7 Tips for Breaking Your Addiction to Sugar

Soda cans surrounded by sugar
Photo by Evan Lorne / Shutterstock.com

Sugar is an often invisible, but ever-present part of American life. We all know it’s in cookies, candy, soda pop and pastries, but it’s also present in surprising amounts in other foods — spaghetti sauce, catsup, salad dressing, soups, yogurt, coffee drinks, sports drinks and juice, cereals and protein bars, for instance.

How much sugar is too much?

Many people can take sugar or leave it, but some are really hooked despite mounting evidence of its role in serious health problems, including cancer, diabetes, obesity and heart disease, even in people of normal weight.

Many scientists consider sugar a serious health hazard. Two physicians, writing in the New York Times, urge health policy officials to require label warnings and taxes like those on alcohol and tobacco, writing: “If you consider that the added sugar in a single can of soda might be more than most people would have consumed in an entire year, just a few hundred years ago, you get a sense of how dramatically our environment has changed.”

Most American adults eat about 22 teaspoons worth of added sugars a day, the American Heart Association says. Its advice is to limit added sugar, both from the sugar bowl and as ingredients in foods you cook or buy, to:

  • 6 teaspoons (100 calories) per day for women.
  • 9 teaspoons (150 calories) for men.

The association offers tips for cutting back and help identifying how much sugar is in foods. The tips — like substituting alternative sweeteners, using less sugar in baking, tossing out the sugar bowl and giving up soda pop — are useful. But they don’t get to the heart of what makes sugar so addictive.

What works

I asked obesity expert Dr. David Ludwig if science has answers on how to quit sugar. Ludwig is a professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School and professor of nutrition at Harvard School of Public Health and has spent a career treating, researching and writing about adult and childhood obesity. In his recent book, “Always Hungry: Conquer Your Cravings, Retrain Your Fat Cells and Lose Weight Permanently,” he recommends a high-fat, low-carb food plan that includes dropping, at least for a time, sugar, potatoes and highly refined carbohydrates.

Low-carb weight-loss diets like The Zone, the Atkins Diet and paleo diets have been around for decades. Ludwig’s is a less-restrictive low-carb plan. It includes fresh fruit and, after a two-week kickoff, whole grains and starchy vegetables.

Most weight-loss programs, however, regard all foods as equal when it comes to weight loss and so they are based on eating fewer calories than you burn.

Ludwig says that’s an outdated approach. Whether controlling sugar intake or losing weight, research shows that sugar, potatoes and highly refined carbohydrates alter the body’s chemistry, creating cravings and causing cells to store fat, he says.

Willpower can work in the short term, but old habits and cravings usually regain the upper hand, causing dieters to regain weight and sugar addicts to backslide. What’s required, he says, is making friends with your body’s metabolism to interrupt the cycle.

Here are seven tips to break the chains of your unhealthy relationship to sugar:

1. Change your metabolism

Fat doesn’t make us fat, he says. Rather, sugars and carbs do that by triggering a flood of insulin, a hormone that turns fat cells on and off. High insulin levels in the blood stream tell fat cells to pile on fat and store it. Lowering your insulin lets your fat cells release fat, suppressing appetite and cravings and shedding body fat.

Sugar can trigger addictive responses, Ludwig says. It hijacks the brain’s pleasure and reward systems, producing intense, addiction-like cravings. Potatoes and highly processed carbohydrates such as white bread and pasta and refined cereals and snack foods have similar effects: They digest quickly into sugar, raising insulin, calorie for calorie, more than any other food.

Ludwig’s research lab scanned the brains of overweight young men four hours after they’d drunk milkshakes sweetened with corn syrup and found that the drinks activated their nucleus accumbens, the brain center stimulated by addictive substances like heroin, cocaine and alcohol.

To loosen sugar’s grip, Ludwig advises replacing it and high-carb foods with fats to satisfy hunger and quell cravings. Get the fat from nuts, seeds, nut butters, avocados, unsaturated oils, whole-fat (unsweetened) dairy products and — for a treat — dark chocolate that’s at least 70 percent cacao (or cocoa, which is cacao in its roasted, ground form).

Saturated fat raises the body’s LDL (“bad”) cholesterol, Ludwig acknowledges. However, “it also potently raises HDL (‘good’) cholesterol, so the all-important overall ratio of bad to good cholesterol remains largely unchanged. And unlike carbohydrate, saturated fat lowers triglycerides, another important risk factor.”

2. Avoid trans fat

Stay away from even small amounts of one type of fat: trans fat. Read labels and avoid foods with “partially hydrogenated oil,” an industrial oil made by adding hydrogen to liquid vegetable oil to make it harden. It’s common in fast food, fried food and commercially made cakes, cookies, crackers and snacks, including some microwave popcorn. Even small amounts add up, so try to avoid eating it at all. For more detail on the subject, and what products to avoid, check out:

3. Avoid artificial sweeteners

Artificial sweeteners make it hard to quit sugar as they keep your sweet tooth active, depriving you of the chance to let go the cycle of cravings and taste the subtler natural sweetness of fruits and vegetables. Try cinnamon, nutmeg and allspice to highlight sweetness in some fruits, tubers, squashes and even meats.

4. Avoid low-fat and nonfat foods

When food manufacturers take out the fat they typically add sugar. One example:

  • Jif Reduced Fat Creamy Peanut Butter Spread has 12 grams of fat and 4 grams of sugar.
  • Jif Regular Peanut Butter has 16 grams of fat and 3 grams of sugar.

5. Move

Exercise alone has been largely discredited as a weight-loss tool. “Physical activity is crucially important for improving overall health and fitness levels, but there is limited evidence to suggest that it can blunt the surge in obesity,” says the International Journal of Epidemiology, and researchers found that members of a hunter-gatherer tribe burn roughly as many calories as the typical city dweller despite their vastly different levels of activity, according to a report in the New York Times.

But there are many other reasons to move, among them reducing the risk of diabetes, heart disease and cancer. Exercise boosts your sense of vitality and vigor. It replenishes your sense of well-being and pride.

6. Get enough quality sleep

When you’re weary and pushing too hard you’re vulnerable to setbacks and emotional eating. Treat yourself with special care and give yourself credit when you’re giving up the undeniable pleasure of sugar. Take a warm bath before bed, read a good book, indulge in a cup of (unsweetened) herbal tea, get a massage and get plenty of healing rest.

7. Get the lowdown on sugar

Learn more about sugar and its effect on health:

Disclosure: The information you read here is always objective. However, we sometimes receive compensation when you click links within our stories.

Read Next
13 Amazon Purchases We Are Loving Right Now
13 Amazon Purchases We Are Loving Right Now

These practical products make everyday life a little easier.

These Are the 4 Best Medicare Advantage Plans for 2020
These Are the 4 Best Medicare Advantage Plans for 2020

Medicare Advantage customers themselves rate these plans highest.

Top 5 Activities That People Dream of Doing in Retirement
Top 5 Activities That People Dream of Doing in Retirement

No. 1 isn’t visiting grandkids, and No. 4 might surprise you.

10 Foods That Can Keep for Years
10 Foods That Can Keep for Years

These are some of the longest-lasting groceries you can buy.

9 Purchases That Will Make You More Productive
9 Purchases That Will Make You More Productive

These Amazon products can give you an extra edge at work and other parts of your life.

View this page without ads

Help us produce more money-saving articles and videos by subscribing to a membership.

Get Started

Most Popular
10 Things Frugal People Never Buy
10 Things Frugal People Never Buy

If you’re a true tightwad, the mere thought of spending money on these items gives you the willies.

If You Find This Thrift Shopping, Buy It
If You Find This Thrift Shopping, Buy It

Whether you resell it for a big profit or add it to your own wardrobe, this type of clothing is a hidden steal.

7 Social Security Benefits You May Be Overlooking
7 Social Security Benefits You May Be Overlooking

There’s more to Social Security than retirement benefits.

10 Cars You Are Most Likely to Keep for 15 Years
10 Cars You Are Most Likely to Keep for 15 Years

The cars that owners hold onto the longest have one thing in common, a new study shows.

3 Ways to Get Microsoft Office for Free
3 Ways to Get Microsoft Office for Free

With a little ingenuity, you can cut Office costs to zero.

The 6 Best Investing Apps for Beginners
The 6 Best Investing Apps for Beginners

If you’re looking to ease into investing in the coronavirus economy with just a little money, check out these easy-to-use tools.

14 Things You Should Stop Buying in 2021
14 Things You Should Stop Buying in 2021

These convenient household products come with hidden costs that you might not have considered.

7 Kirkland Signature Items to Avoid at Costco
7 Kirkland Signature Items to Avoid at Costco

Even if it seems you save a bundle buying Costco’s Kirkland Signature brand products, they may not be the bargain they appear to be.

8 Things You Should Replace to Improve Your Life Today
8 Things You Should Replace to Improve Your Life Today

Being frugal isn’t smart if you put off replacing these items.

9 Things You Should Never Leave in a Car
9 Things You Should Never Leave in a Car

Thinking of leaving these possessions in a car? Prepare for unexpected consequences.

5 Changes to Your Federal Tax Return Form in 2021
5 Changes to Your Federal Tax Return Form in 2021

The new Form 1040 features two new tax breaks, among other changes.

9 Mistakes People Make When Cleaning With Vinegar
9 Mistakes People Make When Cleaning With Vinegar

Cleaning with vinegar can save you a lot of money, but using it like this can cost you.

7 Income Tax Breaks That Retirees Often Overlook
7 Income Tax Breaks That Retirees Often Overlook

Did you realize all these tax credits and deductions exist — or that they apply to retirees?

10 Deep Discounts Available on Amazon This Friday
10 Deep Discounts Available on Amazon This Friday

These items are all steeply discounted — but the deals won’t last long.

10 Things Successful Retirees Do Differently
10 Things Successful Retirees Do Differently

These habits and characteristics can help put you on the track to success.

7 Costly Health Problems That Strike After Age 50
7 Costly Health Problems That Strike After Age 50

As we age, our bodies wear down. Here is how to cut costs associated with some common ailments.

29 Purchases That Can Save You Money Every Day
29 Purchases That Can Save You Money Every Day

Sometimes, you’ve got to spend to save.

7 Things I Never Buy at Costco
7 Things I Never Buy at Costco

A bulk buy isn’t always the best buy.

5 Tax Mistakes to Avoid in Retirement
5 Tax Mistakes to Avoid in Retirement

Even great savers can reduce their retirement income by making these mistakes.

View More Articles

View this page without ads

Help us produce more money-saving articles and videos by subscribing to a membership.

Get Started

Add a Comment

Our Policy: We welcome relevant and respectful comments in order to foster healthy and informative discussions. All other comments may be removed. Comments with links are automatically held for moderation.