“Sugar is the most dangerous drug of this time.” This is what Paul van der Velpen, the head of Public Health Service in Amsterdam said in his September 2013 press release. This, from a place where personal-use cannabis is legal.
He is not the only one calling sugar addictive, and certainly not the first. Studies show that sugar can induce reward and craving even more than cocaine. Since most of us do not have a snorting habit, perhaps this comparison is not so useful.
So how addictive is sugar?
For most of us, the intensity of this craving, of how much we NEED and actually consume becomes obvious only when we go sugar-free. Having gone sugar-free and poorly transitioned back to my “normal” diet, I can attest to how addictive sugar is.
What Happens When We Eat Sugar?
When we eat sugar, dopamine, the happy hormone, floods our system. We literally live on cloud nine when we eat sugary foods. Because we are hard-wired to seek out pleasures, the “reward circuitry” is stimulated and the more a pathway is used, the more it becomes a default pathway. Dopamine is the reinforcer. This does not automatically lead to addiction but increases the opportunity or potential for addiction to occur.
Over time, “the dopamine receptors start to down-regulate. Now there are fewer receptors for the dopamine. This means that the next time we eat these foods, their effect is blunted.” 1 We then eat more sugary foods to try to replicate that euphoric feeling.
In a 2007 study titled “Intense Sweetness Surpasses Cocaine Reward” the authors had this to say:
“We speculate that the addictive potential of intense sweetness results from an inborn hypersensitivity to sweet tastants…sweet receptors evolved in ancestral environments poor in sugars and are thus not adapted to high concentrations of sweet tastants. The supranormal stimulation of these receptors by sugar-rich diets would generate a supranormal reward in the brain, with the potential to override self-control mechanisms and thus lead to addiction.”2
How Does Sugar Imbalance Our Health?
“Sugar turns on insulin in the body,” explains Dr Mark Hyman. “Insulin is a fast fat storage and it drives fat storage into the fat cells in your abdomen and literally sucks the fuel out of the bloodstream. So you get hungry quickly and the body thinks you are starving and your metabolism slows down.”
So what is happening (in relations to us getting fat), according to Dr Hyman in his video interview, is this – we are storing fat, we are hungry because there is no fuel, and metabolism slows down because the body thinks we are starving. We eat more and we are getting fatter, especially around the middle and around the organs.
The body maintains blood sugar within a narrow range. The body does not function optimally when blood sugar is too low or too high and has to work harder to re-establish a balanced state. Blood sugar levels that are too high or that oscillate widely throughout the day can wreak havoc on our physical and mental health and you tax your glands and organs. Excess sugar, in addition to throwing off the body’s homeostasis, may result in a number of significant consequences.
Dr Taylor Bean
Canadian Naturopathic Doctor
According to Dr Bean, these consequences include suppressing the immune system, thereby impairing defences against infection, feeding candida resulting in thrush and digestive complaints, causing imbalances with the absorption of calcium and magnesium, weakening eyesight, causing saliva to become acidic and periodontal disease, contributing to osteoporosis, unbalancing hormones (e.g. increasing oestrogen in men and decreasing growth hormone), to name a few. Sugar can also reduce learning capacity and affect the ability to think clearly by causing an increase in delta, alpha, and theta brain waves.
Sugar, in excess, is indeed trouble for homeostasis and general wellbeing but it is not all bleak.
Like Dr Hyman says, “who doesn’t love sugar? Anybody? We all love sugar. It’s not that we can’t have sugar. The problem with sugar is that we have gone from 22 teaspoons a year as cavemen to 22 teaspoons a day today. On average. We all went low-fat and what that did was put this huge glut of sugar into the market. Sugar is okay to eat but it’s a recreational drug.”
21 Sugar Free Days
Like other addictions, for many people, the only way not to fall off the wagon is complete and total abstinence. Having absolutely no sugar, in a world of sugary tempting foods and Prosecco, may seem impossible. And even undesirable. But the best way for many people to get to a place where we can live in harmony with sugar is with a detox. By going off sugar, we break the hold sugar has on us so we can choose more freely what to eat, we stop eating on auto-pilot and form new habits, and as we re-introduce different foods, we learn how each impacts our system.
With this intention, I went on a 21-day sugar detox on September 1. Kate Wilesmith, the owner of Facebook pages such as Nutritional and Natural Health, set up the 21 Sugar Free September Days in Singapore (now running with various start dates). She based this detox on the book 21-Day Sugar Detox: Bust Sugar + Carb Cravings Naturally by Diane Sanfilippo and her own vast personal experience. Our own detox excluded several “Yes” foods from this book, making it an even stricter regime. Kate’s advice is also to go cold turkey.
The book outlines several levels, making this sugar detox do-able for everyone. The levels have different “YES” and “NO” foods and include modifications for athletes, pregnant and nursing mothers, and even kids. The synopsis of the book includes, “The effect that sugar, “hidden” carbs, and refined, processed foods have on our bodies goes far beyond our waistlines. We can’t focus, we can’t sleep, we have irrational mid-afternoon cravings, and we can’t even make it through the day without wanting–or needing–to prop up our energy levels with caffeine or even more sugar! What can we do to break free from this cycle?”
For me, to break free, I went all in – cold turkey and no modifications. This means no obvious sweetness – sugar and sugar substitutes, honey, maple syrup, fruits, alcohol. Other exclusions are grains (wheat, oats, rice, millet) and some seeds, legumes, starches (potato, parsnip, pumpkin, turnip), dairy, and processed foods.
Some people may choose to slowly eliminate the “NO” foods from their diet over the week or so leading up to the sugar detox. This helps to level out any withdrawal symptoms.
Years ago, I did the South Beach Diet. After 14 days of having no fruit, alcohol, and (obvious) sugars, I had to start diluting juices and store-bought ice teas. I even swore off chocolate bars for a very long time. These were the anchors of a diet that kept me fuelled through long days and hours working at the bank. So I remember the powerful effects of just two weeks of eliminating not even all sugars from my diet.
The “YES” list may seem short, with non-starchy vegetables, good fats, nuts, eggs, fish, and meat. Like Kate pointed out, her own kids have been on this diet for four years now. The key is to make most of your diet non-starchy vegetables and as much home-cooked as possible, so you have complete oversight on the ingredients and their quality.
Tips on Going Sugar-Free
① Do the Prep Work
Do a sweep of the kitchen pantry and the house (including any and all hiding places) and empty out the sugar foods. It is much easier to go sugar-free if the entire family is in on it. Otherwise, explain to them why you are and how they could be supporting you. Stock up and make sure your fridge is always full of “YES” foods. Taking some time to have cut up veggies or other allowed snacks (e.g. almond bread) will help combat hunger pangs and cravings. Plan ahead.
② Focus on the “YES” Foods
Reminiscing about your favourite cookies, glass of bubbly, raw chocolate mousse, or even fruit will only make the detox that much more difficult. This is the time to experiment with what may be new foods for many. Even a cursory google search will bring up an impressive number of easy and healthy sugar-free recipes. A lot of paleo recipes are a go. I have myself added almond bread to my repertoire. Not my own recipe but certainly well received by my friends.
③ Drink Lots of Water
Dehydration is often mistaken for hunger pangs. The general guide of eight glasses a day is just that, a general guideline. Sip lemon-infused water throughout the day so you are never gulping copious amounts at one time. Yes lemon and lime are exceptions to the no-fruit rule. As is tomato.
Hydration helps with withdrawal symptoms you may experience as you eliminate sugary and starchy foods from your diet. You may feel tired or irritated. You may have headaches or insomnia. It is all very individual and it could be several days to a full week. Take it easy. Allow yourself more leeway. Nap more, if you need to or get to bed earlier at night. Soon you will be bouncing with super energy.
④ Take Your Time to Transition Back to a “Normal” Diet
This is super important, and maybe the most difficult part of the process. Once the initial discomfort passes when we eliminate sugary foods, we can more easily coast on a routine. We know what are “YES” and “NO” foods. We have our favourite recipes and trying a whole trove of new ones. We remember to plan ahead, and eat ahead, of any social engagements. We even learn to be kinder to ourselves and not jump down our own throats for a slip here or there. We merely recognize it and perhaps extend the elimination period a few more days.
But when we transition, there is instability and we may feel the pull to jump back fully and reintroduce too many food at one time or too quickly.
Having one “new” food every three days allows you to gauge how your body handles that one food. It is also a way to see if a particular food can be eaten daily or perhaps only once a week or some other interval.
To be honest, the transition was where I goofed. This is why I am going sugar-free again. I realized when I brought back apples and pumpkin, my cravings sugar returned more strongly than before.
The Missing LInk
Even with these tips, however, there is a missing link. Going sugar-free is a health challenge. That is, health on all levels. It is not simply dietary and thinking about it on this one dimension will deprive you of a much deeper shift.
What is often not spoken about is emotional triggers. When do you raid the fridge? Or hunt for that chocolate bar? Or down a few glasses of wine? Is it stress? Is it a feeling of loneliness, deep grief, or a general feeling that there is more? While we indulge in sugary foods, even with fruits, what sweetness is missing from life?
THAT’S RIGHT. WHAT VOIDS ARE YOU FILLING with SWEET FOODS?
We could be evading something painful in our lives. We could be substituting what we feel is unattainable with an easier high. We could be avoiding attention, or seeking it. We could be unaware of what is really going on. Whatever it is, understanding there is a better, more free, way to live will bring a greater sense of wellbeing.
Something easy to do is merely holding your fingers, each of which is related to two organ functions, element, attitude, etc. Or we can tap – either the entire Emotional Freedom Technique protocol or just the karate chop point on the side of your hand (pinky side). Even pausing and taking deep breaths when you are confronted by discomfort rather than suppressing it (through food, medications, recreational drugs, drama, shopping, etc) is a huge step forward. Or maybe it is time to seek out professionals to help you with these challenges and blockages. To work at deeper levels means we can engender real change and not default to our sugar habit at some later date, when a seemingly insurmountable obstacle appears.
Do you have to go 100% cold turkey on all sugars?
I honestly feel it is a very self-revealing process, on many levels. Perhaps eliminating all sugars is too far a leap at this point. In the meantime, perhaps trying eating more mindfully. This means eating with full consciousness, instead of rushing through a meal to get to a meeting or eating while doing other tasks or eating while emotionally out of sorts. Chew. Chew. Chew. Eat more whole foods, good fats, and do not shy away from what you are feeling. You can also muscle test to see what food is harmonious for you, in the moment.
What I have learned is that I do need to be more sugar-free. During the four weeks I was, my skin cleared as I was either not getting bitten by mosquitoes or not reacting to the bites. Perhaps I had eliminated histamine rich foods (or combinations thereof) as well. That was the most obvious and profound change. Did I lose weight? Yes. Weight loss is a nice side bonus, and not the goal. My energy level was also great. Mornings were less painful. On the emotional side, I also discovered what some of my triggers were. All in all, going 21 days without sugar was an important journey for me and I highly recommend it to everyone.
1How Sugar Hijacks Your Brain And Makes You Addicted by Kris Gunnars, Authority Nutrition: An Evidence-Based Approach.
2Study: Saccharin And Sugar May Be More Addictive Than Cocaine by Sayer Ji, GreenMedInfo.
Sugar Addiction: Pushing the Drug-sugar Analogy to the Limit by Ahmed SH, Guillem K, and Vandaele Y.