Kick Your Sugar Addiction

Are you a sucker for sweets and soda? Learn to break free.

By Kathleen Zelman, MPH, RD/LD
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic - Feature

There's no denying that we Americans love our sugary treats. Former President Ronald Reagan had to have jellybeans on his desk at all times. Vending machines in schools, offices, and almost everywhere else feed our desire to eat sweets throughout the day. With sales of sodas, candy, and other sweets soaring, it's clear that, as a nation, we are virtually addicted to sugar in all its glorious forms.

While sugar is not literally addicting, scientists long ago proved that people are born with a preference for sweets. This innate desire does not disappear as we grow older. Some people find it impossible to leave the dinner table without dessert; others can't fathom a day without chocolate. Many women blame hormonal surges for the sweets cravings they get around the same time each month.

The results of this sugar "addiction" are not always so sweet. Sugar and other sweeteners add calories with few other nutrients and have no doubt helped contribute to our near-epidemic of obesity. (Of course, sugar is not alone in promoting obesity -- a lack of exercise and excessive calories from many other sources share the blame.)

Cavities and Calories

Sugar has been blamed for everything from diabetes, tooth decay, obesity, and heart disease to disruptive behavior in the classroom. But sugar by itself will not cause any of these conditions -- except cavities.

"Sweets can definitely increase the risk of [cavities] when the sweetened substances pool around the teeth or sticky sweets adhere to the surface of the tooth," says Atlanta dentist James Sylvan, DDS.

Aside from that, a comprehensive review of scientific research, published in the journal Nutrition Research in 1997, showed that sugar is not a direct cause of heart disease, diabetes, obesity, or hyperactivity. A more recent government report concurs that sugar is not by itself linked to any of those conditions. However, too many calories, in any form, can contribute to obesity, diabetes, and heart disease.

The Blood-Sugar Roller Coaster

Changes in our behavior are often attributed to changes in our blood sugar levels. When you consume a meal made up of simple, refined carbohydrates -- like a doughnut or a soft drink -- the result is a spike in blood sugar. Your body responds to this spike by secreting large amounts of insulin to normalize your blood sugar level.

In response to the insulin, your blood sugar level drops quickly, leaving you with a feeling of sluggishness and irritability.

When your blood sugar gets too low, hunger reappears, and the roller-coaster ride resumes -- that is, if your next meal is also mostly simple carbohydrates. These are the carbohydrates that the latest diet books denounce, not the healthy, fibrous carbohydrates that come from whole fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.

If, instead of eating simple carbs by themselves, you choose these healthy carbohydrates or add some protein or fat to your meal, your blood sugar will rise and fall more normally without the negative side effects.

Craving That Sweet Stuff

When we say we have a sugar addiction, we may mean anything from a mild desire to intense cravings for sweet foods and drinks. Some people go so far as to equate the effects of sugar to a drug, saying it calms them and helps them deal with stress.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food Guide Pyramid recommends we limit added sugars in our diet to 12 teaspoons per day. But the reality is that in 2001, the average American ate and drank the equivalent of 31 teaspoons of sugar daily.

It sounds insane, but sugar finds it way into virtually every kind of processed food, from ketchup to soups and, especially, soft drinks. One 12-ounce can of soda contains approximately 10 teaspoons of sugar. As if that is not bad enough, government data suggest that we consume an average of 41.4 gallons of soda per person annually. That's a lot of sugar -- and extra calories!

Sugars have 4 calories per gram, or 15 calories per teaspoon. So if you want to shave calories, it's a good idea to limit added sugar in your diet. Sounds simple enough, but what about those hard-to-ignore cravings?

Here's the trick: Gradually decreasing the amount of sugar you eat, and how often you eat it, will help you reduce your desire for sugars while lowering your caloric intake. Old habits are hard to break, but making small and gradual changes in your eating style will help you break free from your sugar addiction.


"Gradually decreasing the amount of sugar you eat, and how often you eat it, will help you reduce your desire for sugars."

Many people newly diagnosed with diabetes find that after they start eating fewer sweets, foods like fresh fruit taste sweeter and can satisfy their cravings for sweets. Remember, moderation is the key. If you can control the quantity, you will be able to enjoy sweets on occasion.


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