Have you ever felt stuffed after a meal, but still ordered dessert? Or reached for cookies in the office kitchen just because they were there? Sugar cravings are notoriously hard to resist, and it can feel impossible to escape.
Maybe you’ve heard that sugar is even more addictive than cocaine
A classic study in the journal PLoS ONE found that 94 percent of rats chose artificially sweetened water over cocaine. While it might be a stretch to say a daily candy break is as dangerous as a drug problem in humans, sugar does fire up dopamine and light up your brain’s pleasure systems, just like drugs do.
Our bodies need carbohydrates to function, so it’s natural that our bodies would crave it in sugar form, says Vera Tarman, MD, author of Food Junkies: The Truth About Food Addiction and medical director of Renascent Rehab, Canada’s largest drug and alcohol treatment center.
Nutritious fruits and vegetables contain sugar, but those small doses are totally healthy
The problem is, processed foods contain concentrated amounts of that natural sweetener. “You’re looking at something that has a high amount of a substance that will overpower what we normally should eat,” says Dr. Tarman. “It becomes more than pleasurable—it becomes addictive.” It’s like how South Americans chewed coca plant leaves for centuries, but the plant wasn’t a problem until its concentrated version, cocaine, hit the market, she says.
When your sweet tooth goes from a mere craving to an obsession, you might be hooked on sugar, says Dr. Tarman. The signs look similar to a drug addiction, she says: thinking about food more than anything else, feeling unable to stop even when you’re stuffed, or hiding food so no one knows you have it.
Sugar can also become a problem when you’re just eating it out of habit, says registered dietitian nutritionist Tamara Melton, MS, RD, LD, spokesperson for the American Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “People feel like they need to have something sweet, especially after a meal, and are very distracted by it,” she says. “They don’t feel like they’ve finished eating until they’ve had a dessert.”
Even if you’re at a healthy weight, all that sugar can cause major health problems
Not only can it lead to heart problems, but you might experience headaches, bloating, and energy crashes, says Melton. “People have this general well-being of feeling better because they’re not experiencing those huge highs and lows in blood sugar,” she says.
“It’s more constant, so they feel better.” (Find out the sneaky things that can change your blood sugar levels.)
Going cold turkey with added sugar might be your best bet if you want long-term results because whittling down slowly might make you crave those sweets even more, says Dr. Tarman.
“If you have a little bit, you’re just going to want more of it,” she says.
She warns that the first five days will be hard, potentially with intense cravings, irritability, and sleeplessness. By week two, though, any physical withdrawal symptoms will go away, and by week three you won’t even miss the sugar, she says.