Why You Can't Just Ditch Sugar

ditch sugarIt’s the middle of the afternoon and you’ve got a sugar craving. What’s so bad about a little indulgence? You’re working hard. You deserve a treat. Before you look in the cabinet or freezer for something sweet, ask yourself a few questions. What are the unmet needs behind that craving? Do you want sweetness in your belly, or do you long for it in your life? I have often had this conversation with my pal Dr. Jo Ilfeld. Most recently, she was explaining to me that when she restricts sweets, it ultimately backfires because she rebels at being robbed of her craving and she ends up overeating the food she was trying to resist.

Jo’s words reminded me that intellect and willpower have nothing to do with your actions. Understanding the neurobiology—the belly-mind connection—will help you get off the roller coaster ride of sugar addiction and ease yourself into the cruise-controlled sanity of balanced eating.

1. Emotional Response

Is that pang of hunger a sign that you need to feed the belly or take care of the soul? When confronted with the scrumptious smell of baked sweetness, it’s challenging to make that distinction. Some associations with hyperpalatable foods connect us to forms of nurturing. We feel emotional discomfort, and we want relief. Sugar triggers the pleasure centers in our brains, thus easing our feelings—for the moment anyway.

Unfortunately, many weight loss programs do not address the root causes of emotional eating. That means that even if participants lose weight and learn new habits, the psychological component will eventually surface and the weight will most likely be regained. Mindfulness training has been shown to reduce that psychological stress, ultimately reducing binge eating and other eating disorder symptoms.[1]

Mindfulness also helps you pay attention to your experiences related to hunger, satiety, taste satisfaction, and eating in response to food cues. In a recent study at UCSF, a mindfulness intervention for stress eating successfully showed that a combination of acting with awareness and an increase in body responsiveness significantly decreased abdominal fat and chronic stress.[2]

The first step to letting go of the donut is to recognize why you picked it up in the first place. Question yourself and your motivation—especially when you’re right in the middle of the self-defeating behavior. It takes courage to dive into uncomfortable emotional territory. Just start by noticing what’s already there and what you already feel.[3] That’s where change begins—but it’s not the only step. You also need to understand the role your brain and nutrition plays in controlling or creating cravings.

2. Brain Chemistry

Something is so satisfying about biting into a lightly crispy-on-the-outside, gooey-on-the-inside almond croissant. The taste sends happy charges all over the body. Even though we know there is no nutritional value, the sense of reward we get from it completely outwits our intellect. We just say, “Go for it, girl!” (or in Jo’s case, “I deserve this.”)

There is science behind those sensations. The smell of freshly baked pastries or cakes signals the brain chemicals endocannabinoids and ghrelin, which motivate us to indulge.[4] Neuro-hormonal communication is happening in the body and mind even before you take the first bite. Before the food touches your lips, digestion starts—first from the smell then from the salivation. Food cues drive your eating behaviors. Sweets also have short-term, mood-elevating, and pain-suppressing properties. No wonder you struggle so hard to resist them, even when that little voice of reason is telling you to get out of the kitchen after dinner!

Eating a favorite sweet treat and the pleasure you get from it throws you into a biological cycle of wanting more. A recent MRI study of subjects drinking a chocolate milkshake revealed that addictive eating behavior sparks the same reward-related brain chemistry as with substance abuse.[5]

Recently, a patient told me that her breakfast often dictates her food choices for the rest of the day. If she starts with a sweet treat like an almond croissant, she will have cravings for the rest of the day. No surprise there! The addictive nature of sugar has been compared to other habit-forming substances. In fact, several studies have shown that cocaine-addicted rats preferred sugar to their coke fix. Also because sugar is quickly absorbed into the bloodstream, its effect is felt more powerfully than other foods.[6]

So given the prevalence of sugary foods and their strong effect on the body, you need to be your own detective and investigate the effect sugar has on you. What does it do to your body and to your mood—right after you eat it and an hour later? Then start pushing sugar out of your life (or dramatically reducing it).

3. Balanced Nutrition

I hear from patients all the time that they just don’t have time to eat. When we’re busy or we work late or the fridge is empty, meal planning is the first thing that goes out the window. That behavior can pull you into a destructive cycle: repeated hunger leads to an increased appetite and overeating[7] and contributes to the storage of fat in the abdomen. You’ve heard that less is more, but in this case, more is less! Give your body the nutrients it needs over three balanced meals a day, so your whole system works more efficiently. You’ll sustain your energy and stabilize your mood—a positive impact on your emotional response.

To satisfy your hunger and your body’s needs, consume moderate amounts of nutrient-dense protein, green leafy veggies (they fill you up), and natural dietary fat, such as avocados.[8] Studies show that eating three regular meals a day maintains body weight, whereas eating less often contributes to weight gain.[9] Regular meals will also alleviate your sweet-tooth vulnerability. If you feel satiated, you’ll be less likely to reach for sweets to satisfy your cravings—especially around three or four o’clock in the afternoon when you hit that mid-day lull.

Here are some simple, practical ways to give cravings and sweet treats the boot:

  • Triggers: Know your temptations and what’s behind them.
  • Eat regular meals. Don’t let yourself get to the desperately hungry point.
  • Distract/replace: Find something else to do or have a savory cup of tea.
  • Environment: Get out of the kitchen or walk past the pastry case.

Observe your eating and create new habits. At the end of the day, it’s all about whether you will take control of sugar or it will take control of you. Because it certainly will.


[1] Katterman SN, et al. “Mindfulness meditation as an intervention for binge eating, emotional eating, and weight loss: a systematic review,” Eat. Behav. 15, no. 2 (2014):197-204, doi: 10.1016/j.eatbeh.2014.01.005.

[2] Daubenmier, J., et al. “Mindfulness Intervention for Stress Eating to Reduce Cortisol and Abdominal Fat among Overweight and Obese Women: An Exploratory Randomized Controlled Study,” Journal of Obesity (2011): 10.1371/journal.pone.0098276

[3] Roth, G., Women Food and God: An Unexpected Path to Almost Everything, (New York: Scribner, 2010), 91.

[4] Davis, C. “From Passive Overeating to ‘Food Addiction:’ A Spectrum of Compulsion and Severity,” ISRN Obesity 2013, (2013): doi: 10.1155/2013/435027.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Gearhardt, AN., et al. “The Neural Correlates of ‘Food Addiction,’” Arch Gen Psychiatry 68, no. 8 (2011):808-816, doi:10.1001/archgenpsychiatry.2011.32.

[7] Han, JM. “Repeated Sense of Hunger Leads to the Development of Visceral Obesity,” PLOS ONE 9 no. 5 (2014): e98276.

[8] Gedgaudas, NT. Primal Body, Primal Mind: Beyond the Paleo Diet for Total Health and a Longer Life. (Vermont: Healing Arts Press, 2009), 162.

[9] Han, JM. (2014): e98276.