Why Does Sugar Have So Much Power Over Me?

It is the #1 question I get as a Dietitian, and the most common source of frustration for clients who are trying to eat for health..."why does sugar have so much power over me?"

Just like an addictive drug, research indicates that sugar can light up the pleasure centers of the brain--creating a temporary "feel good" response as chemicals in the brain (neurotransmitters) and natural pain killing opioids shift.

So, what to do?

Step 1--Awareness

Sugar is in bread, protein bars, salad dressing, sauces (ketchup, BBQ sauce), cereal, snack items, and so much more! It is hard to be truly "sugar free" while consuming the Standard American Diet (no shock that spells out S.A.D). The American Heart Association recommends no more than 6 teaspoons a day for women and 9 teaspoons a day for men. To put that in perspective, here is a visual (each cube is 1 tsp of sugar):

It is estimated that American's consume 150+pounds of refined sugar a year!

Give yourself a day to recheck your sugar intake. How many teaspoons of added sugar do you consume daily? What can YOU adjust to reduce your intake?

Step 2--Take Action

1. Read food labels. If the first ingredient is sugar, put it back on the shelf. Check your favorite sauces (ketchup has 1-2 tsp sugar per serving!) and protein bars, which often contain several forms of the sweet stuff--or an artificial form of it (healthy?!) You can divide the total sugar content by 4 to identify the teaspoons of sugar provided per serving. By 2020, food labels will separate natural sugars from added sugars on the nutrition label. Keep in mind, there are MANY forms of added sugar! Here are some examples:

High frucose corn syrup/Corn syrup/Corn sweetener

Brown rice syrup (don't be fooled by "organic" listed before this)!

Dextrose

Sucrose

Maltose

Malt syrup

Evaporated cane juice

and more!

2. Keep "red" foods out of the house. If you crave sugar most days, and you have a hard time limiting the serving size, keep the treats out of the house. Purchase only foods that provide nutritional value. Meal planning goes a long way in providing quality meals with no added sugar and plenty of vegetables. One day my husband stated, "there is nothing to eat here." I had just gone grocery shopping. My response, "make something." Limiting the processed products not only reduces added sugars, but also excessive sodium intake, and food additives that are unnecessary for human nutrition.

In our home, we save the icecream and jelly beans for special occasions! The processed products are limited to kid-friendly foods like organic popcorn, and fruit strips.

3. Moderation vs. Elimination. It is unrealistic to be 100% sugar free unless you are willing to make everything from scratch every single day. A preoccupation with healthy eating is now classified as an eating disorder, and can take control of your life just as much as struggling with addiction. Just because you crave sugar, doesn't mean you are addicted to it. Food in general brings pleasure. I love to see the joy on my boys faces when they get a rare treat (like candy for Valentine's Day or Halloween). I enjoy a scoop of icecream after a hot summer day playing in the sun with my boys. Chocolate treats, exercise, a HULU show and/or sleep are my go-to pick me ups after a rough day. I've learned how to bake healthfully to enjoy my favorite treats, and keep the servings in check. If you "have to have" something sweet most days, try this 3 day reset. Sometimes even the naturally sweet foods can trigger cravings, so limit fruit to 2 servings a day, and avoid concentrated sugars like juice and dried fruits. For some, elimination can set you up for indulgence, which leads to a binge and guilt. Break the cycle. If you simply can't, maybe it is time to seek a specialist in mental health. What are you feeding? Guilt? Stress? A divorce? Loss of a loved one? A healthy mindset is an essential part of the journey!

Marian McCormick RDN, CPT, CLT is a Dietitian and Fitness Professional who started her journey into wellness with a fad diet and an eating disorder that nearly left her with irreversible damage. She is now an advocate for wellness in mind, body, and spirit.

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