If I offered you a million dollars, could you hold your breath underwater for 15 minutes? Unless you’re an amphibian, the answer will be ‘No.’ The brain’s innate drive for oxygen would override any “willpower” to win the prize. If you’re currently living on a steady diet of sugar-enhanced foods, your brain is similarly re-wired, demanding that next “hit.” Your willpower has as much of a chance at resistance as the ability to keep your body underwater.
We know sugar is not a healthy substance. You see, I was once a sugar addict. When teaching 8 hours daily at school, a few bags of Skittles or M&Ms would be my “high” along with about 4 Diet Cokes or Diet Dews. But I realized that these sugar hits always led to a crash — and then a craving for even more — which made it clear to me that it was time to make a change.
Sugar acts within the brain’s “Reward Center” mechanism (it’s like the brain’s equivalent of the elementary school Gold Star chart) Upon eating sugar, your brain releases Dopamine, our favorite “feel good” hormone, which is the same one that’s triggered by other pleasure mechanisms like sex or exercise. Through the same mechanisms as drug addiction, frequent sugar intake means that the brain eventually gets accustomed to that high and become less sensitive to sugar. So, to get the same rush, your brain requires more and more sugar over time.
Here’s how it works: You eat a sugary food, your blood sugar levels spike, and your body releases Dopamine and insulin (which triggers your body to store the sugar as fat). Then comes the “crash”: your sugar level plummets and you feel tired, hungry, and reach for the next sugary treat. It’s purely chemistry and these physical urges completely override your willpower and desire to eat healthy.
Look, we all know it’s going to sneak in somewhere. You don’t need to become a biochemist to cut back, and you can still even have a sugary treat once in a while. But if you’re tired of this sugary chemistry experiment going on in your brain, follow these tips to at least minimize the majority of added sugar.
Learn its disguises: As tricky as this seems, sugar is almost never called just “sugar” on ingredient lists, so you have to be smart about spotting where it hides. Here are a few tricks: avoid anything ending in “-ose” like sucrose or maltrose. Look out for the buzzwords of “syrup,” “nectar,” “cane” and “sweetener.” And be mindful that even natural sugars, like agave or honey, still contribute to your daily sugar limit.
Cut Out Liquid Sugar: Drinking sugar-sweetened beverages? News flash — your brain doesn’t even recognize these calories as food, leading to a high and crash that will end with you eating even more.
DIY: You don’t have to completely cut out everything sweet; I don’t like my coffee black or my yogurt plain, but it’s a lot easier to control the amount of sugar you’re adding if you do it yourself. Add a half-packet to coffee instead of letting the barista talk you into a fancy, sweetened frap. Buy plain Greek yogurt and add berries and honey; I guarantee it will have less sugar than the fruit-flavored, sugar-laden packaged kind. As it often does, it comes down to a simple truth: it’s a lot easier to know what’s going on in your body if you control what you put into it.