Whenever you eat something that is sweet, the hippocampus (a horseshoe-shaped structure with a band of nerve fibres that connects the hippocampal structures in the left and right hemispheres of the brain) enables you to remember the taste. This then results in the formation of habits, causing you to want to reach for that sweet treat over and over again. This sets off a domino-like effect and causes your dopamine levels to rise. Dopamine is a type of neurotransmitter and hormone that plays a role in many different bodily functions, including movement, memory, motivation and pleasurable reward. Which is why, when you consume sugar, the brain thinks of it as a reward. If you consume a lot of it, you’re only fortifying that reward, which can ultimately make it a difficult habit to break.
You’ve also likely heard of the term “sugar high” (or “sugar rush”) and “sugar low.” For example, when you eat a candy bar, you might notice an increase in your energy level. This is because the sugar found in that candy bar – known as a simple carbohydrate – quickly turns into glucose in your blood stream, resulting in a spike in your blood sugar levels. However, your body also needs to move glucose out of the bloodstream and into your cells. In order to do this, your pancreas will create a hormone known as insulin. However, this can cause your blood sugar level to suddenly drop. As a result of this rapid change, you may wind up feeling fatigued and shaky, and want to reach for more sweets to regain that “sugar high” feeling.
It’s also important to warn of foods that may not necessarily look sweet but contain starch. These foods include things like French fries, bagels, bread, crackers, pasta and potato chips. These foods are known as complex carbohydrates. Complex carbs get broken down into simple sugars, which can also cause a sudden rise and crash of your blood sugar level, so beware when consuming these foods as well.
When it comes to breaking the sugar habit, people will often try to quit sugar cold turkey – also known as a sugar detox. But does this actually work? Certain sugar detoxes urge individuals to avoid all types of sweets – including things like candy bars, pastries, and even dairy and refined grains – in effort to purge sugar from your system. However, this is considered somewhat drastic. Detoxes such as this also usually only work for the short-term, rather than having any long-term effects, and it’s not uncommon to fall back into old habits.
If you want to reduce sugar from your diet and beat sugar addiction, there are much easier and healthier ways to go about it.
First, avoid temptation. Don’t stock your cupboards or refrigerator with things like cookies, candy or other high-sugar foods. When grocery shopping, it’s also important to watch out for hidden sugars in foods. Examples of hidden or added sugars include things like fruit juice concentrate, evaporated cane juice, corn syrup, barley malt, malt syrup, brown rice syrup, and date syrup.
Secondly, make sure you eat breakfast. Breakfast is considered one of the most important meals of the day and can help ward off cravings. When you don’t eat breakfast, you’re more likely to want to grab quick (and oftentimes unhealthy) snacks throughout the day. One helpful tip to help prevent your blood sugar from spiking: Add some high-protein foods into your breakfast meals (lunch and dinner, too!) Examples include eggs, nuts, low-fat yogurt, lean chicken and beans.
You can also re-train your brain to not want as much sugar as it thinks it does. To do this – and for it to actually work – I suggest cutting out one sweet food from your diet each week. You could start by putting less (or no) sugar in your coffee or pass on dessert after that dinner-time meal. By taking these small steps, you will eventually find yourself craving sugar less and less. It’s also important to note that you can still get that sweet flavour from different sources – such as fresh fruit. Some of the best low-sugar fruits include watermelon, raspberries, strawberries, blackberries, kiwi and grapefruit (while fruits like mangoes, grapes and cherries are all higher in sugar.)
I also cannot stress enough the importance of exercise. Aside from its already-known health benefits, studies have shown exercise can actually decrease your appetite by reducing the level or hormone that drives hunger. You can learn more about this here.