regulate mood and self-control. Beta-endorphin is the body’s natural opioid, capable of blunting both physical and mental pain.
Low levels of these two brain chemicals can leave you reeling, living from one soda or bowl of ice cream to the next to get your feel-good boost—and then crashing with feelings of sadness, anger and self-loathing. When you do resist your cravings, you are consumed with thoughts of your next sweet fix.
There’s no blood test or formal diagnostic process to identify sugar sensitivity—and it’s not the same as diabetes, which is a disease marked by high blood sugar (glucose) levels.
But if you have an insatiable sweet tooth…a history of depression…and/or past or current abuse of alcohol or drugs, sugar sensitivity may be a contributing factor.
To tame sugar addiction
To help you get off this roller coaster, here’s Dr. DesMaisons’ seven-step plan…
Step #1: Eat breakfast. You’ve heard it before…breakfast is important—but what you eat is the key. You want to avoid starting the day with a blood sugar crash, followed by a donut rescue. Even if you think you hate breakfast or don’t have time, eat within one hour of getting up.
To help keep your blood sugar levels stable, don’t eat just anything—build your breakfast around protein (eggs are fine, but so are beans, cottage cheese, tofu, nut butters or last night’s turkey breast). You should also eat some complex carbohydrates (such as oatmeal, whole-grain toast or brown rice).
Key advice: Get one-third of your daily protein at breakfast. Aim for onehalf gram of protein for each pound you weigh. For example, a 150-pound person would aim for 75 g a day with 25 g being consumed at breakfast. That’s roughly the amount in two eggs, two tablespoons of peanut butter and a cup of oatmeal. Caution: If you have chronic kidney disease, speak to your doctor about your protein intake—too much can be hard on your kidneys.
Important: Be sure to master this step before moving on—even if it takes months. Take the same step-by-step approach as you go.
Step #2: Start a food journal. Write down everything you eat, with dates and times. Also, your food journal should include how you are feeling physically and emotionally at any time of the day that you notice a shift. For example, you may note that you get tired every day around 2 pm when you eat a heavy lunch. The idea is to notice patterns, not beat yourself up. Use the food diary as an ongoing tool.
Step #3: Get enough protein at each meal. Once you’ve mastered breakfast, do the same with lunch and dinner. At each meal, get one-third of the daily amount of protein you need.
Why the focus on protein? Protein not only helps stabilize blood sugar, it’s also a key source of tryptophan, an amino acid your body uses to make serotonin—as mentioned earlier, the brain chemical that increases impulse control and feelings of well-being. You probably know that turkey is a good source of tryptophan, but tuna, tofu, salmon and kidney beans are as well.
Also important: To avoid blood sugar crashes, space your meals no more than six hours apart, except overnight. Ideally, you will only eat at mealtime—because that teaches you how to start and stop eating—instead of grazing all day. But some people, including pregnant women and those with physically demanding jobs, need snacks. Good choices: An apple and some cheese…or a handful of almonds and a pear.
And if you feel you need a sweet dessert, eat it right after your meal to temper the effects of the sugar. Be reasonable with dessert and don’t obsess about it. Focusing on your meals rather than sweets will naturally help quiet your cravings.
Step #4: Try vitamins and…a nightly potato. You should get most of your nutrients from food, but vitamin C, B-complex and zinc supplements may help balance your brain and body chemistry. Discuss this with your health-care provider.
The most surprising part of the plan—a nightly potato with the skin—has a specific purpose. The idea is to end your day with a complex carbohydrate that will raise your serotonin levels. Complex carbohydrates do this by triggering the gradual release of insulin, which, in turn, enables tryptophan to travel from the bloodstream to the brain and produce serotonin.
A potato (with a little butter, if you like) fits the bill. It can be a small red potato, a medium Yukon Gold or even a sweet potato, roasted, boiled or baked. The skin has fiber which helps curb the potato’s effect on your glucose levels. Take it like medicine, three hours after dinner. Note: If you have diabetes, consult your doctor before following this advice.
Step #5: Go from white to brown. Instead of white rice and white bread, opt for brown rice and whole-grain bread. Veggies (including greens) are good, too, as well as whole grains.
Step #6: Cut out added sugar. Start by saying no to cake, cookies, candy, sweet drinks and processed foods full of sugar. This might sound hard, but since it comes later in the plan, you will be shocked at what a nonevent it is. Helpful: Don’t forget to read food labels since many food products you wouldn’t expect contain added sugar.
Key advice: Whole fruit, which contains natural sugars, is fine, but don’t overdo it with high-sugar fruit, such as bananas, raisins or figs.
Step #7: Get in touch with your feelings. Once you’re off the sugar roller coaster, it’s common to experience emotions that have been masked by your use of sugar. To better understand these new feelings, consider self-help approaches, including guided imagery or meditation, and/or talk therapy.
This plan will remove your cravings. Beyond that, use it as a life skill rather than a diet.