Sugar: The Science Behind The Cravings
The average American consumes 17 teaspoons (71.14 grams) every day. That translates into about 57 pounds of added sugar consumed each year, per person.
The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends the following guidelines:
-6 teaspoons (25 grams) of added sugar per day = 100 calories per day for women -9 teaspoons (38 grams) of added sugar per day = 150 calories per day for men -3-6 teaspoons (12 - 25 grams) per day = 50-100 calories per day for children One 12-oz can of Coke contains 140 calories from sugar. One regular-sized Snickers bar contains 120 calories from sugar.
We can see from the daily average and the recommended allowance, that many of us are consuming more sugar than recommended. Sugar can get a bad wrap but not all sugar is bad. It occurs naturally in many types of vegetables, fruits, grains, and dairy. But, health problems arise when most of our sugar comes from added sugars, like those in cookies, cakes, bread, plant-based yogurts, condiments, and more.
There are shown to be many mechanisms behind sugar cravings and they may be different for each person.
Let's examine some key areas. Serotonin: Sugar consumption increases serotonin, a neurotransmitter that regulates mood, appetite, memory, and social behavior. Because sugar boosts serotonin, you feel happier, temporarily, so your brain craves this happy chemical again and again.
Dopamine: Sugar and other high carb foods boost dopamine levels in the brain, leading us to crave them more often when dopamine levels are low.
Mineral Deficiency: Calcium, zinc, chromium, and magnesium imbalances can manifest themselves as sugar cravings. Other nutrient deficiencies may apply as well.
Stress: Stress affects your cortisol levels, a hormone that when elevated will alter your circulating levels of glucose and insulin.
Sleep Deprivation: Lack of sleep causes the hunger-stimulating hormone ghrelin to increase, which causes you to eat more - specifically sugary foods as you may unconsciously be seeking energy.
Pathogens: Gut pathogens, particular yeast crave sugar, which in turns ultimately affects your cravings.
Sugar Addiction: Is it Real?
There’s an increasing body of research that tells us excess sugar could be as addictive as some street drugs and have similar effects on the brain.
“Addiction is a strong word,” says Dr. Alan Greene, a children’s health and wellness expert and the author of books like “Raising Baby Green” and “Feeding Baby Green.” “In medicine we use ‘addiction’ to describe a tragic situation where someone’s brain chemistry has been altered to compel them to repeat a substance or activity despite harmful consequences.
This is very different from the casual use of ‘addiction’ (‘I’m addicted to “Game of Thrones!”’). ”In Greene’s opinion, evidence is mounting that too much added sugar could lead to true addiction. Cassie Bjork, RD, LD, founder of Healthy Simple Life, states that sugar can be even more addicting than cocaine. “Sugar activates the opiate receptors in our brain and affects the reward center, which leads to compulsive behavior, despite the negative consequences like weight gain, headaches, hormone imbalances, and more."
”Bjork adds, “Every time we eat sweets, we are reinforcing those neuropathways, causing the brain to become increasingly hardwired to crave sugar, building up a tolerance like any other drug."
Part of the challenge is these types of sugars called 'Added Sugars'. These include both the sugars naturally found in honey and fruit juice, and sugar added to food and drinks. On food labels, added sugars include words such as glucose, corn syrup, brown sugar, dextrose, maltose, and sucrose, as well as many others.
In the United States, added sugars account for 14 percent of the average person’s daily calorie intake. Most of this comes from beverages, including energy drinks, alcoholic drinks, soda, fruit drinks, and sweetened coffee and teas.
Other common sources are snacks. These don’t just include the obvious, like brownies, cookies, doughnuts, and ice cream. You can also find large quantities of added sugar in bread, salad dressing, granola bars, and even fat-free yogurt.
Sugar: Should I Consider A Sugar Detox?
For some, they already know they consume too much sugar. However for others, it may not be as obvious.
When exploring your sugar intake and wondering if a sugar detox makes sense for you - then ponder these questions.
1. How many times a day do you reach for a sweet treat (any kind)? 2. Do you 'always' need a sweetener in your tea or coffee? 3. Do you find a strong 'need' for sugar (for a pick me up)? 4. Do you have a secret stash of sweets? 5. Do you reach for sweets when you are tired, sad or near your menstrual cycle?
The overall theme is noticing the strong pull or desire for sweets and then beginning to recognize how often you reach for them. Sometimes, it can be an unconscious action.
There are so many benefits to doing a sugar detox and eliminating it from your diet. The reduced risk of serious disease should be very motivating. However, for some this is a great starting point if struggling with their weight.
Success Tips: 1. For some lowering their sugar intake can cause some intense detox symptoms, especially if you are using sugar (maybe unknowingly) to support serotonin or dopamine. Maybe consult with a Nutritional Therapist for support with your neurotransmitters prior to doing a Sugar Detox. 2. As a Nutritional Therapist, I usually aim for a minimum of 3 weeks on any sort of diet shift. -Set yourself up for success by planning ahead. Choose the best window to make this shift. (IE: don't plan over special vacations or holidays) 3. Decide if you are going cold-turkey or slowly wean into it. Include family and friends in the conversation - especially if you are the main cook in the house. 4. Consider adding in some nutritional support a few weeks prior to a Sugar Detox - that could greatly support your success. 5. Add in real, whole nutrients dense foods. Try to avoid substituting less sugar with weight loss food brands and other sorts of short cuts.
Resources: psychologytoday/sourceofcravings, angelesinstitute/dailysugarintake, PMC3109725, PMC3109725