If you think you’re hooked on sugar, you probably are. I’m talking to those whose typical day includes a mocha Frappuccino on your way to work, a pastry an hour after lunch, or a soft drink to carry you through an afternoon slump. I’m also talking to you whole-foods devotees who routinely eat dark chocolate, drizzle honey on your fruit-and-nut muesli, and devour a big bowl of organic vanilla Greek yogurt for dessert.
Yes, even “good” sugars are addictive and can harm your brain and body. According to accumulating evidence, added sugar in its many delicious forms is just as chemically addictive as nicotine, cocaine, and alcohol. And like illicit drugs, the fix you get from sugar is fleeting: You feel happy as your prefrontal cortex (PFC), the area of your brain associated with craving and reward (as well as decision-making), lights up like a pinball machine, but when you try to eliminate added sugars for a day or two, productivity plummets, inspiration diminishes, and moods dull—and who needs that? So you climb back on the sugar train and take your well-worn seat.
Unlike drugs, however, sugar is commonplace. It’s how many of us celebrate and soothe, coerce and reward. Its consumption is pushed every day—especially on kids— making it one of the earliest addictions to take root and hardest to overcome. The latest data shows that the average American consumes 23 teaspoons (92 grams) of added sugar and sweeteners daily; the American Heart Association recommends no more than 6–9 teaspoons (24–36 grams) daily of added sugar for women and men respectively.
So what exactly is the problem with eating a sugar-heavy diet if you’re not suffering from mood swings and energy crashes? In one animal study, 20 days of high sugar intake blunted the brain pathways linked to fullness, which according to authors may explain how sugars lead to overconsumption and weight gain. And if body weight isn’t a concern, then note the emerging evidence that sugars adversely affect your day-to-day brain function and that a diet with too many added sugars may lead to dementia over time. Animals fed a diet with sugar levels designed to mimic a typical intake exhibited lower levels of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), a key brain chemical, in just two months; lower BDNF levels may be a pathogenic factor involved in dementia, depression, and type 2 diabetes, research suggests. The animals in the higher sugar group also experienced impaired learning, memory, and problem-solving skills. Human studies, too, confirm the link between sugar intake, reduced BDNF production, and memory and learning impairment. Abundant research also details sugar’s adverse effects on immune function and digestion.
The good news is that eliminating sugar from your diet is not only doable, but it has both immediate and long-term benefits. If you’re ready for change, use these four simple, research-backed shifts to break free of sugar dependence and reclaim a clear mind.
First things first
Before overhauling your eating practices, however, explore your reasons for making the change. What is driving you to overhaul your diet and lifestyle? You may be sick and tired of having low energy, sleeping poorly, and feeling depressed, but research indicates that such negative motivators (things you are trying to avoid) are not likely to help you create lasting change. What does work is getting clear on the positive payoffs and exactly how your life will be enhanced as a result of breaking free of your sugar addiction. You may need to draw upon a past time when you were eating healthier and feeling good or simply imagine what more energy would allow you to do that you value, such as being able to walk a 10K or keep up with the kids or grandkids. Once you’ve built a strong case for change, you’re ready to get started. These four mental shifts can help.
Shift 1: Understand your addiction
Former FDA commissioner David Kessler, MD, coined the term “hyperpalatable” to describe foods engineered in laboratories to create an irresistible blend of fat, sugar, and salt. The emerging consensus is that these foods don’t just taste good but are also chemically addictive, triggering the release of dopamine, the brain chemical that makes you feel pleasure.
Your brain is hardwired to accommodate a healthy amount of natural sugars in fruits, vegetables, and dairy, but flooding the brain with too many refined sugars leads to dopamine overstimulation and, through an adaptive process called down-regulation, fewer dopamine receptors. Over time you build a tolerance for sugar and find yourself in the nightmare scenario that epitomizes addiction: You need more to feel good. (It’s also possible that you are among the 40 percent to 60 percent of the population that started off with fewer dopamine receptors from birth.)
In her New York Times best seller The Hunger Fix (Rodale, 2012), Pam Peeke, MD, describes how eating sugary-fatty-salty combo foods regularly—what she calls “false fixes”—undermines the brain’s pleasure and forms the basis for food addiction. “Refined sugar is the most potent of the hyperpalatables, with animal models showing it to be more addictive than cocaine,” she says. In her book, Peeke provides a detailed plan (summarized below, in "Basic Detox Plan") for breaking free of false-fix dependence.
Shift 2: Make a clean break
Fortunately, you can restore dopamine receptors in your brain. As with other addictions, the healing begins the moment you stop eating refined sugars. If previous attempts to wean yourself off sugar haven’t worked and you find yourself in a yo-yo battle to achieve moderation, then it’s time to make a clean break; but keep in mind that, with fewer receptors in your brain right now, going cold turkey may make life rough for a while. When put in detox, animals that are addicted to sugar experience withdrawals, anxiety, and even shakes and tremors. Peeke says it takes “three to four weeks to detox off the false fixes (sugar, salt, fat), and it takes no less than six months to a year to repair damage to the prefrontal cortex.”
In addition to reprogramming your brain, cleaner eating changes your taste preferences, so you’ll enjoy and even prefer healthier foods. There is little scientific evidence to demonstrate these changes, but anecdotal support is widely available. A client of mine who has eliminated refined carbs and sugars for two years shares her experience: “Recently we went out to dinner to my favorite Italian restaurant where I always finished my meal with the most heavenly cheesecake. When it came, I looked at how beautiful it was. I smelled it, and it had that wonderful smell I remembered. I took my first bite expecting to enjoy it immensely. I was very surprised. I really did not like the taste anymore. I ate the fresh strawberry off the top. It was delicious. I took a couple more bites of the cheesecake, just to be sure, but then put down my fork. I really did not want it.”
Shift 3: Boost your brain naturally
Science now proves it: When you are eating healthier, exercising regularly, and practicing stress reduction, you not only feel better, but you’re able to make better decisions. Studies show in just 14 days, a combination of these three changes, along with memory exercise, improves cognitive function and brain efficiency. Add meditation to your routine and you’ll thicken the prefrontal cortex, enabling you to manage impulses and more effectively make decisions by weighing consequences. In other words, you’ll find it easier to say “no” when the impulse arises. A client of mine shares this insight: “My meditation practice and having time to decompress is essential for my health. It keeps me balanced and helps keep my cravings for sugar at bay.”
Functional magnetic resonance imaging on Tibetan monks, who meditate daily, shows higher brain activity in their PFC, and scans of longtime meditators averaging six hours per week indicate a thickening of the cortices. Research has found that people who were least likely to relapse in alcoholic abstinence programs had thicker cortices, and when they did fall off the wagon, they experienced less severe relapses. Peeke says that “meditation significantly helps restore PFC function and, like exercise, optimal benefits occur when meditation is practiced consistently.”
Shift 4: Let "80/20" work for you
Perfectionism doesn’t make room for real life, so after you’ve made a clean break, try an 80/20 approach. Make at least 80 percent of your choices healthy ones, leaving 20 percent wiggle room for splurges that help you feel satisfied. And what exactly are these splurges? That depends on what works well for your body and mind, but a splurge may be a medjool date with an almond inside. Experiment with varying amounts and types of fruits, whole and dried. Try small amounts of natural sweeteners, such as honey, agave, and organic cane sugar, to see how your body responds. Peeke cautions against artificial sweeteners: “Splenda can trigger the reward center equally if not greater than sugar in some individuals. Try herbal stevia instead.” Ultimately, you’ll need to figure out what balance looks like after you’ve broken free of your dependence on refined sugars.
Basic Detox Plan
Stage 1: Detox (3-4 weeks or more). The diet consists of 30 percent to 35 percent carbs (primarily vegetables, fruit, and whole grain), 30 percent lean protein, and 30 percent healthy fats. The goal is to replace all “false fix” foods with natural foods that offer a “safe high.”
Stage 2: Beginner Recovery (6+ months). The diet emphasis is on mindfulness and focusing on foods that build the PFC such as choline and omega-3s.
Stage 3: Master Recovery (the rest of your life). Continue to emphasize nutrient-rich foods to support a healthier brain. Some controlled exposure to less healthy sugars (such as 70% dark chocolate) may be possible for those without cross-addictions; carefully experiment with your body’s tolerances.
"The only people who should be experimenting with controlled exposure are those who carefully adhere to my cautionary guidelines," adds Dr. Peeke. "Those who have cross addictions should not attempt this. It's really meant for people with a milder issue with food and addiction.
"A good example is chocolate. The cheaper candy bars have a huge amount of refined sugar. However, the organic bars with at least 70% cacao have much less. So, try an ounce and see if you can handle that without going out of control. Again, refer to my guidelines about a controlled exposure. The key is to avoid a mountain of sugar. The best idea is to attempt it with something that has much less in it; hence my chocolate example. Natural applesauce that contains no refined sugar but only its own natural sugar is another example, or cranberry juice diluted in carbonated water for a refreshing drink."