Breaking the sugar habit

Celebrities have long learnt the power of a sound bite. In their slimming efforts, several of them have likened their battle of the bulge to a full-blown obsession; Gwyneth Paltrow has blogged on her Goop website about breaking her sugar addiction, while Kim Kardashian has admitted that keeping away from junk food is a daily struggle.

‘Big Brother’ star Josie Gibson went one further, comparing her sugar addiction to being hooked on heroin in one magazine. “Being a sugar addict was like being addicted to heroin, but heroin being everywhere,” she recently reflected.

“Imagine going into a petrol station and heroin being everywhere. Sugar is a drug and when you have it you’re on a high and want more. But when you come down it makes you want more.”

So far, so dramatic, yet recent research has backed up the theory that for some people, sugar does affect the brains in ways we never imagined. When subjects in a US study were shown pictures of their favourite foods, such as cake, a surge of the reward chemical dopamine hit orbital frontal cortex part of their brain – the same section activated when cocaine addicts are shown the Class A drug.

‘Sugar intake increases in delta, alpha and theta brainwaves, which can alter the mind’s ability to think clearly,” explains nutritionist Erika Doolan (erikadoolan. “When sugar is ingested, a group of chemicals called neurotransmitters carry the signals between neurons in the brain. One of these, dopamine, plays a pivotal role in transmitting feelings of satisfaction, arousal, and reward, so that every time we experience these feelings, we have the desire to replicate them by doing whatever it was that caused them before. This may account for the repetition inherent in addictive behaviour.”

Adds Dan McCartney of the Irish Nutrition & Dietetics Institute ( “There has been a lot of discussion about the addictiveness of sugar, and it has been proven that sugar consumption induces changes in brain biochemistry, and you become de-sensitised to dopamine. The more sugar you eat, the less dopamine there is in the brain and the less feel-good sensations you feel.”

Adds Dan McCartney of the Irish Nutrition & Dietetics Institute ( “There has been a lot of discussion about the addictiveness of sugar, and it has been proven that sugar consumption induces changes in brain biochemistry, and you become de-sensitised to dopamine. The more sugar you eat, the less dopamine there is in the brain and the less feel-good sensations you feel.”

“The only difference between narcotics and sugar is the time it takes to kill you,” opines Doolan. “Addiction is said to exist when the body becomes so accustomed to the presence of a foreign substance that it can have side-effects if the substance is withdrawn.

“It is evident that when one has an overload of sugar in their diet and it is removed then you are very likely to become moody, irritable, tired, hungry, have difficulty concentrating, severe depression and many other side-effects.”

For a certain group of Irish people, this poses a conundrum. Those of us in our 20s, 30s and 40s had childhoods marked with sugary foods. We were the first generation who could easily afford them, and the last generation raised to be blissfully unaware of the perils of obesity.

“Our parents knew that too much sugar was bad but to what extent they didn’t realise,” admits Doolan. “My mother said she knew that sugar was bad for your teeth but didn’t realise back then that sugar could age your skin or cause diabetes. Marketing really took over in the ’70s and ’80s and people were not as aware as they are now how marketing can manipulate their food choices.”

Quite apart from the physiological effects, high-sugar foods conjure up sepia-tinted, joyful memories from days of yore.

“Colours, smell, taste, touch and feeling you get from a ‘sugar hit’ takes you right back to childhood,” explains Doolan. “We were rewarded with sugary treats. Sugary treats and colourful shiny packaging brings back those warming feelings of good times – playtime at school, sunshine, weekend videos, holidays.”

“People who were exposed to large intakes of sugar early on in life are susceptible to a high-sugar diet,” affirms McCartney. “There is a theory that these people retain this behaviour into adult life.”

But in adulthood – where frankly, we should know better – what makes someone compulsively eat a whole bag of sweets or pack of biscuits? Is it greed, lack of control, or something else?

“Sugar is added to foods by manufacturers to make the food more addictive and taste good,” notes Doolan. “Manufacturers make foods which have a longer shelf life and contain additives that will make consumers crave these foods. The problem is we are not eating food anymore; we are eating food-like products. These foods are a quick source of energy, but are followed by a low feeling that may increase cravings.

“Not eating nutritiously balanced meals that balance your sugar levels is also a factor,” she adds. “Food can be used as a vice for comfort, relieving stress or as a form of control. The highs and lows of ingesting sugar becomes an addiction – a vicious cycle.”

Lifestyle also renders certain people susceptible to this vicious cycle: “People who are primarily predisposed to sugar addiction include those who are on a tight budget,” reveals Doolan. “They may opt for cheaper options and special offers and usually these foods are processed foods with a high-sugar content.”

And yet, despite the bounty of information on offer about nutrition, many of us are still largely misinformed about the basics.

“Most people have no idea that there are sugars hidden in sauces, soups, salad dressings, yet they are led to believe that they are eating healthily,” says Doolan.

“For years, nutritionists and doctors have preached the benefits of low-fat diets. These diets contain large amounts of simple carbohydrates and refined sweeteners. Manufacturers make foods which have a longer shelf life and contain additives that will make consumers crave these foods.

“Many diseases are caused by deficiencies of certain fats and many of the same diseases can be overcome by supplying essential fats missing from our diet. Many of my clients have told me they are afraid to eat fat, so they stay away and opt for sugary low-calorie options.”

Right now, the debate over the role of sugar in the obesity epidemic is reaching fever pitch in the US. At the heart of the matter is high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS), which can be found in breakfast bars, cereals, yoghurts, soups and condiments. Used as a cost-effective alternative to sugar, the food industry uses HFCS to make food tastier, better looking (for that glazed, or freshly baked look), or simply to prolong its shelf life.

“Fructose is so intensely researched in the US and it’s a really problematic part of sugar intake,” reveals McCartney. “The difference between the sugar content in fruit juice and a fizzy drink isn’t that great, but there’s a huge difference in fructose content. They metabolise in different ways. With fructose, there is no mechanism to ‘shut the door’ of the liver, so it overwhelms the liver and turns it into fat.

Worse again, it turns into the damaging fat that ends up around the organs. Happily we’re a little healthier than in the US, as we use sucrose in a lot of foods here as opposed to fructose. The problem is that people are taking these in huge amounts.”

As with any addiction, breaking the cycle is a difficult and arduous process … albeit not an impossible one.

“It’s best to cut down gradually,” notes McCartney. “Radical changes are just not sustainable, and it’s a little like falling off a cliff in physiological terms. Fruit is an ideal substitute because the sugar from fruit is more slowly absorbed into the system. It’s certainly a step in the right direction for anyone with sugar cravings.”

“If you feel your blood sugar is out of balance, eating some protein with every meal will help,” explains Erika. “Avoid all processed foods and saturated fats.”

“Increase water intake to two litres spaced throughout the day. Eat plenty of good fats (oily fish, nuts and seeds). Eat more oats and oat-based products as they slow down the absorption of sugar from the gut and balance blood sugar levels

Say no to white, brown, or raw cane sugar, corn syrups, chocolate, sugary sweets, fructose, all syrups (except pure maple syrup), all sugar substitutes, jams and jellies made with sugar.”

Many have been taught that artificial sweeteners are a viable alternative to sugar: not so, according to Doolan.

‘I found that artificial sweeteners keep the taste of sweets on your taste buds and in your mind which may actually make it more difficult for you to kick your sugar cravings,” she says. “Your brain still thinks that it’s sugar and it doesn’t stop the cravings. I prefer people to cut back on all added sugars, natural and artificial. If this is too hard a task, then I prefer people to use a small amount of raw organic honey or stevia in their food and beverages than the fake stuff.”

Mindful eating also helps; specifically, knowing how many teaspoons of sugar is in a food you are eating (divide the number of grams of sugar on the label by 4). And, if you already have Type 2 Diabetes, the following supplements may ease the oxidative stress already on the body: Vitamin E, C, Co Q10, Alpha Lipoic Acid (all powerful antioxidants) Magnesium, Chromium, Copper and Zinc Omega 3 and 6.

As for making the mental adjustment? “Visit a nutritionist and start surrounding yourself with positive people who are fit and healthy,” advises Erika.

“Preparing meals for the week and becoming more focused and organised can make huge differences.

“Make a list before shopping and learn to stick to it and never shop if you are hungry. It is all about getting your blood sugars in balance… this is the most important part of getting into shape, feeling energetic and living life to the full.”

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