Photo: Unsplash/Ruslan Bardash
Currently, the World Health Organisation (WHO) advises that it’s essential to our health and wellbeing that our daily added sugar intake is no more than six teaspoons.
According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, the average Australian consumes around 14 teaspoons of added sugar every day. In the United States the average is 17 teaspoons.
We’re eating and drinking more than double, and in some cases almost three times, the amount of sugar that’s recommended by health professionals.
In terms of weight gain, this equates to between 225 to 270 calories consumed each day from added sugar alone.
An ingredient with addictive qualities some experts consider similar to cocaine, the impact of our sugar addiction is anything but sweet as experts say it is a major cause of our obesity epidemic and serious chronic illness including type 2 diabetes, depression, and Alzheimer's.
So why is sugar so bad for you and how can you put a stop to your sugar cravings?
I’m sure you’ve heard of simple carbs and complex carbs, and bad carbs and good carbs but did you know that carbohydrates are all sugars? But not all sugars are created equal.
So what is a carbohydrate?
Carbohydrates come in two forms: simple and complex. Both simple and complex carbohydrates are turned to glucose - blood sugar - in the body and are used as energy.
As Kristeen Cherney from Healthline explains, ‘Carbohydrates are made up of three components: fiber, starch, and sugar. Fiber and starch are complex carbs, while sugar is a simple carb. Depending on how much of each of these is found in a food determines its nutrient quality’.
A defining contrast between simple and complex sugars is how quickly your body digests and absorbs them.
The natural sugars you find in nutritious foods such as healthy grains, vegetables, and fresh berries are complex carbohydrates and are digested slowly by your body offering a steady supply of energy to your cells, leaving you satisfied for longer.
Meanwhile, processed added sugars, or simple carbohydrates, often found in foods such as muesli, crackers, and sweetened yoghurt are digested quickly, entering your bloodstream and rapidly raising your insulin levels. This leaves you lethargic and wanting another sweet fix to perk you up again.
So, the 10g of added sugar you’ll find in 100g of sweetened yoghurt is very different from the 10g in the same quantity of blueberries. The first version works against you while the second works for you.
Photo: Unsplash/Taylor Heery
The damage sugar can cause your body and brain is significant and the modern world is facing a continuing rise in the widespread major health implications associated with diets high in added sugar.
The high consumption of sugar can lead to a change in your gut bacteria and the production of free fatty acids in your liver, which results in your body tissue becoming inflamed and can then lead to illness.
A diet high in processed sugar can be responsible for a wide variety of conditions, many you might not have linked with too much sugar. Some of the short term effects of excess sugar on your body are:
But the long term impact of sugar on your body can be even worse.
There is literally nothing good in processed sugars. They are simply empty, unhealthy calories.
Sugar is an ingredient that, over time, has become embedded in our diet without us even noticing. Foods you’d never suspect have had sugar added to them. And sugar comes in so many different forms it’s difficult to keep an eye on all of them.
So sugar cravings and addiction should not be seen as a shortcoming or personal failing. The food industry is to blame. Not you.
I’ve had my own battles with cravings. A few years back I was on an elimination diet to try and find answers to some health problems. The diet eliminated almost everything that was healthy and I was left with a diet packed with simple sugars.
Although my main problem wasn’t with sweet food (although that was definitely there), I became fixated on other simple carbohydrates like chips (fries), and flatbread and it’s been quite a battle to kick these cravings.
We joke about sugar cravings, having urges and declaring, ‘I need a hit!’, but studies have shown that sugar has a similar effect in the rewards centre of the brain as alcohol and drugs such as cocaine: consuming a little sugar stimulates a craving for more.
Katherine Basbaum, a clinical dietitian with UVA Health, explains, ‘The feeling of reward is the same for sugar as it is for those addicted to drugs and alcohol. You don’t want to get addicted to something that causes inflammation, weight gain and chronic disease’.
The addictive response begins with your gut and brain, which work together intimately (scientists and medical experts refer to the gut as the ‘second brain’), sending signals in both directions.
When you’re eating they release dopamine, a hormone and neurotransmitter, into your bloodstream. This little boost of happy hormones leaves you feeling good and reinforces that your actions were ‘positive’.
With sugar, this release of dopamine is especially strong and encourages you to seek more and more. And this is where your sugar cravings and binge eating begin, as your mind and gut seek more sugar to achieve the same rewarding dopamine effect.
And just like other addictions, over time greater amounts of sugar are required for you to receive the same level of reward.
But there are more reasons you may be seeking sugar on a regular basis.
For instance, when you consume simple sugars your blood glucose will jump, followed by an increase in your insulin levels which will then cause your blood sugar to fall quickly leaving you wanting more of the little beast.
This response is particularly difficult to resist when you're tired and seeking a quick energy boost, so healthy sleep patterns are also important (we'll be posting a blog soon about how to improve your sleep so sign-up for emails and we'll let you know when it's here).
Another cause of sugar cravings is a shortage of essential nutrients in your diet such as protein, healthy fats, fibre, iron, and vitamin B which result in your body seeking a boost of energy.
So ensuring that you have a healthy diet rich with foods such as colourful vegetables, leafy greens, seeds and nuts, eggs, fatty fish, avocados, and olive oil will help you sedate this urge.
And of course, bad habits on their own can often see you eating unhealthy foods. We’ll talk about habits and some methods you can use to beat them, soon.
Photo: Unsplash/Piret Ilver
This is another area where sugar poses challenges (as if there weren’t enough!).
You’re aware of the sugar found in large quantities in products such as soft drinks, biscuits, cake, and sweets. But it’s also hiding in foods that are much less obvious and many you might never suspect.
Regularly you will see the following groceries promoted by food-producing companies as healthy and nutritious, but sometimes you’ll find more sugar per serving in one of these than you’ll find in a lollipop!
Then there are other foods you would imagine added sugar had no place in. However, when you read the label on many of these highly processed products you will often find a surprisingly large amount of sugar.
Sugar also comes in a variety of forms and is disguised on labels under many different names (61 in fact!). These include corn syrup, agave nectar, palm sugar, cane juice, sucrose, brown rice syrup, carob syrup, cane sugar, brown sugar, and barley malt.
Next time you’re in the grocery store have a quick look at the labels on some of these foods and see what you find. Remember, it’s all sugar, just under a different name, and it all stimulates your cravings and damages your health.
Also, pay attention to where sugars are appearing on the ingredients list. The higher they are in the list the stronger their presence in the food.
Photo: Unsplash/Mariana Medvedeva
If you’re really keen, some health experts, such as Dr Terry Wahls, who developed the Wahls Protocol Diet for treating multiple sclerosis, recommend you remove added sugar from your diet altogether, particularly if you’re struggling with an autoimmune illness.
Otherwise, a less overwhelming scenario from the World Health Organisation (WHO) advises you to have no more than 6 teaspoons (100 calories) of added sugar in your diet each day, or less than 10% of your daily calories.
Here are 10 tips on how to stop your cravings through a sugar detox.
The best place to start when it comes to planning a sugar detox is to pay attention to how much sugar is in your diet and where it’s coming from.
The 6 teaspoons recommended by the WHO might sound pretty generous and more than you believe you’re consuming, but it’s likely you’re eating more sugar than you think.
It’s one of the most common ingredients in processed food and, as you read earlier, it’s hiding in places and appearing in quantities you wouldn’t expect.
It pays to start reading the nutritional information on food and drinks to see how much added sugar per serve or per 100 grams is appearing in what you’re eating regularly (one teaspoon of sugar weighs about 4 grams).
Also have a look at the recommended serving size and think about how many servings you generally have. One serve, two, three? It can be very easy to eat much more than the suggested serving size without realising and therefore more sugar than you think.
And how much are you having in your tea and coffee each day?
Consider alternatives for some regulars in your diet that would immediately reduce your sugar intake.
Finding healthier options with no added sugar for things like fruit juice, yoghurt, bread, spreads, milk alternatives, and tinned foods could make a real difference. Just take a look at the ingredients list and see what you find.
Next, a grocery list is a great way to control buying splurges provoked by cravings and ensure you don’t forget the things you need when you’re shopping.
When armed with a list you’re less vulnerable to making impulse decisions you’ll regret later on. So try keeping a list on the fridge and jot down what you’ll need for meals and snacks and the healthy options you can choose from.
Think about alternatives like poached eggs or avocado on wholemeal toast for breakfast, nuts instead of crackers, fresh dates instead of sweets, salad vegetables instead of pre-made coleslaw.
It can be hard to finish work or afternoon run-arounds, open the fridge to start dinner and find nothing that appeals to you or can be made in the time you have available.
Making a meal plan before you do the grocery shopping, a routine I learned from my Mum, means you will have everything you need for healthy meals and snacks that week. Another way to knock cravings down when they raise their heads.
Look through your healthy cookbooks or cooking blogs and see what recipes you’d like to make. Save the recipes so you don’t forget them and add the ingredients you’ll need to your list.
Another handy trick I've taken from my Mum (she’s got a few, just don’t tell her I said so) is to, when possible, double the ingredients in the healthy recipes you’re making so that you have leftovers for lunch the next day, for dinner in a couple of nights, or to put in the freezer for some time in the next couple of months.
Healthy leftovers or frozen home cooked meals are a great way to have backups when your day leaves you with no time or energy for cooking.
Another tip from the experts is to not shop when you’re hungry as it makes it so much harder to resist temptation. Rough waters!
Don’t test yourself by keeping unhealthy snacks you know will be hard to resist in the fridge and pantry. Instead stock up with healthy snacks such as coconut yoghurt (free of added sugars and flavours), fresh dates, watermelon, nuts and seeds, so they’re at the ready when your cravings creep in.
In a blog for Healthline, dietitian Helen West explains, ‘When most people feel sugar cravings, they reach for high-fat, high-sugar foods like chocolate. However, swapping out the junk food for some fruit when you feel like something sugary could give you the sweet hit you need and stop your craving in its tracks’.
And cravings can often lead to binge eating; instead of one or two squares of chocolate, you might have a few rows. So keeping your kitchen stocked with healthy snack foods is a great way to guard yourself against both cravings and binge eating.
A suggestion from another Healthline expert, Kris Gunnars, is, ‘If you get a craving while hungry, one of the best tricks is to eat a healthy meal immediately’.
As I mentioned above, keeping some healthy alternatives on hand will help you beat your cravings. Here are some ideas to try.
And if you’re not particularly hungry but just need an alternative to something sweet try a cup of tea (without sugar), a herbal infusion like lemon or camomile, or a glass of water with a squeeze of lemon to quell your cravings.
Distracting yourself from cravings when they kick in can be a big help. If you’ve been sitting for some time, get up and move about, try a short walk, a simple task like sweeping the floor, making that phone call, or watering the plants. Anything that might help divert your attention from your pesky sweet tooth.
Yep, too much sugar is bad for you, but like everything if it has a healthy presence in your life it should be OK.
So don’t try and refuse yourself all treats, keep them for special occasions, nights out with friends, or the odd delicacy during a weekend away.
And don’t go beating yourself up if you do break your sugar detox and find yourself binging. You just try again tomorrow.
A sugar detox and learning how to stop your cravings might feel like an impossible challenge. But now you know more about sugar, the different forms it comes in, where you’ll find it, how much you can have, and the seriously damaging effects it has on your body, you’re in a much better place to make healthier choices.
So, my friend, go forth and conquer!
And if you’ve faced this challenge please share your experience with us in the messages below. Whether it’s your personal story of a battle with sugar or how you overcame a sugar addiction, there are many others facing something similar who'd love to hear from you.