Everyone has their own sugar cravings; their personal sugary weaknesses. For me it’s the pains aux raisins in the coffee shop where around 3.30pm the call becomes a full-throated command. For years I’ve sat with a coffee, eating pâtisserie, feeling urban and chic when, in reality, I’m just devouring a massive cake. So, I’ve stopped, completely, which has been hard. Very hard.
For you, it might be Cadbury Dairy Milk, Haribo or those post-workout strawberry-flavoured protein shakes – either way, I feel your struggle. Unfortunately, sugar, as well as making you inclined to obesity and in danger of developing diabetes, also affects your liver and has been linked to cognitive decline. Scary stuff, but with a dose of willpower and expert advice, your sugar cravings can be beaten.
Stress causes sugar addiction
Professor Serena Bartlett is an addiction neuroscientist and host of the Thriving Minds podcast. She has studied sugar and its effect on the brain. “Sugar uses exactly the same neural pathways as alcohol and nicotine,” says Bartlett. “It’s physically changing your brain.”
Sugar addiction is real and should be treated in much the same way as other addictions. Its roots are in early childhood and your current stress level. “If you think of your brain as a set of scales, it’s trying to find balance,” continues Bartlett. “If there’s stress on one side, it will use sugar to generate dopamine and balance that out on the other side.”
The childhood element is down to conditioning. We were all trained to see sugar as the reward for enduring the horror of vegetables, for reaching a birthday; a way to celebrate Halloween, Christmas, the end of the school day – the list goes on. Professor Bartlett says that those in less sugar-obsessed societies do not feel the immediate pull of sweet things: a Freddo would not have the same appeal to someone growing up in a remote location without garages or corner shops.
She recommends coming off sugar in the same way you come off any drug. “You need to take out one sugar-based item a week, so you don’t experience withdrawal symptoms. Approach it as you would any 12-step programme.” She also recommends becoming aware of situations that you associate with sugar consumption (e.g. coffee shops that stock pain aux raisins), finding new places to meet people or sitting somewhere else after an anxiety-inducing Zoom call.
The next step is to think about replacements, exchanging the sweet treat for something healthier. Bartlett says this is her own go-to anti-sugar behaviour: “It could be grapes or raw nuts – fibre counterbalances the effects of sugar on your gut.” The more you manage to go with the raw nuts and resist the dark arts of the pastry chef, the faster you are rewiring your brain to resist sugar in the future, but it’s a long process. “It doesn’t happen overnight and that’s where people give up,” says Bartlett. “It’s three days of fruit and nuts, but then a stress comes along and people go back to the thing that gives them a dopamine hit and makes them feel good.”
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