The good news: there are worse vices than sugar
We aren't addicted to sugar in the same way people can become addicted or dependent on drugs or alcohol, says Heidi Bates, a registered dietitian at Tri-Nutrition Consulting in Sherwood Park, Alta. "Addiction implies that some physical harm will come to you if you can't take in the substance that you are addicted to. In the case of sugar or sweet foods, this is not the case. Going without sugary or sweet foods does not cause us physical harm," Bates says.
The bad news: sugar still provides a rush
Toronto-based registered dietitian Nicole Berkowitz uses a looser definition. "I would say 95 to 100 per cent of my clients are 'addicted to sugar' or some type of food substance," she says. "This being said, I am defining 'addiction' as using or abusing a substance for purposes other than basic necessity," she says.
Aha, I think. I'm truly not the only sugar hound around. Furthermore, Berkowitz posits that in our society we eat for a variety of different reasons, most of which have nothing to do with true hunger. "In my experience I've found we have lost touch with our bodies and what they actually need, nutrient-wise, and when they need it," she says. The thinking goes that because sugar, or carbohydrates usually in the form of glucose, is a major source of energy for the body, this tends to be the type of food most people turn to as their choice food substance to abuse.
Page 1 of 3 – Learn proven ways to ditch sugar from your lifestyle with tips on page 2.
Start by looking at your lifestyle
While I feared both Berkowitz and Bates would rake me over the coals regarding my love of sugary drinks and treats, they both offered measured advice. Make sure you're getting enough sleep, ditch any fad diets, eat three meals and two to three snacks in between, says Bates. "Fix what's broken first," she says, like making sure you drink enough water. "Be consistent, and generally, you'll find that cravings ebb off."
Berkowitz gave me similar advice, with some factoids that helped me make sense of why we crave these refined carbs. Basically, we need carbs for energy, so that makes sugar harder to kick than we might think. "Our body requires that up to 60 per cent of our daily calories come from carbohydrates – which in turn are converted to glucose (simple sugar) and used for basic body functions and energy. The only way to manage this problem is to become connected to your body and learn to listen to what it's telling you," she told me. The tricks up her sleeve include keeping a food diary and sticking to whole foods like fruit and veggies and whole-grain carbs.
"It's not about being perfect"
When it comes to sugar, and nutrition in general, we would be more successful curbing cravings if we stop taking a black-and-white attitude toward food. "It's not about being perfect, but about being good enough," Berkowitz says. It's also possible that we sugar-lovers are using candy or pop to control our most primal instincts. For instance, if you're tired, the caffeine in a piece of chocolate can perk you up, or the fluid in a can of soda can tone down dehydration, Bates says. I wondered if this held true for headaches; for years my headache-relieving go-to was my favourite cola. One day I swapped it for a tall glass of plain water, and truly, it worked faster and better than any pain-reliever I've used yet. Ok, I still ate a cupcake that night, but nobody's perfect.
Page 2 of 3 – Discover how to beat your sugar addiction on page 3.
How to beat a sugar addiction:
• Balance. Make sure your meals contain foods from all of the food groups on Canada's Food Guide, Bates says. "Balance high-carb foods such as fruits, breads, pastas, cereals, and baked goods with foods that offer protein and fat to help to tame hunger, keep blood sugar levels in check and make managing food cravings much easier" she says.
• Avoid caffeine. It can cause a false energy high followed by an energy crash, leading to a strong sugar craving, says Berkowitz. It also causes dehydration which depletes your body of energy.
• Leverage fibre. When you do reach for something sweeter, make sure it's rich in nutrients and fibre. Good choices include whole fruits (versus fruit juices), lower fat yogurt mixed with granola or crunchy whole grain cereal, or a small whole grain muffin and a glass of milk, Bates says.
• Drink lots of water. It will prevent dehydration-related food cravings (and headaches in the case of this writer), help with better blood sugar control, and keep natural energy levels up, Berkowitz says.
• Get moving. Both dietitians agree that if you keep up your physical activity levels, it'll pay off by soothing your cravings and keeping your energy high. "Take a walk with a friend. Try a yoga or fitness class. Meditate. Cravings often last for a relatively brief period of time and it is possible to distract ourselves out of a craving with physical activity," says Bates.
I tried this last tip, and I can vouch for it too. When the notion of eating a mid-afternoon chocolate bar started tickling my mind, I got up and walked to the other end of the office to have a chat with someone I normally would e-mail from my desk. Sure, it didn't count toward my actual fitness goals for the day, but it was better than sitting down and it did get my mind off sugar. And while I can't say that I have completely beat sugar, following the advice from Bates and Berkowitz helped me cut my intake by about half. The juice and cookies are still around, but they last a lot longer than they used to.
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