#032 Ten Ways to Break Your Sugar Addiction

Ten Ways to Break Your Sugar Addiction

Oreo cookies and cupcakes are more addictive than cocaine, according to recent medical studies.  Could the findings of these studies help explain why two in three of us are overweight or obese?

Many studies have shown that when a person with a sugar addiction sees something like a cookie or a cupcake, the prefrontal cortex area of their brain lights up on a brain scan as much as a cocaine addict when they see cocaine.

In my experience as a cardiologist, nearly all of my patients that have been able given up sugar and simple carbs and replaced these foods with real food choices have been able to return to a normal weight.  It really is that simple.

Simple carbs, like breakfast cereals, pancakes, breads or pasta made with flour, white rice, fries, or potato chips are really just sugars to the body. The key to breaking a sugar addiction, avoiding hunger, and maintaining a normal weight is to minimize or avoid sugar and simple carbs.

My Story

I lived what I thought was the typical American teenager’s life.  Every day, I ate cereals such as Frosted Flakes and Rice Crispies, or Bisquick pancakes for breakfast.  For lunch and throughout the day, I enjoyed  white bread sandwiches, pastries, bagels, and soda pop.

I was always wanting the stuff, but never felt satisfied.  I thought this was normal as all of my friends and their families ate this same way. I thought we were eating healthy because all of these foods are low in fat and cholesterol.

At the age of 21 I lived in Taipei, Taiwan with a Chinese family and had no contact with any caucasians for the entire summer. There were no processed or sugary foods available to me.

Never mind adjusting to a new culture and language, the hardest part of the experience for me was living without sugar!  I could not find any of the usual sugar fixes in my Taipei neighborhood. There were no bagels, waffles, donuts, or cookies.  On a student’s budget, I could not afford to travel to, or pay for, my traditional fixes at any of the grocery stores catering to Westerners living in Taipei.

So there I was, a summer in Taiwan with no sugar.  I went through quite severe sugar withdrawals.  I was irritable, depressed, and anxious for the first week or two. And then, miraculously, the cravings for sugar and simple carbs, and the accompanying symptoms, disappeared.

The amazing thing is that I felt the best I had ever felt in my life that summer in Taiwan.

Even at the young age of 21, it occurred to me that I really did have a sugar/simple carb addiction.  I thought I was cured until I came back to college in the U.S. at the end of the summer.

Everyday, as I passed my university bookstore each morning, I smelled something delicious. At some point during the second week, I vaguely remember thinking, “What could hurt in having just one?” It was all over that day.  I picked up right where I left off and sugar became my overwhelming daily fair once again.

This daily fair continues until  a medical crisis in my mid-40s , when I finally got this sugar/simple carb addiction under control and regained my health.

Do sugar and simple carbs qualify as addictive substances?

The medical definition of an addiction is a strong and harmful need to regularly have something.  By this definition, sugar and simple carbs qualify.  We know it is harming our bodies but, when addicted, we feel compelled to eat it despite the direct links to harmful effects such as obesity, diabetes, dementia, cardiovascular disease, cancer… the list goes on.

What do sugar and simple carbs do to the brain?

Sugar and simple carbs are no different than smoking, alcohol, or cocaine on their effect to the brain.  In fact, an addiction to sugar and simple carbs may even be more difficult.

While smoking and drugs are despised in our culture, sugar and simple carbs are celebrated, starting at a young age.  Our children are showered with sugar and simple carbs at school, church, many friends’ homes, sporting activities, etc..

The Chemical Changes to Our Brains with a Sugar Addiction

1. Increase Serotonin Release

We all crave serotonin.  Serotonin makes us feel good and relieves anxiety.

Most medications used for depression and anxiety actually block the break down of serotonin.  Thus, these medications increase the serotonin in our brains.

2. Increase Dopamine

Dopamine is the “feel good” chemical in our brain.  With sugar and simple carbs we get the same dopamine rush as we would with cocaine.

3. Endorphin Release

Sugar and simple carbs cause a release of opiates within our brains.  This is the same thing as the “runners high.”  In fact, many medical studies have shown that we can block much of the addictive properties of sugar and simple carbs with a medication called naloxone.

Naloxone directly blocks the effects of opiates in the brain.  Thus, naloxone is very helpful for drug and alcohol addicts battling these addictions.

 4. Acetylcholine Release

Elevated levels of acetylcholine in the brain are seen with all addictions.  Sugar and simple carbs can have the same effect.  With elevated acetylcholine in the brain, the higher cognitive effects of the prefrontal cortex are impaired.

With impaired prefrontal cortex function, our willpower and ability to focus on high-level goals is also affected.  Thus, even though we know what sugar and simple carbs are doing to our health, we are powerless to change.

10 Steps to Break the Sugar and Simple Carb Addiction

In addition to the struggle we face with the brain chemicals that compel us to eat sugar and simple carbs, we also face another very real challenge: the people around us who are also in the throws of the junk food and want us to partake with them. It can seem nearly impossible to resist.

These scenarios can create a psychological dilemma. If we partake, we can get caught up in the addictive cycle.  On the other hand, when we make these foods “forbidden” or “evil,” it can further intensify the obsession for these foods.

What to do?  Let me give you my 10 steps to break the sugar and simple carb addiction.

 1. Real Food First

While abstinence would be best, for the 99% of us who cannot abstain, I have found that eating real food first is the best option.  This approach works best for our children as we are guiding them to make healthy food choices and navigate the plethora of sugar and simple carbs that surround them everywhere.  We call this the Real Food First Diet.

This approach is really quite simple.  At each meal, have vegetables, fruit, a healthy protein, and a healthy fat first.  If your body is telling you that you are still hungry after eating real food first, then you can eat whatever you want.

Of course, you need to wait at least 30 minutes for the “I’m full” signal from your gut to finally get to your brain before you eat more.  The goal is that if you fill up on real food first that you will reduce or lose the desire for sugar and simple carbs.

I have found that if people fill up on real food with each meal that they generally lose their desire to snack or eat junk food.  If, however, you are craving a snack, the same rules apply.  Eat real food first, wait 30 minutes from your first bite of real food and if your body is telling you that you are still hungry then you can eat whatever you want.

2. Do Something You Enjoy Everyday

Find something that you love and do it every day.  Take time for yourself.  If you get to do at least one enjoyable thing each day it raises your own natural serotonin, dopamine, and endorphins.  When these substances go up, acetylcholine returns to healthy levels within the brain.

If we can get our fix of serotonin, dopamine, and endorphins naturally we won’t feel compelled to get them from sugar and simple carbs.

3. Get 20-30 Minutes of Sunlight Each Day

Sunlight is also a powerful stimulator of serotonin, dopamine, and endorphins.  As a society we are doomed to stay inside.  Our offices are inside, the gym is inside, and at night we are inside our homes taking care of children.

Difficult as it may be, we must find a way to get outside each day.  Explore exercising outside sometimes rather than the usual gym class.  Instead of watching TV or working on the computer at night, try going for a walk with the family.

4. Get Physical Touch

Physical touch also stimulates release of these same feel good chemicals in the brain.  Physical touch, inside of a safe monogamous relationship, can have powerful beneficial effects even beyond the release of these brain chemicals.

If you don’t have anyone in your life, get a regular massage.  Indeed, medical studies show that massage can also significantly increase these feel good chemicals in the brain.

5. Yoga or Meditation

If you want to drop your serotonin, dopamine, and endorphin levels fast, just get stressed out.  I have found that yoga and meditation are very effective in reducing stress for my cardiac patients.  As our stress levels go down we can get our feel good brain chemicals up without sugar or the simple carbs.

6. Physical Activity

We have all heard of the runner’s high. This does not come immediately.  Once we make exercise a regular part of our lives we will eventually feel the high from surging serotonin, dopamine, and endorphin levels from exercise.

This was the case for me.  I remember absolutely hating to run.  Even running a mile was pure torture.  On a whim one day in medical school I committed to run the New York City Marathon with my roommates who were avid runners.

At first, every step was painful.  After about a month into my training, I found that I actually started enjoying these runs.  After two months, I was hooked and have been hooked on exercise for the last 20 years of my life.

7. Get 7 Hours of Sleep

This is probably the most overlooked part of resisting sugar and carb addictions.  If we can just get 7 hours of sleep each night we can get all of our body’s hormones in check and we will be in a better place not to crave sugar and simple carbs.

In our stress filled lives, we just want to keep working on various projects until late into the evening.  I have found that the best way to get 7 hours of sleep is to set our alarm clocks for bedtime rather than waking up time.

Let me explain.  Rather than setting our alarm clocks for 6 am, an even more effective strategy is to set our alarm clocks for 10 pm at night.

The rules are simple.  You cannot turn off the alarm clock until you are in bed with the lights out.  If we have a hard stop to the day we will find that we are much more productive with our time as there is a time limit to everything.  Also, with so much more energy the next day we will be able to accomplish even more.

8. Change Your Scenery

When you are bored, frustrated, or just avoiding a task it is so easy to start obsessing on sugar and simple carbs.  The sugar and simple carbs become a distraction allowing us to procrastinate what we really need to be doing.  I know this is the case for me.

Sometimes if you can’t plow through your task it is best to just change the scenery.  Perhaps taking a walk or getting a nice tall glass of ice water is all you need to break the sugar and simple carb thought obsessions.

9. Get Support

You are not alone in your efforts to resist the siren’s call of sugar and simple carbs.  Find an accountability partner or a friend or family member to give you support.

You may even want to consider joining a support group such as a 12-step group for people struggling with food addictions.  Having some tools and working with a group of people who are working towards the same goals can provide a powerful medium to break the sugar and simple carb addiction.

10. Go for Quality

The World Health Organization has deemed it unsafe to eat more than 25 grams or about 6 teaspoons of added sugar daily (including honey, maple syrup, juices, sports drinks, etc.). Choose wisely and enjoy what you select.

If you are limited to just 6 teaspoons of added sugar daily make them count.  For me, I choose to spend most of my 25 grams of added sugar each day on high quality dark chocolate.  As these 25 grams are priceless, I choose only the best.  Don’t waste your 25 grams of added sugar on a little more than 7 ounces of high fructose corn syrup in a Coke.  Make each gram of sugar count.

Have you been able to break free from a sugar and simple carb addiction? What has been your secret to successfully breaking free from your sugar/simple carb addiction?

Disclaimer Policy: This website is intended to give general information and does not provide medical advice. This website does not create a doctor-patient relationship between you and Dr. John Day. If you have a medical problem, immediately contact your healthcare provider. Information on this website is not intended to diagnose or treat any condition. Dr. John Day is not responsible for any losses, damages or claims that may result from your medical decisions.

  1. I have to agree with everything in your article and also what Rachel S. Wrote. When I was 47 I figured out most all of this on my own. What I did was cut out sugar as much as possible (I allowed myself a treat once a month), I eliminated white flour, sodas and fast food restaurants. I slow jogged 1-3 miles 2 to 3 days a week which allowed me to soak up some sun. I made an effort to get at least 7 hours of sleep (funny how we both came up with that same number) and the results after applying these principles were I went from being tired all of the time, depressed to losing 45 lbs. I used drive my truck half an hour across town, get out and my back would be so stiff I felt like an old man. I noticed the change when I drove 11 hours from Arizona to Utah, got out of the car and had no stiffness at all. I also play in some flag football leagues and like you mentioned, I too felt the best I had ever felt. Seriously, I was running faster and playing again like I had in my twenties. I was loving it. Unfortunately, I only did this for about 6 months. I dropped to 150 lbs and being a single guy too many girls shied away from me because I looked so thin. I’m 54 now and gained back 30 of those pounds. I still desire to do this regimen again and have tried several times but have you ever noticed the older people get the more they crave those sugars? I still play flag football, so your article inspires me to try again… would like to feel that abundance of natural energy again. Sugars are the main contributors to free radicals and free radicals lead to inflammation which is root of over 200 illnesses. That should be motivation for a lot of folks. I hope lots of people get inspired by your article. If they only knew how much difference it will make! Thanks!

    • Hi Don,

      Thank you so much for your insightful comments! Yes, you are absolutely correct in that natural energy comes from the simple things like minimizing or eliminating sugar, getting restful sleep, managing stress, and spending time outside being physically active.

      For most people, cravings for sugar lessen as they get older. Studies show that children have the highest cravings for sugar. This is a good thing as our metabolism tends to slow as we get older.

      Glad this article inspired you!

      Dr. Day

  2. In the struggle to avoid sugar I have found that the following works well for me:

    1)Plan ahead and never get stuck someplace without a healthy snack.
    2)Visualize the consequences of your actions and tie the images to the sugary food. For example, in my case, the sight of sugary food conjures up scenes of severe joint pain for me.
    3)Plan when to have exceptions to your no-sugar rule. Mine are Christmas and my birthday.
    4)In my case I have to make sure that I never eat sugar twice in a row – that seems to trigger more of a cascading problem.
    5)Have an excuse for why you must offend people when you won’t partake of their special (fill in blank) recipe. I find blaming a doctor works well. Sorry, Dr. Day!
    6)Remember that everyone makes mistakes and each day is a chance to improve on the last.

    • Thank you so much for your excellent suggestions Rachel! Yes, please feel free to blame me for your desire to eat Real Food!

      Dr. John Day