How to break free from your sweetest addiction
Here’s the bad news...
While you may not realize it, you are probably addicted to a very powerful and dangerous drug—it’s called added sugar.
But here’s the good news...
As bad as added sugar is for you, breaking an addiction to it is so much easier than you’d think!
An Addiction Worse Than Cocaine
When we say that you’re probably addicted to sugar, we don’t mean that in some hyperbolic way. We mean it quite literally.
In studies of mice, being fed added sugar lights up the same part of the brain that drugs do.
Actually, that’s not quite true. Sugar is worse—it’s eight times as addictive as cocaine.
One study of rats that were already addicted to cocaine showed that, when given the option, they would still choose sugar water over the narcotic.
That’s one powerful drug.
And while more standard drugs like cocaine and nicotine may be more immediately damaging, long-term abuse of sugar is at least as bad for your health.
Sugar Sabotages Your Health
If you take in 20% of your daily calories from added sugar, you are 38% more likely to die of heart disease.
Sugar, rather obviously, leads to obesity. And obesity leads to all sorts of other issues—from gastrointestinal problems, to cardiovascular disease, to an increased risk of cancer.
And, of course, sugar—along with refined carbohydrates, which turn into sugar in your body—is the number one reason we’re facing an epidemic of type 2 diabetes in America today.
Sugar finds its way into your blood, causing a spike in your blood-sugar levels. That leads to your pancreas dumping a ton of insulin into your blood—which turns the sugar into fat.
But all that insulin leads to a blood-sugar crash, which leads to sugar cravings. And then the cycle restarts.
Over time, your body builds up a tolerance for all that insulin—that is until your body eventually stops responding to insulin altogether and you have type 2 diabetes.
About 1 in 3 Americans is already prediabetic, and nearly 10% of the population develops diabetes every year. It’s one of the greatest health risks around today, and an underlying condition that leaves you more vulnerable to complications from modern diseases like COVID-19.
It’s Not Your Fault
It’s not too surprising that so many of us struggle with sugar when you discover that the average American gets 270 calories from added sugar every day.
That’s 17 teaspoons.
If you can’t picture that, it’s worth it to take a look. Actually take out a teaspoon, and heap 17 helpings of sugar (or any similar powdery substance) into a pile. That’s a lot of sugar.
To be clear, we are not talking about all kinds of sugar right now. The natural sugar you get from fruits, or milk, or other unprocessed sources is good for you.
Your body digests those sugars differently, because they are delivered with fiber and other nutrients. This sugar is good for you—and, in fact, most of us don’t get enough of it.
But the dangerous stuff is added sugar. It goes by all sorts of names—sucrose, high fructose corn syrup, agave nectar, glucose, evaporated cane juice, to name just a few.
That’s no mistake. Most food companies have been trying to hide the sugar in their food for years. And it’s everywhere.
Pizza was recently found to be the most addictive food, because the pizza sauce alone contains more sugar than a few Oreo cookies. Sugar is added to your salad dressings, your crackers, your soups, nearly every sauce—if you’re buying it in a box, it almost certainly has added sugar.
Today, thanks to a nutritional label overhaul by the FDA, added sugar has to be clearly labeled as such. Whereas once the best you could do was estimate how much added sugar was is your food and make an educated guess, now companies are required to separate out added sugar from natural sugar.
It’s still good practice to review at the overall levels of sugar, and avoid added sugar like high fructose corn syrup, but this change should make it easier to make healthy choices in the grocery aisle.
How To Break Your Sugar Habit Naturally
You know added sugar is awful for you, but how can you avoid it? Considering how much food it’s in, the answer isn’t that easy.
Switch to a natural food diet. This is the best way to avoid added sugars in what you consume. (After all, there can’t be any added sugar in an apple.)
Avoid all things processed. Items packaged for your convenience is detrimental to your health and nutrition. A fruit juice, for instance, has stripped all the fiber out of the fruit, and leads to the same problems as added sugars.
Calm your sugar cravings naturally. Look to natural sources in their purest form (i.e. a small bunch of grapes, some strawberries, or a piece of melon) for a quick shot of sweetness. For a particularly rough craving, try a spoonful of honey. It will be an intense sugar rush, and should help calm your craving. (One spoonful of honey won’t do much damage.)
- Embrace nature's syrupy substitutes. If you simply must add sugar to something, use honey. And, instead of something with high fructose corn syrup, look for maple syrup instead. Yes, these are still added sugars, but they are all-natural, provide a number of health benefits, and are nowhere near as dangerous as refined sugars.
Remember, the average American is eating 17 teaspoons of sugar a day, and your addiction to sugar is eight times more powerful than a cocaine addiction. So, don’t get frustrated if you slip now and again. You will have to wean yourself off the stuff.
And that takes time.
A Sweet Dose of Encouragement
After a lifetime of enjoying the Standard American Diet, the previous recommendations might seem extreme, or downright impossible.
But, as it is with kicking any addictive substance, the worst of it comes at the beginning. The important thing is to make this a sustained, lifestyle change.
It may take time, and you will probably suffer cravings. But, if you can make it through the first two weeks, you’ll be well on your way to kicking your sugar addiction—and to a much healthier, happier you.
Take good care.
- CDC, Diabetes Latest, Jun 17 2014
- Julie Corliss, Eating too much added sugar increases the risk of dying of heart disease, Harvard Health Publications, Dec 1 2015
- ABC13, Study: Sugar Hidden in Junk Food Eight Times More Addictive Than Cocaine, Feb 25 2015
- Helena Bottemiller Evich, Michelle Obama gets her way on nutrition labels, May 20 2016
- Ellie Krieger, Why It’s So Hard To Cut Back On Sugar (and what to do about it), Washington Post, Feb 2 2016
Disclaimer: Please note the date of last review or update on all articles. No content on this site, regardless of date, should ever be used as a substitute for direct medical advice from your doctor or other qualified clinician.
Last Updated: January 6, 2021
Originally Published: June 1, 2016