Kicking your sugar addiction will lead to better health

Sugar is an underlying cause of diabetes and heart disease.

Most of us were introduced to the pleasures of sugar at an early age. Whether it was our parents giving us candy for a treat or eating cake during a birthday party, we developed a taste for sweetness.

But as we grew to crave that sucrose rush, we were not privy to the hidden addiction we were developing. And that, said Vijaya Surampudi, MD, assistant professor of medicine in the Division of Human Nutrition at UCLA Health, is just how those in the food industry who count on our compulsion to consume sugar to sell their food want it.

“There are four components that the processed-food industry puts into their foods: fat, caffeine, sugar and salt,” Dr. Surampudi said. “They  know that sugar and caffeine are addictive; they do this on purpose.”

Is sugar a physiological or psychological addiction?

Sugar, Dr. Surampudi explained, stimulates the neurotransmitter dopamine. Dopamine plays a role in how we experience pleasure (and also is the locus of such addictions as drugs and gambling). 

Some nutritionists might split hairs over whether sugar addiction is more psychological than physical, but Dr. Surampudi stated there is a physiological component that is being studied by the scientific community.

“We can see on imaging that parts of the brain are lighting up when you eat sugar. There is a physiological response, however, we are not physically dependent on added sugar, which leads to the psychological component of sugar addiction. It just tastes good and we want more,” Dr. Surampudi said.

She notes that production of the hormone insulin is necessary to regulate blood glucose. If insulin is doing its job, blood sugar — glucose, the body’s primary source of energy — will come down fairly quickly. That can cause people to feel like they are crashing after a sugar rush.

That insulin-induced “crash” can trigger one’s brain to say that the body needs more sugar, and it will send the message demanding the person to eat more, Dr. Surampudi said.

“Someone may skip meals and not eat for long periods of time, and the brain is like, ‘I need something to get my energy up,’” Dr. Surampudi said. “It’s searching and searching, and sugar always comes to mind because the body knows it’s the fastest way to get energy.”

Strategies to break the sugar connection

Though it may seem difficult, or almost impossible, to eliminate sugar from your diet, Dr. Surampudi says there are strategies people can use to adopt a sugar-reduced diet.

“Breaking a habit takes about three to four weeks,” Dr. Surampudi said. “So, cold turkey is one of my favorite ways to go. However, that doesn’t work for everybody. Slowly cutting the sugar intake is another strategy that can be used.”

Dr. Surampudi suggests eating small, healthy meals or healthy snacks throughout the day to help manage sugar cravings.

“Eating small meals throughout the day will help keep the blood sugar controlled and reduce cravings,” Dr. Surampudi said.

Other ways to wean yourself off of sugar include:

  • Eat fruit: There are sugars in fruit, but they are natural and packaged differently than processed sugars. Sugars in fruit come with fibers and nutrients, and eating fruit will curb the cravings for unhealthy sugary foods.
  • Eat legumes or healthy nuts: Foods such as cashews and peanuts are good snacks to keep with you throughout the day. Eating them will help reduce hunger and the desire to eat something sweet.
  • Combine healthy snacks with something sweet: Eating almonds with a few chocolate chips or raisins will satisfy the desire for something sweet while also consuming something healthy.
  • Chew gum: Chewing gum (preferably sugar-free) can reduce hunger and sugar cravings.
  • Go cold turkey: Simply quitting sugar can be effective for some people, but others may relapse. Some researchers say making it past the first two or three days is crucial to the success of quitting cold turkey.

Benefits of quitting sugar

Dr. Surampudi warns that sugar is one of the greatest threats to our health.

“Cutting down on processed and added sugar, and instead eating fresh fruits, vegetables and whole grains, can reduce the risk of developing chronic diseases like diabetes, heart disease and some cancers,” she said.

The body makes significant adjustments for the better when we abstain from sugar. The following are some physical benefits we may notice:

  • Better physique/weight management
  • Little to no inflammation
  • Improved heart health
  • Reduced risk of cancer
  • Smoother-looking skin
  • Reduced risk of diabetes
  • Healthier liver

Beware of the “O-S-E” gang

The processed-food industry is very sneaky when it comes to ways of getting sugar into what we eat, and people need to be aware. Sugar goes by many names that people don’t recognize, but Dr. Surampudi says there are some names everyone should check for when reading ingredient labels.

“The syrup sugar molecules that end in ‘o-s-e’ are what people should be paying attention to. Dextrose, fructose, glucose and all of the other sugars are what they try to sneak in by using different terms,” Dr. Surampudi said.

The names below are some ingredients people should stay away from when aiming to reduce their sugar intake:

  • Sucrose
  • Fructose
  • Dextrose
  • Galactose
  • Lactose
  • Maltose
  • Cane sugar
  • Beet sugar
  • Brown sugar
  • Corn syrup
  • Dextrin

There are more than 60 different names for sugar, so consumers should educate themselves about those ingredients if they are trying to move to a reduced-sugar diet.

Dr. Surampudi also advises being careful when you’re substituting sweeteners for sugar. One of the bigger misconceptions is that sweeteners such as agave or honey are healthier than most sugars, but, in most cases, they are not.

“It’s still sugar in the body,” said Dr. Surampudi. “Ideally, we wouldn’t use these substitutes to help us reduce our sugar intake, but if it’s a way to transition to eating less sugar, then it is a tool people can use.”

If you are looking to move to a reduced- or non-sugar diet or want more information on how to decrease you sugar intake, please visit the UCLA Center for Human Nutrition.


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