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Beat Sugar Addiction with these 4 Steps, Backed by Research

beat sugar addiction

Sugar is delicious, and both men and women can form an addiction to it which can lead to overeating and weight gain. Your body is hard wired to be addicted to sugar – thus in order to beat sugar addiction, you need a solid strategy backed by research.

According to The End of Overeating: Taking Control of the Insatiable American Appetite by Dr. David A. Kessler, the right combination of sugar, fat, and salt can make a food addictive. Dr. Kessler is an American pediatrician, lawyer and author who’s written extensively about food and its effect on the brain.

“Eating foods high in sugar, fat, and salt makes us eat more foods high in sugar, fat, and salt. We see this clearly in both animal and human research. Barry Levin, a physician and professor at the New Jersey Medical School, demonstrated this principle with rats…when both groups of rats were offered a rich, creamy liquid high in sugar and fat, those patterns changed. All the animals ate without restraint. Levin said that when given such a palatable combination, ‘they will just gorge themselves.'”

Another example from The End of Overeating was done by Anthony Sclafani, a graduate student at the University of Chicago.

“After familiarizing test animals with the taste of Froot Loops, he let them loose in open fields. Rats prefer to stay in corners and won’t readily venture across a field to eat chow pellets, but when Froot Loops were available, they scurried over to them.  Next, Sclafani studied the effect of a ‘supermarket diet’. The mix of foods he fed his animals could be purchased at any grocery store…After ten days, the animals that were fed the supermarket diet weighed significantly more than the rats that were fed bland chow…Sclafani concluded that feeding adult rats ‘a variety of highly palatable supermarket foods was a particularly effective way of producing dietary obesity.’

Why did the rats fail to defend themselves from weight gain? Sclafani answered those questions in a single sentence: ‘In the normal rat, free access to palatable foods is a sufficient condition to promote excessive weight gain.'”

There are a number of studies with humans that show very similar results.

“In another study, researchers at the National Institute of Health confined male subjects to a ward in which their food intake could be monitored. For the first few days the men were fed a diet designed to keep them at their current body weigh…The participants were then allowed to eat whatever they wished from two free vending machines that contained a variety of entrées and snacks…

Given the opportunity to eat without restriction, participants consumed an average of 4,500 calories daily — 150 percent of what they actually needed to maintain a stable weight. All of this demonstrates scientifically what most of us know from experience: When offered a varied selection and large portions of high-sugar, high-fat, high-salt foods, many of us will eat them in excessive amounts.

All of this points to the fact that sugar is addictive, and it’s an addiction that’s very difficult to break. In most of our lives, it’s very easily accessible, and pushed on us constantly – whether from office coworkers sharing a birthday cake or by a loved one who wants to share a dessert.

However, don’t give up hope. There is a proven way to conquer sugar addiction – a 4 step plan that can help change your reaction to the constant bombardment of sugar in our lives.

It starts with understanding that many of our eating binges are habits that we’ve been reinforcing for a long time. Their is a clear methodology that should be used to replace a bad habit with a good (or neutral) one.

The first step to breaking a bad habit or replacing it with a better one is to become aware of it.

From The End of Overeating:

Following the tenets of habit reversal can help you overcome conditioning and regain control of your behavior. Awareness is the first step. Being aware means that you have a conscious knowledge of the risks of a given situation. ‘You have to figure out the situation that leads you to eat, that leads you to starting the chain of behaviors’…’That is absolutely the first step — to catalogue all of the…situations, all of the cues that start that chain’ [of bad eating].

We usually overeat when we’re either bored, stressed out, or we have a habit or ritual (such as grabbing a cup of coffee and a pop tart in the morning). Whatever the reason, the first step to changing this behavior is noticing it before it happens. The way to do this is to spend a week or two writing down every time you eat something unhealthy or you notice a strong urge to do so.

Once you start to notice the behavior before it happens, you can start to move onto the next step, which is to choose a different response. This is called creating a competing behavior. Just like it sounds, it’s a behavior you’ve planned in advance. You need to plan out and know exactly how you’ll respond when you notice the strong urge to eat a sugary snack.

This plan should be formulated as soon as you become aware of your habits and triggers, identified in Step 1.

For example, deciding to substitute a cup of coffee instead of the after-lunch snack you normally have.

Avoiding walking into the office where a bowl of candy is just sitting there, available, because you know you’ll indulge.

Deciding not to have one bite of dessert, because you know that one bite will turn into a thousand calorie indulgence.

Several of these examples are taken from my own life. After understanding my triggers through carefully keeping track of them, I know that I can’t go into my neighbors office because they have a bunch of candy there. I also know that I crave sweets right after lunch, but I can reduce this craving with a mildly sweetened cup of coffee (20 calories) instead of buying a candy bar or ordering dessert (500 calories) right after I eat.

The key is in knowing your triggers and preparing yourself for them.

This doesn’t mean I’ll never be able to visit my friend in his office again. But it does mean that during this period of 3-6 months of changing a bad habit to a neutral one, I shouldn’t put myself in situations that I know will trigger my bad habits.

If you have a habit of driving past a drive-thru McDonald’s on your way to the office to pick up a quick breakfast, and you realize this is the trigger for spontaneously stopping there a few times a week, then the next step is to plan a different behavior. Buying some apples and a slicer and slicing yourself an apple before you leave your house every day combined with taking a slightly different route to work could be enough to change this behavior.

The third step in changing a bad habit into a good (or neutral) one involves the way you talk to yourself. Everyone has a little voice inside their head that constantly comments on virtually everything we do. Few people realize the power of their inner voice, or the way a slight change in the way we talk to ourselves can make a very big difference in our actions.

For example, changing something like the phrase, “I can’t eat that, I’m on a diet” into “I choose not to eat that right now” can have a tremendous positive effect on both your willpower and your your sense of control. From The End of Overeating:

“‘I think we take for granted how much of what we do is verbally mediated, governed by talking our way through a problem,’ said the Canadian psychologist Philip David Zelazo. In essence, we write a cognitive script that helps us carry out new behavior and deal effectively with the old.

Our thoughts, and the language we use to express them, can remind us of the consequences of bad habits, guide us to other actions, and heighten the reinforcement value of success. We can introduce ideas that countermand others. Instead of ‘That pint of chocolate ice-cream looks really good to me; I’ll have a few bites,’ we can say to ourselves, ‘I know that I can’t have one bite, because it will lead to twenty.’ We can remind ourselves of our goals: ‘If I don’t eat that now, I’ll feel better about myself tomorrow.’ Or we can repeat statements of self-efficacy: ‘I don’t have to respond that way; I can respond this way,'”

So, the way we talk to ourselves is very important. It’s critical to remember and remind yourself that you are in control, that you are choosing to skip dessert. It also really helps to remind yourself about the future consequence of skipping an unhealthy snack – you’ll feel great and proud of yourself later, instead of feeling regret.

The fourth and final step for habit reversal is recruiting the right type of social support. This is an area in which a single supportive friend, spouse, or coworker can make a difference. Ultimately, though, the choices you make throughout the day are yours and yours alone.

Most of the time, if you’re going to cheat on your diet, you’ll do it in private. If you’re constantly around people that know about your commitment to reduce your sugar intake, this will be harder to do. It would be embarrassing to have a slice of cake at an office birthday party if your coworkers knew about your goal beforehand.

It’s really important to find the right friends to tell about your commitment – otherwise it could work against you. The results of a study that took place over a 32 year period was recently published in the New England Journal of MedicineIt showed that when one person gains weight, close friends tend to gain weight too. The study showed that there was no influence if a neighbor gained weight, and that family members had less of an influence than friends. The greatest influence was between mutual close friends – if one became obese there was a 171 percent increased chance of becoming obese too.

The good news is that the same results were shown for weight loss. Your friends have a huge impact on you, and you have a huge impact on your friends when it comes to weight loss.

Sugar is proven to be addictive in humans. Here’s the way for you to break your sugar habit and eat less sweets throughout the day:

  • Become aware of your habits and triggers: Become aware of your behavior by taking notice of when you eat sweets throughout the day. It helps to write it down for a week.
  • Plan out a competing behavior: Once you know what your triggers are, plan out ways in advance to avoid those triggers. Plan a different route home to avoid the drive thru.
  • Positive self-talk: Remind yourself throughout the day of your end goal. Remember that you are in control and this is your choice, so you get what you want.
  • Social support: Recruit supportive friends and coworkers to help you and keep you strong during your weakest moments.

Don’t wait. You’ll forget. Right now, think about your triggers and start to plan out competing behaviors.

Join me on my journey to end the confusion, cut through the nonsense, and discover simple nutrition that works.

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