How to Bite the Sugar Craving for Good

Toronto Wellness Centre’s own naturopathic doctor, Dr. Kate McLaird ND tackles sugar, and how to handle your sweet-tooth and those overwhelming cravings:

We’ve all been there at one point or another – that strong craving for something sweet, whether it’s the sweet pick-me-up in the late afternoon, the après-dinner dessert with tea or coffee, or perhaps the ice cream cone you associate with precious family time on the weekends. Suddenly these sugar cravings start to become more and more frequent, and even harder to ignore – why does this happen!? 

How does sugar work? 

When you eat carbohydrates (sugars, beans, whole grains, dairy products, fruits, and vegetables) your body breaks them down into blood sugar (glucose). Blood sugar enters your cells and produces energy with help from the hormone insulin, which is secreted by the pancreas. When too much glucose is generated from a high-sugar diet, insulin is released in higher amounts. This often leads to inner belly fat storage, increased blood triglycerides, and elevated blood pressure. That extra glucose is signaled to be stored as body fat, leaving less energy available to fuel normal body demands. This can be why people who consume higher-sugar diets can feel lethargic and unable to concentrate well after eating.

What if I was to say, sugar has the power to alter your brain chemistry?

Sugar influences the brain by affecting the hormones ghrelin and leptin, which control hunger and satiety. Functional MRIs have shown that the brain responds to sugar in a similar way as it does to cocaine, creating euphoria from the release of dopamine. Your brain is programmed to react and respond to incoming information; however, when that message is delivered repetitively, it begins to have a blunted response. For example, one decadent chocolate truffle may have satisfied your craving previously, but over time, consuming that same single chocolate truffle will not produce the same satisfaction. In other words: the more sugar you eat, the less sensitive the reward center in the brain becomes, driving the increased frequency and intensity of sugar cravings. Where does this leave you? … addicted to sugar.

This does not mean sugar is going to take over the world!

Although we are bombarded on a daily basis with sugar containing foods, by taking the time to learn a few tips to navigate your food choices, this seemingly relentless urge to eat sweets will indeed fade away.

Here are a few tips to get you started:

  1. Check out Nicole Avena’s great TED TALK: How Blood sugar affects the brain
  2. Understanding the glycemic response to foods is essential to mastering cravings and decreasing insulin resistance: The glycemic index (GI) gives us some important information about your body’s response to eating carbohydrate based foods, categorizing them by their effect on blood sugar. Highly processed or refined grains all have a high GI and act just like sugars in the body; therefore they increase blood sugar levels quickly. Eating low GI carbs that are high in fiber, such as veggies, fruits, beans, and peas, will help keep your blood sugar stable. Take home message: Eating whole, low-GI food instead of processed food is the most effective way to help you make better food choices, get rid of cravings, and reduce your risk of disease
  3. Read labels: Today, sugar is added to nearly all processed foods, even those that are natural, organic, or otherwise apparently healthy. The predominant ingredients are listed first on labels, but because sugar is disguised under many different names, you may not realize how much sugar is present if you look only at ingredients. General rule: (although not all inclusive) anything ending with the suffix –ose (example: maltose, dextrose, fructose, etc), there is a good chance it is a sugar. Added sweeteners of any kind, including artificial sweeteners, have been shown to induce a similar response from the brain – therefore drinking diet soda may have similar metabolic effects as drinking a regular soda.
  4. Emotional Satiety from Sugar and Sweet Rewards: Popcorn at the movies, grandma’s cookies, and ice cream in the summertime – the association of a pleasurable action/event accompanied with consuming a certain food augments the dopamine surge which naturally occurs when consuming the food away from that situation. Identifying things in life that can induce a similar “feel good feeling” can trick your brain to be satisfied without sugar, by simply partaking in pleasurable activities. What would you want more in your life? Examples could include: Exercise and body movement, Partaking in an enjoyable hobby, Socializing and laughing with friends, Partner intimacy.

These few tips are great to get you started. Know that you aren’t alone in tackling sugar’s grasp! At the Toronto Wellness Centre, I am available to help if you need extra support in reaching your health goals!

-Dr. McLaird

Avena, Nicole M., Pedro Rada, and Bartley G. Hoebel. “Evidence for Sugar Addiction: Behavioral and Neurochemical Effects of Intermittent, Excessive Sugar Intake.” Neuroscience and biobehavioral reviews 32:1 (2008): 20–39.PMC. Web. 16 Mar. 2015.

Nieh, Edward H., Matthews GA, Allsop SA, Presbrey KN, Leppia CA, Wichmann R, Neve R., Wildes CP., Tye KM. “Decoding Neural Circuits that Control Compulsive Sucrose Seeking.” Cell 160: 3 (2015): 528 – 541. PMC. Web. 16 Mar. 2015.

Jiang G and Zhang BB. “Glucagon and Regulation of Glucose metabolism”. American Journal of Physiolog and Endocrinology Metablism. 2003 Apr; 284 (4): E671-8.