A friend and I were talking the other day about our addiction to sugar and related sweet, fatty comfort foods (think cookies, cake, chocolate). We do so well for a while, and then somehow find ourselves back at it, eating large amounts of whatever the sweet food drug of the moment is. It's a slippery slope we somehow find ourselves sliding down yet again.
I've written before about my challenges with emotional eating and have truly done so much better for many years. I get swept up by sugar cravings much more rarely and even now, when I fall off the sugary treat wagon, I do it by eating large amounts of high fiber, all natural, gluten-free, dairy-free treats. The damage to my body is much less than in the days when my drug of choice was a cheap grocery store cake full of trans fats and junk. But organic cane sugar is still sugar, and I simply can't seem to use it in a healthy way. I end up on the same unhealthy, compulsive wagon again, albeit in a more nutritious form.
In whatever form, sugar has an unhealthy impact on my skin, my body, my moods and my weight, when I eat too much of it. I realized recently, while talking to my friend, that I need to take this issue more seriously than I ever have if I ever want to truly leave it behind.
Here are some strategies that we discussed, that I have found to be true and have been working for me:
1) Find rewards that really work
For so many of us, sugary treats are a comfort. They are a reward after a long day, a way to unwind, a source of what feels like love in a difficult world. Without that comfort, you will feel deprived and it will be harder to break the habit.
Get curious about what helps you and feels like a reward. It has to be a significant enough reward to make you feel like giving up sugary treats isn't such a big deal. Some rewards that work for me are: a hot bath; a delicious dinner made from healthy foods that I love and look forward to; going out to meet a friend after a long day; booking a massage at a spa (I recently did that after not having done it for much too long), or buying myself a really great book to enjoy reading. Find ways to take care of yourself to use in place of sugar, things that deeply nurture you without the side effects and addictions
2) Don't switch in one addictive behavior for another
I recently heard a lecture from a physician who specializes in addictions. He advised the audience of physicians that we need to be really careful about inadvertently triggering a former addict's brain dopamine system/cycle. For example, if someone once had a problem with heroin or cocaine, even if it was decades ago, giving them a mild narcotic pain reliever for their knee pain can trigger the dopamine-driven addiction cycle in their brain, hurtling them back down that destructive old road however innocently the process starts out.
When you look for things that give you the same comfort or feeling that sugar does, don't use obvious options like wine or shopping (if spending can be a problem for you). It's all too easy to trade one addiction or compulsive behavior for another, and you really haven't changed anything. If anything you can make things worse for yourself.
3) If you want a sweet treat, go for something low glycemic and healthy that won't trigger you
Berries are great, I love eating big juicy red strawberries or copious amounts of blueberries (from fresh or frozen sources). They are low glycemic, meaning they produce very little sugar in your blood and body. They won't trigger your addiction to sugar, and even if you ate a lot of them there are virtually no negative consequences.
4) Be aware of the "just one drink" phenomenon
Because of my interest in the addictive process I have read the famous Alcoholics Anonymous "Blue Book", said to be a good read for anyone with any addictive tendency (just sub in the word of your vice for the word "alcohol" when reading). The "just one drink" lie we tell ourselves is so true. People who struggle with alcohol will often tell themselves, after a stint of sobriety, that they can handle "just one drink" since they've been doing so well. They have that drink, and the addictive cycle in the brain gets triggered again. Before they know it they are deeper into their addiction than ever before.
This can happen with sugar. If you eliminate sugary treats, after initial intense cravings you will find your cravings virtually disappear and you feel quite content without them. One day, you might be at a party with an irresistible array of decadent desserts, so you have one or even two. The next day, your body is craving sugar again, so you give in, just this once. The next day it happens again. And then again. So it goes, back to square one, until your pants don't fit again and you feel miserable. Does this sound familiar? Sugar truly is an addictive substance for many people.
5) Don't have it in the house
This is a very simple rule of thumb, and it really works. I don't fool myself into thinking I can resist having something sweet in my house, it will not last the week. Probably not even 24 hours. If I don't have anything tempting in my house, and make it hard for myself to to out and get it, that's more than half the battle.
If you're tempted to grab something that attracts you at the grocery store, force yourself to keep walking. Five minutes later you'll have forgotten about it. Buy something else non-sugary and non-addictive that you really like instead.
If your will gets weak at parties or social events, have your spouse or a friend remind you of your promise to yourself at that pivotal moment where you are trying to say no but want to say yes.
More than anything, know that this process isn't easy, and if you fail and fall off that wagon yet again please know that this is so normal, so common. Don't beat yourself up. Just pick yourself up and start again. If binge eating or overeating is really difficult for you and having a significant impact on your life or health, consider a 12 step group like Overeaters Anonymous.
And don't underestimate the power of sugar. Seriously.
Dr. Susan Biali, M.D. is a medical doctor, health and wellness expert, life and health coach, professional speaker, flamenco dancer and author. She is dedicated to helping people get healthy, reduce stress and enjoy more meaningful lives. Dr. Biali has been featured as an expert on the Today Show as well as other major media outlets, and is available for keynote presentations, workshops/retreats, media commentary, and private life and health coaching.
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Copyright Dr. Susan Biali, M.D. 2014