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Addicted to sugar? You’re not alone!

Bad habits: addicted to sugar? You are not alone

Tuesday night we had a crowd of 60 people sitting in the Natural office, all committed to shaking their sugar habit.

It felt a little bit like Alcoholics Anonymous except, I imagine, the stories at AA are far more harrowing.

That’s not to say the sugar struggle isn’t real — and let’s also not underestimate the damage that years of zero-body confidence can do.

If you’re uncomfortable and frustrated with the way your clothes fit, if you feel inhibited intimately, if you jump out of every photo and shy away from days on the beach or a boat because you just hate to be in a swimsuit, then it’s seriously going to impact your mood.

Many people (not just women) explain to me that the way they feel about their body influences their mindset every single day. It affects how they talk to their kids in the morning, how they interact with colleagues at work and inhibits their desire to be social. It’s pretty miserable being miserable.

When someone is overweight or unhealthy because of their sugar habit, it’s easy to get frustrated with them — just give up the white stuff and all your dreams will come true!

Except … it’s not that easy. Study after study shows us how addictive sugar is, more so than cocaine. If you compare type 2 diabetes statistics to drug-related deaths, sugar certainly kills many more people. Not that sugar intake is the only driver behind the development of adult-onset diabetes (stress, carb overdose in general, weight gain for other reasons and lack of exercise can all contribute too).

But why is sugar so addictive? I’m pretty sure we’ve explored this here before, but if you have a huge bowl of Hallowe’en candy around you right now, then it’s probably a good time to discuss the mechanisms at play again.

During our No Sugar November class, I went through several key factors that can drive sugar cravings. Some of them are really simple, such as dehydration. If you’re dehydrated, you’ll feel tired, if you’re tired you need a pick-me-up and instead of reaching for a big glass of water, most people have caffeine and some kind of sugary snack. So, I know you’ll roll your eyes when I say “drink enough water”, but DRINK ENOUGH WATER! Let’s not overlook the basics!

From the perspective of dehydration, sugar can become addictive because it’s the habit we’ve developed in response to another habit. (In this instance, we develop the habit of eating sugar because we are in the habit of not drinking enough water.) However, sugar is clinically addictive too (we see it in lab rats) and this is because it stimulates the pleasure response pathways in our brain and humans are big pleasure seekers.

As examples, we spend a lot of time chasing down money, food, friendship and sex. Why? Because they bring us pleasure. Unfortunately, when it comes to sugar, our pleasure response requires increasing quantities to reach the same level of nirvana. The small bowl of ice cream that used to satisfy you is no longer enough. Now you need the whole pint. (See, addictive!)

To make it worse, the more sugar you have, the more salt and saturated fat you need to stimulate your taste buds to the same degree. But the more salt and saturated fat you have, the more sugar you need. And so the cycle goes on. This is why the food industry is providing us with increasingly bizarre and intense flavours, because we need an extreme level of stimulation to achieve a normal “hedonistic” response to food.

What I mean by hedonistic is that sometimes we eat because we need to (biological hunger) and sometimes we eat because we want to (hedonistic hunger). It drives a never-ending cycle of flavour overload and has driven us a long way from what “real food” actually looks like. Imagine giving your great-great-grandmother a bag of Doritos and a Pop Tart! What would she have had to say about that?

Sugar addiction has also been driven by the fact that we’re not especially well adapted to our current food environment.

As a refresher, remember that for 99 per cent of our evolutionary history we have been hunter-gatherers. As hunter-gatherers we used to ricochet between food scarcity and food abundance, so we developed these supercool biological mechanisms to help us survive that.

We were designed to crave carbohydrate, designed to be able to overeat it AND designed to store excess dietary sugars in the body as fat.

In a world of food abundance those mechanisms backfire on us spectacularly. We may have already met our calorie quota for the day, but we still crave (and are capable of overeating) doughnuts, fries, candy, chocolate, cookies… and just about any other energy-dense thing that might get in our way. It’s NOT GOOD.

During our seminar on Tuesday we were discussing ways to navigate our weird environment better. Wouldn’t it be nice, instead of having a never-ending battle with food, to just be able to rise above it and pick things that you enjoy but still nourish you?

Some people seem to manage that and those that do tend to be doing two things really well — they have better habits and they have set their environment up in such a way that they simply require less willpower.

For example, they don’t have to use willpower not to eat the ice cream in the freezer because they don’t have any ice cream in the freezer anyway! And when it comes to habits, think about it this way, do you have to use willpower to brush your teeth? Nope. You do it because it’s a habit. It’s what you’ve always done.

So, we need to make an effort to create more healthy habits that make healthy living routine — something we no longer need to think about.

During No Sugar November, we are focusing on establishing a couple of healthy habits. We are including protein at breakfast (that helps steady sugar release from the carbs you have too), we are including a healthy low or no-sugar snack mid morning and midafternoon (helps prevent the crashes that lead to cravings), we are hydrating well (to make sure we don’t reach for sugar to ease fatigue) and we are getting enough sleep (to make sure we produce enough regulatory hunger hormones).

If you couldn’t join us in the sessions, don’t stress, just focus on those four habits and they will help you too! I’ll share some of our best recipes next week so you can try those out as well. Meanwhile, have a great weekend and I’ll see you next time.

Catherine Burns is a fully qualified nutritional therapist trained by the Institute for Optimum Nutrition in the UK. For details: www.natural.bm, 236-7511 or, on Facebook, Natural Nutrition Bermuda