When we asked readers about health goals they struggle to stick with, losing weight and breaking sugar addiction topped the responses. So, we researched and talked to experts about the steps we can take to break sugar addiction and overeating habits for good.
Here are the five steps they suggest.
1. Analyze Physical Root Causes
Researchers have done hundreds of studies on sugar addiction, primarily on rats. They find that sugar activates the opiate receptors in our brains, releasing opioids and dopamine, which like drugs, can lead to compulsive behavior. From a review of studies on sugar:
“What this review demonstrates is that rats with intermittent access to food and a sugar solution can show both a constellation of behaviors and parallel brain changes that are characteristic of rats that voluntarily self-administer addictive drugs. In the aggregrate, this is evidence that sugar can be addictive.”
We’ve heard about studies comparing sugar addiction to drug addiction. But few of us understand why it’s so hard to break the sugar habit. Physical root causes may be part of the struggle, and they’ll be different for each of us, says Naturopathic Doctor Kat Bodden. Root causes can include candida overgrowth, neurotransmitter imbalance, poor gut health, poor blood sugar regulation, imbalanced diet, nutrient deficiencies, and not eating enough. A healthcare provider, especially a naturopath, can evaluate and test you for physical causes.
2. Investigate Emotional Root Causes
Even if you solve the bio-chemical causes of your sugar cravings and break the “more you eat, the more you want” cycle, there’s an emotional component of food addiction that diet alone does not resolve. You might be able to break a food habit and lose weight for a while. But it’s crucial to address the psychological and emotional causes of our habits, says Life Coach Lia Pinelli who calls herself a “diet mentality disruptor.”
“We’re hardwired to want to eat sugary things when we’re having emotions,” says Pinelli. “This is where all diets leave you hanging. I know what to eat, what not to eat, that my brain’s hardwired to want these things. But then there’s the practice of feeling the feelings and feeling them without eating. What we don’t learn are the tools to feel your feelings in that moment.”
Unfortunately, eating unhealthy food triggers an emotional cycle as well as a physical one. We feel stressed, frustrated, bored, or whatever emotion likes to be soothed. So, we eat, shop, drink, or scroll mindlessly through social media. Then, we resent ourselves for engaging in the bad habit – again – and the emotional rollercoaster continues.
3. Get a Plan to Change Eating Habits
It’s not enough to just remove sugar from the diet because that typically doesn’t resolve sugar cravings and often leads to relapse. We need a solid plan to remove sugary foods and add nutrient-dense food so we feel satiated and get the micronutrients our bodies need to thrive.
Dr. Bodden recommends “The 21 Day Sugar Detox,” by Diane Sanfilippo. It provides education, a 21-day eating plan, recipes, and modifications for autoimmune health conditions and people who need more energy like athletes and nursing moms.
A dietician, nutritionist, or naturopath can also create an eating plan catered to our individual needs. A plan will help us have the right food on hand and leave the culprits at the store. It will give us a framework, meal ideas, and possibly supplements that help balance deficiencies and curb cravings. Both the book and Dr. Bodden mention L-glutamine and gymnema sylvestre, which may be helpful in curbing sugar cravings.
4. Get Support for the Emotional Root Causes
As we discover the emotional root causes of our self-sabotaging eating habits, we need tools to deal with them. A coach, therapist if they’re trauma related, or a support group can help.
“There are programs out there that teach you how to love yourself and programs that teach you how to diet, I really try to marry the two,” explains Pinelli. “You can love yourself and still want to change.”
When we stop eating our feelings and just allow them, many underlying issues can surface, she adds.. Small groups can help us gain the tools we need to handle our emotions and show us we’re not alone in our struggles.
“They might discover that the root cause is, ‘I need to change my job, or my relationship, or whatever the situation is,’” adds Pinelli. “It’s really figuring out for yourself what you need.”
For those of us who feel confident tackling our sugar addiction without a helper can find tools online, in books, and through practices. A food journal is useful for identifying patterns and emotions whether we’re working alone or with someone. Some people have conquered sugar addictions with self-hypnosis or Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT) tapping. Free sessions for both are easy to find on YouTube. These tools are incredibly valuable even if we have other help.
5. Practice, Expect Slips, and Have Compassion
It may take weeks of practice to adopt a lifestyle change like this and possibly years to embody it. In that time, we’ll need compassion as much as dedication.
“Your brain loves habits. Lifestyle change involves building habits. New habits involve practicing over and over – and usually screwing it up a bunch,” says Pinelli. “We’re going to try and fail. But if you’re using good information and committed to lifestyle change, you’ll reach embodiment when you no longer think about it, it’s just who you are.”
With these five steps, we have a solid path for breaking sugar addiction and overeating habits for good!