What if your appetite for sweet treats is actually a sign of something more? We share the signs and symptoms of sugar addiction, and how to break the cycle

When is being ‘too sweet’ a bad thing? Well, despite conjuring up imagery of kind and loving people, or a nostalgic treat for yourself to enjoy, the truth is, when it comes to nutrition, sugar can be a sly substance. It’s probably in more foods than you realise, from breakfast cereals and packaged fruits, to salad dressing and pasta sauce. And while a lot of us enjoy something sweet now and again, like many things in life, too much of a good thing is not always healthy. In fact, too much sugar can lead to high blood pressure, weight gain, tooth decay, and even certain types of cancer.

What is sugar addiction?

First things first, there is no shame in enjoying sweet flavours. And there is a big difference between liking a sugary snack now and then, and actually finding yourself with a sugar addiction. With the latter, sugar addiction can be behavioural (when you eat despite not being hungry, or snack compulsively) or chemical (when your body experiences negative effects or physical cravings if you try to cut down or stop eating sugar). Essentially, the stage where it becomes a problem is when the sugar reliance is affecting you mentally and/or physically, and you feel as though you can’t do without it. For many people, the main draw of eating sugary foods or drinks is that they can give you a short-term energy boost. When we feel stressed, tired, or anxious, we may turn to sugar-filled foods or snacks to try to experience this quick energy release we need – even though it is a short-term solution to what is often a long-term problem.

In turn, this can lead to associating certain foods that are high in sugar with feeling happier and filled with energy, thanks to the release of endorphins. When we do this too often, a one-off comfort can become an unhealthy way of trying to cope with other feelings we are trying to avoid.

Signs, symptoms and effects

Studies have revealed that eating too much sugar can lead to:

. Cravings, sugar tolerance, and higher consumption
. Binge-eating
. Withdrawal symptoms
. Emotional or psychological dependence
. Unhealthy coping mechanisms

How do I know if I’m addicted to sugar?

If you’re worried you might have an unhealthy relationship with sugar, there are many common signs you can keep an eye out for. Ask yourself:

Do I feel guilty when eating?

Do I hide what, when, or how much I am eating from family, friends or colleagues?

Do I make excuses about what I’m eating? (I’ll eat healthier tomorrow; I had a hard day, I deserve a treat)

Are my portions getting bigger?

Am I hungry when I eat?

Do I eat when I’m feeling emotional? (Sad, upset, stressed, to celebrate, for comfort)

Is the food I eat really sugary
or salty?

Do I often feel sleepy, low energy, or lethargic after eating or snacking?

Do I feel in control when I’m eating?

Frequent headaches, skin breakouts, increased feelings of anxiety or depression, nausea, fatigue, and trouble sleeping can all also be common physical and psychological side-effects. As with any health concerns though, it is always important to speak to your GP as soon as possible to rule out any other issues.

Why do some people develop a sugar addiction?

Research published in 2017 revealed that sugar is actually more addictive than opioid drugs such as cocaine. And the problem is that when trying to cut it out, it can lead to withdrawal symptoms. Eating sugar can actually alter your mood in the same way drugs can, inducing a sense of reward and pleasure. As many of us consume up to three times our recommended daily sugar intake, this can put us at risk of becoming reliant on the way that sugary foods make us feel, so it’s even harder to reduce our intake.

How can I break my addiction to sugar?

The good news is we don’t have to feel like we’re held hostage by sugar cravings. Try these six effective tips to get started:

1. Get in the right mindset

As with all addictions, you need to be ready to accept that you have a problem, and want to make changes, in order to set yourself up for the best chance of success.

2. Ensure you’re getting enough nutrients

According to a 2019 study, almost half of Brits have no idea how much protein, carbs, sugar, fruit, and veg, they should eat in a day.

Eating enough protein and healthy fats can provide a slow, steady release of energy – the opposite of the instant rush sugar provides. Protein helps us to feel satiated, reducing feelings of cravings and hunger. And when moving away from a high-sugar diet, you may need to replenish vitamin B levels, which can become depleted due to sugar and high-stress levels.

A nutritionist could help you learn more about healthy eating, and what you really need to ensure you have a balanced diet.

3. Identify (and tackle) lifestyle red flags

We can inadvertently form unhealthy habits without even realising it. Not getting enough sleep, or having poor quality sleep, can trigger excessive eating, as you try to combat fatigue and lethargy, while high levels of stress can lead to emotional eating and unhealthy coping mechanisms.

When we feel overwhelmed, it’s easier to turn to fast food, takeaways, ready meals, and pre-prepared options that are often highly processed and filled with sugar. Recognising unhelpful habits can help you to identify areas which may be inadvertently leading to higher sugar consumption.

4. Head off your cravings

Start your day off right with a high-protein breakfast to reduce cravings. Plan ahead for meals and snacks to avoid temptations when picking up lunch at work, or trying to cook while tired and stressed. Swap in healthy veg options, like carrots and sweet potatoes, as well as naturally sweet fruits like bananas and dates, to help satisfy your sweet tooth.

5. Avoid artificial substitutions

Research suggests that artificial sweeteners can leave you craving sugar more, while continuing to appease your taste for overly sweet foods. If you can, cut down or avoid these.

6. Try hypnotherapy

Hypnotherapy can help you to address your unhealthy relationship with food, change unhelpful eating habits and behaviours, while introducing you to new ways to cope with stress and overwhelm by tapping into your subconscious thoughts.

The sweet relief

It’s important to note that there’s a big difference between enjoying something sweet now and then, and feeling addicted to sugar. This is about the point where a habit is negatively impacting your health and lifestyle, and addressing it would be beneficial.

It’s also worth remembering that a lot of unhelpful habits take years to form, so it’s not surprising that undoing them isn’t an overnight process either. It can take anywhere from two to four weeks for your body and brain to stop craving sweets, so if you decide to address your relationship with sugar, try to stick with it and give yourself time to adapt.

Without help and support, it can be easy to fall back into negative patterns. No matter how tough things feel, with the right support and mindset, you can make healthy, sustainable changes to overcome your sugar addiction.

To detox, or not to detox?

Cutting out sugar completely can sometimes lead you to feel awful in the short-term.While some people swear going cold turkey is the best way to break a habit, for others, it can set them up for failure. Making drastic changes to your diet without looking at underlying issues that lead to your poor diet means you are at higher risk of falling back on old habits, while also feeling like you’ve failed. Overcoming a sugar addiction isn’t just mind over matter; it’s making a series of sustainable lifestyle and mindset choices to last you a lifetime.

To find out about healthy eating, visit the Nutritionist Resource or speak to qualified nutritionist.

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