As a somewhat fanatical clean eater who leans Paleo, I'm sure you can guess which side I'm on. I'm not afraid to say that sugar is the devil (which, I suppose, makes kale Jesus). In the two years since I've cut out refined sugar completely — save for my cheat day splurges here and there — I've noticed a huge difference in myself: higher energy levels, better immunity, stabilized mood and that generally smug feeling you get when you're a clean eater.
Dig a little deeper, and you'll quickly see that research doesn't err on the side of "white poison." In 2013, Connecticut College researchers busted out the big guns when they declared that Oreos are just as addicting as cocaine. Kay Tye, principal investigator at the Picower Institute for Learning and Memory, confirms that compulsive sugar-seeking is encoded differently by the brain than normal eating — which sounds like textbook addiction to me. Eating sugary foods not only creates a bad habit, but it can hardwire you to crave more by changing your brain. As hard as it is to believe, researchers say that even artificial sweeteners may be better for you than a hit of the good stuff.
Just like any other insidious drug, sugar is stealthy. That cupcake you snuck at lunch might be the gateway to a full-on sugar binge. The big problem is that sugar addiction has become widely accepted. Your friends will probably laugh and roll their eyes when you tell them that you need an extended stay in Sugar Rehab because sweetness is taking over your life.
Or maybe you're like the rest of the world, living happily yet dangerously in the Dungeon of Sugar Denial. You may not realize you have a sugar problem until you clean out your system and see what life is really like without sugar rushing through your veins. As the saying goes, the first step is admitting you have a problem. If you're not tuned in to how sugar is affecting your body, these early warning signs of sugar addiction are easy to overlook.
Mindlessly grazing throughout the day doesn't actually mean you are hungry. It's one of the first telltale signs of sugar addiction, says Kinsey Jackson, L.M.P., M.S., C.N.S., blogger at PaleoPlan.com. This is what it looks like when your body is riding the "blood sugar roller coaster," leaving you vulnerable to hyperglycemia, prediabetes and Type 2 diabetes. "Eating carbohydrate-rich foods like breads, noodles, chips, candies, colas, fruit and juices causes our blood sugar levels to spike, followed by a drop. Our bodies perceive this drop in blood glucose as dangerous, causing us to crave more sugar in a viscous cycle," says Jackson.
Ruh roh. I have to admit this is my weakness. I've given up everything else in my new clean eating life, including delicious sugar, but you're going to have to pry my morning coffee out of my cold, dead hands. Jackson explains that coffee in itself isn't the problem — it's what you put in it. She says, "The sweeteners and mixers used in coffee are often loaded with carbohydrates that quickly break down into sugar (glucose) in your blood. Many people who 'give up' coffee find themselves craving other sources of sugar to replace what's been lost from these drinks. Likewise, craving caffeine may be another sign that you're secretly addicted to sugar."
Isn't eating fruit a good thing if you're on a diet? Is nothing sacred? The real issue stems from using health as an excuse to eat too much fruit because your sweet tooth can't be satisfied. "Don't let fruit fool you. Many folks fail to realize that fruit is sugar too! Fruit juices are particularly high-glycemic and frequently craving or eating fruit may be a sign that you're secretly addicted to sugar," Jackson explains.
It's important to watch out for fruit overload spurred on by underlying sugar addiction, but Dr. Jackie Mills — head of nutrition at Les Mills and creator of Good Protein — says you can enjoy fruit in moderation on a healthy diet, "Something important to remember is that this caution about fructose (a sugar found in fruit and also made for processed foods) doesn't apply to fruit, which is a real food with vitamins, minerals, fiber, lots of water and is harder to overeat (within reason!)."
Feeling tired after a long, hard day is normal. Feeling tired when you wake up and dragging yourself through the workweek is not. One of the biggest changes I noticed in myself after cutting out refined sugar was an immediate energy boost: I'm still a tired working mom chasing after two toddlers, but I feel noticeably less fatigued than I did just a few years ago. You may have a troubled relationship with sugar if "you suffer extreme fatigue or have trouble concentrating" without your daily dose, says Dan DeFigio, author of Beating Sugar Addiction for Dummies.
Dr. Barry Sears — a leading authority in anti-inflammatory nutrition and author of the recently published The Mediterranean Zone — adds, "One of best signs that you are addicted to sugar is that you are constantly fatigued. This indicates that insufficient glucose is getting to your muscles due to insulin resistance. As a result, you are unable to produce enough chemical energy. A new surge of glucose coming into the blood stream gives you temporary energy. This glucose can come from sweetened sodas, fruit juices, adding excessive sugar to coffee, bread products and any food product made with refined sugars."
Load your body up with sugar every day, and it's going to be almost impossible for you to maintain a healthy weight. Dr. Mills considers weight gain and obesity prime indicators that your body has an unhealthy dependence on sugar. "While glucose (a natural sugar our bodies make) is essential and can be metabolized by pretty much every cell in the body, fructose provides the body zero nutritional benefit. Fructose must be processed by the liver, and when this happens in large amounts, most of the fructose gets turned into fat. This process is a leading cause of obesity."
Eating something sweet after a big meal is as common as that dessert cart that rolls around after dinner — it's expected. But if you've gotten to the point where you can't finish a savory meal without a sweet treat, you may have a bigger problem on your hands. "The symptom I see in my clients (and experienced myself) that most commonly goes under the radar is a need to have a bite of sweetness at the end of a meal," says Liz Flint-Somerville, nutritional therapy consultant and real food blogger. "I've seen a broad range of manifestations, from getting angry when dessert isn't offered, to feeling restless and unfinished until popping an after-dinner mint. We've become accustomed to having sugar after a meal to such an extent that craving it feels totally normal, even though baked goods and sugary treats should be an exception, not the rule."
As subtle as it may be, a classic sign of addiction is not being able to control your behavior. DeFigio says it may be time to run up the white flag if you can no longer manage your sugar intake. According to DeFigio, you may have a problem if: "You repeatedly eat too much sugar, even though you promise yourself that you'll never do it again."
You'll know you have an addiction if your sugar cravings get even stronger whenever you try to cut back. DeFigio explains, "You [may] experience physical withdrawal symptoms if you go without sugar for a day or two." Jackson adds, "Going 'sugar-free' is a great way to quickly come to terms with just how addicted you are to sugar. In general, the more frequent and intense the cravings, the more addicted you probably are!"
It's one thing to white-knuckle it and cut out sugar cold turkey, which can lead to a few unpleasant days of withdrawal, and it's quite another to make the detox process gentler by supporting your body with a supplement like coconut oil. Coconut oil, rich in healthy fats called MCTs, rivals sugar in its ability to provide a quick jolt of energy without an insulin spike. It also helps minimize those dreaded sugar cravings. Sarah Wilson, author of I Quit Sugar, considers daily coconut oil her secret weapon in breaking her sugar addiction almost three years ago.
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