Sugar addiction works just like any other substance addiction:
Sugar releases dopamine in the body. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that turns on the reward circuit and helps us feel good. (Mmmm, treats! 🧁)
When we eat lots of sugar, our brain gets used to having constant dopamine stimulation. It will require more and more dopamine to feel the same good vibes—meaning, we’ll need to eat more and more sugar to feel that same happiness.
This is known as dependence, and it can change the way we view dopamine-producing substances, like sugar. It’s what leads us from sugar being a once-in-a-while treat to a must-have main course.
Unfortunately, sugar addiction is becoming more and more common, especially in the United States. And that’s because many of us accidentally eat way more sugar than we’re supposed to. Wait, how is eating too much sugar accidental?
Even if you’re not consciously munching on sweet treats, many companies add sugar into their foods to make them taste better. Unless you check the nutrition label on every packaged food product you consume (pasta sauce, salad dressing, condiments, yogurt, you name it), chances are you’re well exceeding your daily value for sugar.
symptoms of sugar addiction
So, how do you know if you’re eating too much sugar and have developed sugar addiction? There are a few tell-tale signs to be on the lookout for:
- sugar cravings (especially needing to eat more than usual to satisfy them)
- binge eating
- “stress eating” during emotional times
- eating even when you’re not hungry
- having guilt about eating too much sugar
You may also experience symptoms if you try to cut sugar out of your diet. These are physical symptoms of withdrawal and can include: headache, feeling tired, muscle pain, nausea, intense cravings, trouble sleeping and bloating.
the negative health effects of sugar
What else can eating too much sugar do to the body? Unfortunately, the list is quite long. 😰
Weight gain: When you eat sugar-sweetened foods, it often makes you hungrier, causing you to eat more than you would when you use healthy meal planning. And of course, sugar is full of empty (aka non-nutritive) calories that the body ends up turning into fat.
Heart disease: Research shows that eating excess sugar can cause heart health problems, including high blood pressure, inflammation (one of the triggers of many other health concerns!), and high triglycerides. These can all contribute to heart disease.
Type 2 diabetes: Remember how we talked about sugar dependence above? Type 2 diabetes is a consequence of that, but with insulin. With long-term excess sugar consumption, the body develops a resistance to insulin, the hormone that regulates blood sugar levels. The result is type 2 diabetes.
Cancer: This is more of a causative rather than a direct effect, but eating too much sugar increases the risk of certain cancers. That’s because eating sugar leads to obesity, insulin resistance, and inflammation, which are all known risk factors of cancer.
Depression & anxiety: Abundant sugar consumption doesn’t just affect the body—it also messes with the mind. Scientists aren’t totally sure of the link yet, but they think neurotransmitter dysregulation, inflammation, and blood sugar swings could all contribute to depression and anxiety.
Dementia: Having a high-sugar diet increases the risk of developing dementia or Alzheimer’s disease later in life. It can also impair memory.
Acne: Eating sugar causes a spike in insulin and blood sugar levels, which can interfere with the body’s production of oil and other secretions. This, in turn, can lead to diet-related acne and other skin conditions.
So, to avoid these negative health effects of sugar, we’ll just eat less cake and candy and be fine, right?
Well… there are a lot of other sneaky ways we consume sugar, sometimes without even knowing it.
hidden sugars to look out for
Food manufacturers love sugar because it helps them cheaply add more flavor to products. But they know there’s a bad connotation with the word “sugar,” so they’ve found a way around it by using alternate names.
some of these other names for “added sugar” are:
- corn syrup/high-fructose corn syrup
- corn sweetener
- barley malt
- cane sugar
- ethyl maltol
- fruit juice concentrates
Don’t be fooled—they may look and sound different, but at their core, these are all the good old sugar you already know.
And, chances are, they’re in a lot of products you use every day. Think pasta sauces, granola bars, yogurt, salad dressing—any processed product that might need a little extra flavor.
the best natural, low glycemic sweeteners
When you do need some sweetness, sticking with natural, low-glycemic sweeteners is better than hitting the sugar jar.
What’s low glycemic? Well, all foods have a ranking on the glycemic index. High glycemic foods cause your blood sugar and insulin to quickly spike, which can cause some of those health concerns noted above. Low glycemic foods, on the other hand, result in a more gradual, reduced spike.
Generally, low glycemic foods have a rating of 55 or less, whereas high glycemic foods are rated 70 or higher.
In other words: natural, low glycemic sweeteners don’t have all the harmful effects on the body that sugar does. They’re low calorie and don’t have as much fructose as sugar. However, they taste enough like sugar to fool most tongues.
some common natural, low glycemic sweetener options:
Agave: Agave comes from the sap of the blue agave plant, and it’s great for keeping your metabolism strong. It’s also much sweeter than sugar, so you won’t need to use as much.
Coconut sugar: Inside a coconut tree is a sugary fluid—this is what’s used to make coconut sugar. It contains inulin, a type of fiber that can prevent your blood sugar from spiking after you eat. And it’s a lower glycemic option than table sugar!
Honey: Ok, you caught us. 🍯 Honey isn’t exactly low on the glycemic index (still lower than sugar though!), but it has other health benefits. It’s packed with antioxidants and can help lower blood pressure and improve cholesterol. Look for raw, unfiltered honey. (And, bonus points if it’s local, as the local pollen can help with seasonal allergies! Local Hive produces regional raw, unfiltered honey from across the U.S.)
Stevia: Made from the leaves of a plant called Stevia rebaudiana, Stevia can actually lower high blood pressure and blood sugar levels in some people. It’s also a good option for those on a keto diet.
Erythritol: Erythritol is made from the natural sugar alcohol found in fruits. It doesn’t cause your blood sugar levels to spike like regular sugar.
Xylitol: Another sugar alcohol, xylitol has two-thirds the calories of sugar and may even improve bone density. It can also boost your dental health because it kills bacteria that cause cavities.
how to eat less sugar in your daily life
Read the nutritional label: Even if you think there’s no way there could be sugar in a certain food… chances are, there is. More and more companies are using added sugars to give processed foods flavor. Always check the nutrition facts to see how much sugar is in a product. The results may be surprising!
Skip the drink: Soft drinks and juices are huge sources of sugar. Explore your other lower-sugar options for your drink of choice. Obviously, water is a great pick. Squeeze in some lemon or lime for a little extra flavor, or try a healthy infused water recipe (these come with extra health benefits too!).
Stay hydrated: Another reason to stay well hydrated is that mild dehydration can fool you into thinking you’re hungry and need a sweet pick-me-up. Regularly drinking water throughout the day can keep your hydration up and sugar cravings down.
Eat whole foods: Most processed foods contain added or hidden sugars. You can easily skip these by eating whole foods that aren’t refined or processed. Here’s more about planning a healthy weekly meal plan with whole foods.
Make your own snacks: Even manufactured snacks that are marketed as healthy usually have added or hidden sugars. Creating your own mix of snacks using fresh fruit, nuts, jerky, and eggs can help keep added sugars out of your diet.
Tweak your recipes: Baking a cake? Swap out the cup of sugar for one of the natural sweeteners mentioned above. Many natural sweeteners contain baking conversion rates on their packaging. (Sweet!)
Let treats be treats: The very premise of a sweet treat (a slice of cake, a cookie, a bowl of ice cream) is that it is a treat—something you don’t eat all the time. Not only is that much better for your health, but many people who reduce their sugar intake report enjoying treats more when they have them less frequently. Because they’re special, they stand out to our dopamine receptors as being more special too. 🥰