Breaking free from sugar addiction: Why cold turkey doesn’t work

We know how dangerous sugar can be to our health. Excess sugar intake has been linked to cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and even our immune system health. But giving it up is easier said than done. One question that people often have is, “Do I have to completely give up sugar, like, all of it? Cold turkey?” The answer is: nope! For most people, systematically identifying, replacing, and reducing sugar in your diet will help you to break your dependence on it and crush all your cravings.

So now you might be wondering, how can you still use something if you are addicted to it? Isn’t it essential to completely quit something you’re addicted to in order to recover? People aren’t advised to do less drugs, like alcohol or cocaine—they must ditch them completely! This is true, to some extent. Yes, many people need to completely remove drugs or alcohol from their life to avoid the harm. However, with drugs or alcohol, it is easier in the sense that we can clearly identify them and avoid them. They aren’t hidden in our foods, or constantly being pushed on us or marketed to us.

The all-or-nothing approach just sets you up for failure. No one, especially in our modern food environment, can successfully navigate our food landscape and escape all added sugar. Sugar is pervasive and is hidden by different names and for different reasons in our food supply. Expecting to completely avoid it just isn’t reasonable or realistic. And we shouldn’t beat ourselves up about eating it when we didn’t intend to with all of this in the background.

What about quitting cold turkey? Over my years doing research in this area and talking with many people who have gone through an addiction to sugar, I have learned that the cold-turkey approach doesn’t always work. Not to say that it can’t work, but for most people, it often brings with it a sense of failure and shame when people can’t stick with it. Also, my psychology and neuroscience training has taught me that learning theory tells us the cold-turkey approach isn’t the best strategy in most cases for long-term change. If you want to reform your habits, it’s best to do it incrementally.

Some people have a sweet tooth, while others are more drawn toward breads, pastas, crackers, etc., which are high in carbohydrates but not always sweet. Although cravings for carbohydrates come in the form of a sweet tooth for many people, it is not uncommon to crave non-sweet carbohydrate options. Why is this? Despite the type of carbohydrate, the impact that it has inside our bodies is relatively the same. Whenever we consume a carbohydrate-rich food choice, digestion takes place until glucose (sugar) units result. When excessive amounts of sugar are absorbed in the body, the brain releases large amounts of the neurotransmitter dopamine. In other words, sugar activates the brain’s reward system, which is why sugar is so addicting! The brain is not specific as to where the glucose comes from. If you consume pasta or a baguette, glucose is still present and can activate the brain’s reward system—giving you that increased pleasure from dopamine.

The quick-fix mentality won’t work here. In fact, it is that mentality that may have gotten you here in the first place. Everyone wants instant results and gratification, but when it comes to breaking your sugar addiction, you need to play the long game. What does that mean? It means adjusting your expectations such that you don’t need to see immediate results. If you’re in this for the long haul, meaning that the changes you’re making are long-term changes in your behaviors regarding food and how you think about the foods you put in your body, then what happens in the aggregate, over time, is what matters. For changes to happen long-term, they take time. Just like it took time to develop bad habits around sugar (like using it to self-soothe), it takes time to make healthier habits. Be patient with yourself!

Nicole Avena is a research scientist and author of What to Eat When You Want to Get Pregnant and Sugarless: A 7-Step Plan to Uncover Hidden Sugars, Curb Your Cravings, and Conquer Your Addiction.

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