As much as we crave it, the benefits of quitting sugar can improve a whole range of quality of life health issues for those of us who can’t get enough of the sweet stuff.
There’s a long-standing debate among many people whether sugar is addictive like drugs or alcohol, although there are plenty of behavioral similarities between the two.
Standing in front of the freezer, digging a spoon into a half-empty pint of might not be an uncommon habit for some people.
Maybe it’s some other type of silky, sweet delight that makes everything better, albeit just for a brief moment. Like drugs and alcohol, though, sugar lights up the pleasure centers in the brain and can be incredibly unhealthy over the long-term.
It can be hard to know just how much sugar we’re actually consuming. Candies, cakes, pies, pastries, and all the rest of the desserts are easy to spot.
But if you haven’t been paying attention, it would probably be a shock to learn that salad dressing, spaghetti sauces, and even those so called “healthy” snacks, like low fat yogurt, can be unusually high in sugar content.
The average adult in the United States consumes 77 grams of sugar per day, which “adds up to around 60 pounds of added sugar annually,” reports the American Heart Association (AHA).
One potential motivator for thinking about giving up sugar is by considering all the ways in which it mimics a dependency to drugs and alcohol.
Sugar and Its Similarities to Addictive Drugs
First, let’s state the obvious – rarely do we hear about people losing their jobs or homes, or even going to jail because of a sugar addiction, like we do with drugs and alcohol.
But that doesn’t mean it’s harmless, and it shares many similarities to drug or alcohol addition.
Here are 6 Ways Sugar Addiction is Like Drug Addiction:
1. Similar Effects on the Brain
Sugar causes the brain to release dopamine, the same “feel good” neurotransmitter activated by drugs like heroin, cocaine, MDMA, alcohol, nicotine, and others.
Because of this, some people “chase” a sugar high much like others do with alcohol or other drugs. They know they will feel pleasure from eating sugar and they can’t get enough of it.
2. Both Involve Cravings
A person with a high intake of added sugar may not realize that their cravings for consuming more of it are related to the chemical “crash” taking place in their body.
Getting a fix for a sweet tooth for many people is the same thing as scoring a fix for those addicted to drugs. The consequences might not be as quite as bad, but it is still unhealthy in the long run.
3. Building a Tolerance
That dose of sugary sweetness may start as a short burst of energy, but similar to other addictive substances, it takes more and more of it to maintain that feeling.
Yes, it’s possible for anyone to build a tolerance to sugar, just like with drugs or alcohol. This is because long-term sugar consumption causes functional changes in the brain.
4. People Binge on Sugar Like With Alcohol
Binge drinking alcohol may be something young adults do when first discovering alcohol in high school or college, although hopefully most will mature out of this stage as they get older and become more experienced with drinking.
Unfortunately, many of us with a problem controlling our sugar intake don’t mature out of binging on sugar and it’s quite common to plow through a pint of ice cream after work or while watching a movie at night.
5. Sugar is a Coping Mechanism Like Drugs and Alcohol
It’s quite common for people with stress and depression, anxiety, or other mental health conditions to use drugs or alcohol as a coping mechanism to lessen their symptoms to feel better.
Binging on that pint of ice cream while watching a movie is often used as a way to cope with work stress or dealing with the anxiety of an upcoming test in school.
6. Withdrawal Symptoms From Quitting Sugar are Similar to Quitting Other Substances
Similar to a physical dependency to drugs and alcohol, giving up sugar cold turkey can lead to symptoms of withdrawal. In addition, sugar withdrawal can have both mental and physical symptoms.
Common Withdrawal Symptoms From Quitting Sugar Include:
- Intense hunger for something sweet
- Cravings for other carbohydrates, such as pasta or potato chips
- Mood swings, from irritability to sadness
- Difficulty concentrating or other cognitive impairment
- Feeling tired or weak because of changes in sleep patterns
- Signs of depression or anxiety
- Dizziness or the perception of being lightheaded
There’s plenty of evidence that links a heavy junk food diet with poor mental health.
A study in The British Journal of Psychiatry found that individuals who eat a lot of processed foods, particularly sweets and fried foods, are more likely to be diagnosed with depression.
Left unaddressed, this can create a vicious cycle of self-medicating with sugary foods in order to stave off symptoms associated with sugar withdrawal. Those addicted to drugs or alcohol know this feeling all too well.
5 Benefits of Quitting Sugar
Though it might be a struggle in the beginning, weaning off of as much added sugar as possible comes with a load of health benefits.
5 Positive Benefits of Quitting Sugar include:
1. Increase in Energy Levels
Sugar is known as a simple carbohydrate, which is a type of food that is metabolized quickly. This provides a quick rush of energy that only lasts a short time and is soon followed by a crash that leaves us tired and sluggish.
By replacing sugar with complex carbohydrates that metabolize more slowly like brown rice, corn, oats, or quinoa, we will notice energy that lasts longer without the crash.
At the same time, nutrient rich foods, like fresh vegetables, fruit, lean meats and fish will also result in sustained energy and focus throughout day instead of relying on sugary snacks that only give us a short, temporary boost.
2. Improvement in Managing Weight
Part of the short energy boost from sugary foods comes from an increase in blood sugar that results from a spike in insulin levels. Increased insulin levels have a way of adding fat to the body, usually in the belly area or mid-section of the body.
Fat stored in these areas of the body is hard to get rid of and makes weight loss extremely difficult.
Replacing sugar with healthy carbs can speed up the metabolism to jumpstart weight loss and also increase energy levels at the same time.
By controlling weight management, it improves heart health and lowers the risk for diseases like diabetes, heart disease and high blood pressure.
3. Better Skin and Complexion
Regularly eating sugar, especially in large quantities, increases blood sugar levels and reduces the body’s production of collagen that makes the skin tight, elastic, and healthy. A reduction in collagen is one of the biggest causes of wrinkles on the hands and face.
Sugar and processed foods that contain high amounts of sugar increase inflammation that can cause the skin to age more quickly or break out with acne or psoriasis.
Reducing sugar intake can have a noticeable improvement in the look of the skin and complexion.
4. Decreased Inflammation
Sugar is one of the biggest culprits for increasing inflammation in the body because of the way it impacts fatty acids in the liver.
Cutting back on sugar or foods that contain sugar can have a profound effect on decreasing inflammation throughout all areas of the body.
Decreased inflammation can make activities like exercise much more accessible and rewarding.
Reducing inflammation can also improve joint pain, stave of depression, lower the risk for some types of cancer, and make our bodies run more smoothly to improve our overall health.
5. Mental Health Benefits
It’s been noted that the quick rush and crash from sugar can cause us to feel sluggish and low on energy, as well as inducing depression or anxiety. These mental health issues are related in part to inflammation.
Too much sugar can impact the function of the hippocampus, which is responsible for memory and learning.
High blood sugar is also linked to diabetes, and recent studies have considered this combination to be connected to an increased risk of developing dementia or Alzheimer’s disease.
Some people notice the mental health benefits of quitting sugar within a few weeks after their body adjusts to eating healthier foods.
Ways to Quit Eating Sugar
Quitting sugar isn’t easy but the benefits will be noticed quickly and greatly appreciated as soon as the withdrawal symptoms subside and lifestyle changes begin to take hold.
One of the quickest and best ways to stop eating sugar is to quit all at once instead of trying to taper off. Do a kitchen detox and remove all foods containing sugar so there won’t be any temptation to cheat.
If your house is filled with sugary foods, it’s okay to plan ahead and do one last binge to eat up all of those foods instead of throwing them out. This strategy is best done with a group of friends to help clear the cupboards more quickly.
After beginning a sugar-free lifestyle, there are plenty of ways to help stay on track.
Tips for Giving Up Sugar
Increase water intake to improve energy levels and properly hydrate the organs. This will reduce withdrawal symptoms and keep you from feeling hungry all the time.
Exercise will improve heart and brain functioning and increase feel-good neurotransmitters for better mood.
Ensure that you are getting adequate sleep each night to further help with mood and increase energy levels.
4. Artificial Sweeteners
Stay away from artificial sweeteners because they can trigger cravings for the real thing.
5. Healthy Foods
Eating healthy foods is the best way to stay away from sugar and over time, the body will crave a healthier diet and sugar cravings will subside.
There are many healthy diet options, but one of the best, especially for those in recovery from alcohol and drugs, is a low-glycemic diet.
Low glycemic whole foods – fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins – are excellent in balancing the body’s dopamine levels without spiking blood sugar.
As the body becomes accustomed to pulling its energy from nutrients, rather than sugar, most people will discover an improved sense of mental wellbeing.
One of the biggest benefits of quitting sugar, aside from being healthier, is that all foods will begin to taste better. It’s amazing how much sweeter foods like blueberries or other fruits taste when our taste buds haven’t been sabotaged by a sugary diet.
Dr. Elena Kapustina found her true calling and completed her PsyD in Clinical Psychology after earning her MBA and spending years working as the CFO for major corporations. She founded Iris Healing to holistically work with dual diagnosis patients in order to create a more sustainable recovery. From managing 1,000 employees to creating a top of the line treatment center, Dr. Kapustina harnesses her passion to create positive experiences for others.