Can you tell yourself before dinner that you won’t be eating sweets, even all the way up until you order, and then your mouth spontaneously orders dessert? Or you tell your friend “no thanks” for a cookie, and then find one in your hand, on the way to your mouth? If so, you are not alone. And you may have a sugar addiction.
If you are not sure about the use of the word “addiction” in relation to sugar, chew on this: Recent research is not using the word lightly when it finds that sugar IS biologically addictive in the same sense as heroin. On top of that, studies are finding many more reasons to avoid sugar that we previously have only suspected.
We now know that sugar poses a threat to your heart health, impairs your ability to feel full, damages your liver, contributes to obesity and you can be genetically predisposed to overuse it. There are numerous important reasons to address sugar addiction, and seemingly no benefit to high sugar consumption. If you find yourself eating or drinking sugary foods and beverages often, it is essential to your health to question if continuing this way is in your best interests.
High-sugar foods and drinks are easily accessible today. It is often quicker and cheaper to find high-sugar foods than it is to find food containing fresh, whole ingredients. Sugary desserts are available in convenience stores, coffee shops, restaurants, and at every company or family party. It feels like the stores and manufacturers are telling us sugar is what most of our diet should be. In short, sugar is hard to quit!
What Can You Do About It?
NONJUDGMENT and REINFORCEMENT
Stop telling yourself that sugar is “bad,” you are “bad” for eating it or otherwise flogging yourself for having sugar in your life. Why? Because punishment is the least effective way to create lasting change. Judging and shaming (punishment) yourself for eating sugar, even after you have committed to calling it quits, may just make it harder to stop.
The brain pairs unpleasant or pleasant experiences with the situations that caused them. If, for example, you try to curb your sugar intake and then end up eating ice cream at the end of the day, your brain will remember what happens next and catalog it for future use. If punishment occurs, the behavior will be harder to change. If you mentally beat yourself up for not succeeding, your mind associates your efforts to limit sugar with this mental punishment and essentially, starts to give up. When you try to put further efforts toward decreasing sugar in your diet, you will find it increasingly hard to motivate yourself, and your brain will tell you, “What’s the use?” while throwing its hands up in the air and then reaching for dessert.
If, however, you end up eating ice cream at the end of the day and instead sigh, acknowledge this behavior is not in line with your goals and your stomach feels uncomfortable (nonjudgmental honesty), you are starting on the path to change. Then turn your mind towards noticing that you turned down that donut earlier in the day and say, “That was fantastic! Good for me. I want more of that.” (reinforcement). Now you are greasing the wheels of change and your brain will remember this too. (Reinforcement is very powerful in creating change and there can be some nuance to it. Check out some of my other articles specifically related to reinforcement for clarification.)
In short, when you find yourself being harshly judgmental about a behavior you want to change, stop, notice what you are doing, and describe it nonjudgmentally, in terms of cause-and-effect (e.g., if I do this, then I suffer that consequence). Then, turn your mind towards a behavior you have recently engaged in that is in line with your goals (or find a behavior in line with your goals to engage in in that moment) and reinforce (reward) yourself. If you are used to being critical toward yourself, you may have to lower your standards here. It is perfectly acceptable to reinforce the smallest of steps, even if you just thought about taking steps to change, the fact that you thought about it can be reinforced.
THERE ARE NO SMALL STEPS
As mentioned above, in our society sugar is practically shoved down your throat and is in almost everything that comes in a package, including savory food. Recovering from an addiction, especially one that is in every store and restaurant across America, is difficult. Don’t expect it all to change overnight. Take small steps and reinforce them (see the NONJUDGMENT and REINFORCEMENT section above). For example, you might start with just reducing (not eliminating) the amount of sugar you put in your coffee or tea or decreasing the amount of soda you drink just by leaving a few sips behind. Reinforce these seemingly small steps and you will gain momentum and watch these steps add up.
ASK FOR SUGAR ADDICTION HELP
If, despite your best efforts, you cannot curb your sugar intake and are experiencing problems as a result, ask for help! You may want to contact your healthcare professional or reach out to a health psychologist, such as myself. Health psychologists help people make sustainable changes to their health. We take the guesswork out and help you move toward your goals in a way that is streamlined and rewarding.
If sugar is causing a problem in your life, take one of the steps mentioned about today and start shifting from surviving to thriving!