Here's a riddle for you: What is the one substance we consume every day without thinking twice, that is making us sicker, yet we still crave it?
The answer: sugar. We're addicted to sugar, and most of us don't even realize it.
An average American consumes anywhere from 22 to 32 teaspoons of sugar each day, according to Forbes. The World Health Organization recommends eating no more than 6 teaspoons of sugar a day.
Our overwhelmingly high consumption of sugar has been linked to a variety of health problems, including obesity, hypertension, heart disease, diabetes, irritable bowel syndrome, attention and memory problems, hyperactivity, anxiety and depression, migraines, poor eyesight, autoimmune diseases, gout, and even osteoporosis. Yet we can't seem to get enough of the sweet stuff.
If you measure sugar on criteria doctors use to diagnose drug dependence (called the DSM-IV criteria), the way we consume sugar resembles that of an addict consuming an addictive substance.
Medical professionals consider meeting three of the following seven criteria evidence of dependence. Lets take a look at how we fare with sugar:
Tolerance: Does the patient tend to need more of the drug over time to get the same effect?
Over time, your brain starts to see sugar as a reward. It wants more and more of that reward, creating cravings.
Withdrawal symptoms: Does the patient experience withdrawal symptoms when he or she does not use the drug?
This is where cravings come in. According to Business Insider, our ancient ancestors evolved to crave sugar because their body needed to store energy during times of scarcity — we've only reinforced the craving by eating so much sugar.
Continued use of drug despite harm: Is the patient experiencing physical or psychological harm from the drug?
Yes. It's a no-brainer that excessive consumption of sugar leads to a laundry list of health problems including weight gain, obesity, diabetes. It even leads to a greater risk of heart disease, according to Harvard University.
Loss of control: Does the patient take the drug in larger amounts, or for longer than planned?
Though this is hard to quantify, most of us can say at one point or another we've indulged in a little too much sugar.
Attempts to cut down: Has the patient made a conscious, but unsuccessful, effort to reduce his or her drug use?
Again, plenty of us have struggled with dieting, artificial sweeteners or other efforts to cut back on sugar.
Salience: Does the patient spend significant time obtaining or thinking about the drug, or recovering from its effects?
Another difficult question to answer, but anyone who has felt sick after bingeing on sweets can answer yes.
Reduced involvement: Has the patient given up or reduced his or her involvement in social, occupational or recreational activities due to the drug?
This is probably only true in the most extreme cases.
Totaling up the answers, sugar meets at least three (possibly more, depending on your personal experience) of the criteria of an addictive substance.
Still want that brownie?
Fortunately, we can reverse this tolerance in just a few weeks by cutting out sugar. Once you have decreased your threshold, something that tasted perfectly sweet a few weeks ago will begin to taste too sweet to eat, and that can help you reduce your intake of this unhealthy substance.
Consider putting yourself on a sugar fast for three weeks to free yourself from the addiction. Here are some tips to help you cut back.
- Keep sugar and sugar products out of your house. This includes white and brown sugar, corn syrup, and maple syrup.
- Read labels and avoid any product that contains added sugar. You may be surprised to learn that many products like bread and pasta sauce contain added sugar.
- Try stevia, a natural no-calorie sugar alternative that could actually nourish the pancreas, according to some studies. Stevia is an herbal extract from the stevia rebaudiana leaf that helps the pancreas secrete insulin and regulate blood sugar. It is an acquired taste, so if you don’t like it the first time, try it again. To wean yourself off sugar gradually, substitute half of your normal sugar with a drop of liquid stevia and keep decreasing the amount of sugar.
- Eat enough healthy food to satisfy your hunger. Eat whole food snacks like fruit, carrots, red peppers, cherry tomatoes, dates, and dried fruit to satisfy your sweet tooth. Frozen fruit, whole or pureed, makes a delicious alternative to ice cream. Once you have cleared sugar from your system, your taste buds will become more sensitive, and these whole, natural foods will taste sweeter and more satisfying.
- Eat three regular meals each day. This will help you maintain a steady blood sugar level throughout the day and reduce your sugar cravings. A diet high in fiber also helps to reduce sugar cravings.
- Take a multivitamin and mineral supplement. Adding minerals to your water is another way to give your body the nutrition it needs, which can help reduce cravings.
- Get regular exercise, plenty of sunlight, and adequate sleep.
- When you go out to eat, make sure you are not ravenously hungry, especially if sugary sweets or dishes will be the only food available. Bring your own healthy snacks with you, or eat before going out.
- Learn to identify and manage cravings that are not a result of physical hunger, but instead are rooted in stress or anxiety. Relaxation helps to balance your blood sugar and reduce cravings. Develop alternative ways of managing stress: Take a walk, call a friend, read a book, play with your pet, watch a movie.
- If you do overindulge in sugar, acknowledge that you slipped, and get back on track as soon as possible. Let go of the guilt!