Want to “stop eating sugar?”
What a great idea! Many health benefits await. After all, sugar is the main contributor to obesity, inflammation, metabolic syndrome, autoimmune diseases, cancer, diabetes, and memory loss. Wait, what was I talking about?
How we eat sugar
Sugar comes in many forms. You may be eating refined sugar in candy and baked goods, or consuming high fructose corn syrup in foods like ketchup. You may be drinking sugar in wine and energy drinks or enjoying the natural sugar found in fruit and vegetables. Some foods actually turn into glucose after we eat them like potatoes, rice, and pasta.
Deciding to stop eating sugar, while noble with enormous benefits can has some seriously uncomfortable consequences like headaches, fatigue and zero fun.
Plus, if you’ve tried before and failed it can be daunting and demoralizing. So…you put it off until tomorrow or next Tuesday or 2025.
You’re not alone… many of us have tried to stop eating sugar but just can’t. Why?
Why we can’t stop eating sugar
Our mind, body and spirit have a complicated relationship with sugar. Let’s explore three reasons why we can’t stop eating sugar.
1) Sugar is a Habit
You may be using sugar as quick pick me up in the form of a coffee milkshake in the late afternoon or enjoying chocolate chip cookies in front of the computer at night. Take a moment to consider how having sugar is a habit for you. It helps to run through your day in your mind and jot down when you generally eat sugar during a 24 hour period and what you are eating.
Studies show it can take anywhere from 3 to 254 days to break a habit. Breaking a habit is possible. It takes perseverance and it can be difficult depending on the habit. For help breaking habits check out the book “The Power of Habit” by Charles Duhigg.
One way to break a habit is to make an advance plan to replace the unhealthy habit with a healthy habit. For example, if you are eating sugar in the afternoon at 3:00 decide try a new healthy behavior you love as much (or almost as much) during that time. Enjoy a brisk walk and a bottle of sparkling water. Call a friend or learn a new words in a different language. Take up corn hole. Muy bien!
Replacing an old habit with a new habit is uncomfortable at first because we don’t believe this new habit will satisfy us. This is perfectly normal as your brain may be set in its neuropathways. The more you do the new healthy habit, the more comfortable you will become as the old habit will fade into the background as less desirable. Don’t give up! You can do it. Molto bene!
2) Sugar (Temporarily) Covers Up Uncomfortable Emotions
Many emotions we experience are so painful we find ourselves eating sugar to make us feel better, numb out and forget. Sugar is an inanimate object that serves as enjoyment and fuel. It feels wonderful to consume that fuel, but it has no magical powers to “fix” anything. Assuming you’ve eaten your healthy portions of food for the day you may not actually be looking for sugar but instead something like peace or fulfillment. Sugar does not provide either, and actually may be working to the contrary.
Separating our emotional needs from our physical needs is a great first step to quit sugar because we learn to recognize and meet the real need we have for long term health and well being.
3) Sugar is a Reward
Most of us were rewarded in childhood with sugar. Stop crying = cookie. Agree to be tortured by a dentist = lollypop. Don’t let your baby brother burn the house down = banana split. You may still be rewarding yourself with sugar today. Not crying over a cracked windshield = Frozen yogurt. Root canal = Mocha with double whip. Got your 2 kids through the day and they are still alive? = carrot cake and a brownie (one treat per alive kid, obviously.)
Sugar is an emotional reward that triggers a physical reward. It is a double duty rewarder! Not only is it yummy to eat, sugar offers us an instant dopamine high.
Dopamine is our brain’s reward system. As dopamine is released we feel pleasure and motivation. Sadly, the “sugar high” doesn’t last very long, so we need to get more quick! Also, sugar disrupts the dopamine receptors in the brain which leads to tolerance (meaning we need more over time for the same result) which is harmful to our brain and overall health. Sugar withdrawl can be very difficult to endure with side effects including anxiety, headaches, fatigue and even depression.
Sugar does work for us as a reward in the moment for a moment, but the price for that moment of pleasure goes up each time we “use” sugar.
4) Sugar is an Addiction
Eating sugar is shown to have drug-like effects because when we eat sugar our body releases natural opioids. This “sugar high” carries with it all the complications of addiction such as cravings, binging, building up a tolerance, and withdrawl.
Sugar withdrawl can be very difficult to endure with side effects including anxiety, headaches, fatigue and even depression.
So how do we quit?
3 Simple Steps to Stop Eating Sugar
You may be in a life or death situation where you need to stop eating all sugar now. If so, work with your doctor on the best plan to do this.
If you’re not in a life or death situation and you are being proactive with your health by laying off the sweet stuff, here are 3 tips for staying the course even when you want to dive head first into a vat of cream cheese frosting.
- Wean yourself off of sugar
If quitting “cold turkey” doesn’t work for you, it’s OK! Quit “warm turkey.” It’s better for the turkey, your sanity and the safety of those around you.
Instead of living in an extreme “no sugar” “yes sugar” diet, start by removing a few specific high sugar foods that are causing the most damage to your health. Just like that, you are taking a manageable step and making a measurable difference.
Ask yourself the following question:
a) What sugar filled foods do you eat and/or drink most often?
Let’s call these your “danger foods.” Be specific. Instead of “candy” write down the chocolate cups you have hidden behind the ramekins in corner cupboard or the drive-through soft drink you can’t resist.
b) Next, choose the three high sugar items on the list you eat the most because these are probably causing you the most problems due to the volume consumed. Share your top three in the comments … I think you’ll find you’re not alone!
c) Consider removing only 1-3 of these “dangers foods” from your diet for 3 weeks. (Ex. Mint Chip Ice Cream, donuts and/or blended iced coffee.) The foods on this list will not be foods that are necessary nutrition. They will be foods that have a high sugar, fat and possibly salt content and not useful for your physical wellbeing – ex: churros. On second thought… maybe churros are necessary for life, but you get the point.
When you remove these three foods for a short, time you will learn that you can live without these foods and you’ll see that you do have what it takes to remove sugar from your diet.
Wash. Rinse. Repeat.
Once your three weeks are up, evaluate your successes, see how you feel, and record substitutes you’ve discovered that work. Consider removing more “danger food” incrementally. Use your new found strength to cut a bit more sugar out of your life one “danger food” at a time for a happier, healthier you.
- Don’t beat yourself up
Shame is a painful emotion can drive us to eat sugar and numb out. “Eating sugar” when we swore off sugar compounds shame we may already be experiencing from a different area of our life. Beating yourself up (or shaming yourself with your internal voice) for eating that sugary treat when you said you wouldn’t may be the last straw that breaks your resolve to stop eating sugar. Get back on you plan as soon as you can.
It’s OK. We all miss the mark. We all fall short. Take a deep breath, let go of the past and remove that food from your diet again right away. Use the experience as a self- teaching moment to prepare for next time with a healthy substitute in place of a “danger food.”
- Explore non-food substitutions for a sugar
As you take “danger foods” out of your diet you’re still going to want them. It’s in these minutes of desperation you’ll learn 1) when you need the food and can ask yourself 2) why you need the food.
Ex. When you’re not eating donuts, you learn very quickly that you NEED a donut at 7 am.
Now ask yourself, “Why do I need this donut so bad?” “Because the sprinkles are so pretty” might be your first answer and I get that, sprinkles are spectacular. But might there be a deeper reason?
Are you bored? Hungry? Is your boss a yeller in the morning and donuts make you deaf? Did you just get back from the gym and need reward for burning all those calories on the Stairmaster?
When you need the sugar item you decided to hit the pause button on for 3 weeks, consider the following:
What food is it?
What time is it?
Where am I?
What am I doing?
Did something happen that made me feel uncomfortable?
Once you know what you are eating and have a good idea why you are eating it… you can replace it with a healthy, non-food activity that works even better than sugar.
It helps if the replacement is something you like doing a lot. For example:
It’s 7 am and you decide not to get a donut from the break room. You have eaten a nutritious breakfast with quality food so your physical need is met. You still want that donut. What can you do? Try out some non-food replacements and see what works for you.
Take a brisk walk
Talk to a friend
Play a song you love
Crochet a banana hat
These are just ideas to get you thinking. Only you know the what you will enjoy doing. Don’t know yet? What an incredible opportunity to explore new avenues to enjoy life that do not involve sugar.
You can stop eating the sugary foods that seem impossible to quit… just take it one “danger food” at a time. In fact, the process of stopping eating sugar can be fun, fulfilling and soul strengthening when you use your successes (and failures) to discover new things you love, replacements that actually work, and start to feel great … without sugar.
Have you found non-food, healthy sugar substitute that works? Share in the comments to help others on their journey. Let’s eat less sugar together (banana hat making optional.)
Written by Julia Fikse, NBC-HWC
Functional Medicine Certified Health Coach
Mental Health and Emotional Eating Certified Health Coach
Weight Loss Certified Health Coach
For more information on Julia Fikse go to onesteptowellness.com
How did you like this blog? Are there other topics you’d like to hear about? Need more support or want to say hello? Contact Julia here: https://www.onesteptowellness.com/contact-us/
Julia Fikse is a Nationally Board Certified Health and Wellness Coach, specializing in Functional Medicine, Emotional Eating and Mental Health and Weight Loss. Julia has personally experienced the frustration of weigh gain, weight loss, weight related health issues and emotional eating challenges. Learn more about her journey here: https://www.onesteptowellness.com/julias-story/
Julia is a Nationally Board Certified Health and Wellness Coach, but is not a therapist or a doctor and this blog cannot and should not in any way replace doctor’s advice.