How to Kick a Sugar Addiction Without Missing the Sweet Stuff

By Marissa Laliberte

Have a yo-yo relationship with sugar? You're not alone. Here's how to break up with sugar for good – so you can finally stop those midnight cookie cravings.

How to Kick a Sugar Addiction Without Missing the Sweet Stuff
photo: iStock

Have you ever felt stuffed after a meal, but still ordered dessert? Or reached for cookies in the office kitchen just because they were there? Sugar cravings are notoriously hard to resist, and it can feel impossible to escape.

Maybe you’ve heard that sugar is even more addictive than cocaine. A classic study in the journal PLoS ONE found that 94 per cent of rats chose artificially sweetened water over cocaine. While it might be a stretch to say a daily candy break is as dangerous as a drug problem in humans, sugar does fire up dopamine and light up your brain’s pleasure systems, just like drugs do.

Our bodies need carbohydrates to function, so it’s natural that our bodies would crave it in sugar form, says Vera Tarman, MD, author of Food Junkies: The Truth About Food Addiction and medical director of Renascent Rehab, Canada’s largest drug and alcohol treatment centre. Nutritious fruits and vegetables contain sugar, but those small doses are totally healthy. The problem is, processed foods contain concentrated amounts of that natural sweetener. “You’re looking at something that has a high amount of a substance that will overpower what we normally should eat,” says Dr. Tarman. “It becomes more than pleasurable – it becomes addictive.” It’s like how South Americans chewed coca plant leaves for centuries, but the plant wasn’t a problem until its concentrated version, cocaine, hit the market, she says.

When your sweet tooth goes from a mere craving to an obsession, you might be hooked on sugar, says Dr. Tarman. The signs look similar to a drug addiction, she says: thinking about food more than anything else, feeling unable to stop even when you’re stuffed, or hiding food so no-one knows you have it. Sugar can also become a problem when you’re just eating it out of habit, says registered dietitian nutritionist Tamara Melton, MS, RD, LD, spokesperson for the American Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “People feel like they need to have something sweet, especially after a meal, and are very distracted by it,” she says. “They don’t feel like they’ve finished eating until they’ve had a dessert.”

Even if you’re at a healthy weight, all that sugar can cause major health problems. Not only can it lead to heart problems, but you might experience headaches, bloating and energy crashes, says Melton. “People have this general well-being of feeling better because they’re not experiencing those huge highs and lows in blood sugar,” she says. “It’s more constant, so they feel better.”

Going cold turkey with added sugar might be your best bet if you want long-term results because whittling down slowly might make you crave those sweets even more, says Dr. Tarman. “If you have a little bit, you’re just going to want more of it,” she says. She warns that the first five days will be hard, potentially with intense cravings, irritability and sleeplessness. By week two, though, any physical withdrawal symptoms will go away, and by week three you won’t even miss the sugar, she says.

Start by removing all sugary foods, including sneaky sources like fat-free salad dressings, jarred sauces, and flavoured yoghurt. Get your whole family on board so you’re not tempted by their snack foods – and neither are they. “If you’re taking in too much sugar, it’s likely the rest of the family is too,” says Melton. When a craving hits, get that oral satisfaction with gum or tea, she suggests. Try painting your nails after dinner to keep yourself from rifling through the cupboards for dessert. 

At work, stick around for the beginning of celebrations like birthdays, but excuse yourself as the cake is cut to avoid temptation. If you like running out with your co-workers for a sugary coffee drink or sweet snack, ask if they’d like to go for a walk instead. “You want to spend time bonding or taking a break,” says Melton. “Replace it with a healthy activity.”

In addition to social eating, emotions play a big role in sugar cravings. Promise yourself five minutes to let the craving pass while you distract yourself. During that time, do something fun to release any sadness or boredom. “Do something that’s pleasurable, because that’s what people are seeking when they want the sugar,” says Melton. Call a friend to vent about a stressful day, or listen to your favourite music.

If you feel your willpower dwindling, remind yourself why you chose to cut out sugar in the first place, whether it’s because you wanted to have more energy or lose weight. “Take a picture of what that represents and keep it on your phone,” says Melton. You could also reach out to a friend who’s on board with your sugar-free diet for some moral support.

Cutting added sugar out (or even down) might sound impossible and, quite frankly, miserable, but Dr. Tarman assures that you won’t miss it. After a few weeks, your taste buds will adjust, and the sweet things you love now won’t be as appetising. “If you don’t have a Froot Loop, the apple tastes great,” she says. “Freedom tastes great – freedom from obsession.” 

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