Everyone has their own sugar cravings and their personal sugary weaknesses. For me, it’s the pains aux raisins in the coffee shop around 3.30 p.m. 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 a Snickers, Haribo, or those post-workout strawberry-flavored protein shakes—whichever way, I feel your struggle. Unfortunately, sugar can put you in danger of developing diabetes, but it 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 effects 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—and the list goes on. Professor Bartlett says that those in less sugar-obsessed societies do not feel the immediate pull of sweet things: a cupcake would not have the same appeal to someone growing up in a remote location without access to sweets or cause for celebration.
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 program.” 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 behavior: “It could be grapes or raw nuts—fiber 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.”