If I said we are living in a carb-addicted world, would you agree? Let me introduce you to the Western diet, fuelled by the now debunked low-fat diet movement back in the 1960s and the readily available highly processed sugars that have crept into the mass processed food we consume.
Since this movement, obesity has and continues to increase, and we are also seeing countries such as China and India suffering from an obesity crisis as the Western diet infiltrates their cultures.
Let’s face it, we no longer need to prepare food, you can have food delivered to your door in half an hour, grab a pastry or pie on the way home, and due to the production of cheap sugars such as fructose syrup, you can buy cakes, biscuits, and doughnuts for less than the price of an apple.
Food producers are able to save us time and provide convenience whilst monetizing on these highly calorific and nutrient-lacking products.
Now here is where it gets really worrying. When you eat high sugar foods, the brain pathways that are activated are the same as those of a cocaine addict – yes, you get a sugar hit in the same way that a drug user gets their hit. The problem is that like drugs; the hit becomes harder and harder to get, and therefore, you need more of your drug of choice i.e., sugar to get the feeling of satisfaction. You know that ‘aaahhhhhhh’ moment when you take your first bite of a doughnut.
Now let’s add stress into the mix. So stress is something we have learned to live with; modern-day life is hectic. There are the same amount of hours in the day as there were 100 years ago, and yet things are moving at a much quicker pace, and there is limited time to complete daily tasks.
So what does stress do?
Well, remember that doughnut or cake you enjoy? Your brain knows that stress will be temporarily lifted if you eat that doughnut (it remembers this from previous experiences). So what this throws into the equation is cravings. Once you start to feel stressed, you will automatically start thinking about those sugary foods. You know when you just can’t stop thinking about those cakes and biscuits, they pop into your head seemingly, out of nowhere – why? Because your brain is wanting to recreate that ‘aaahhhhhhh’ moment that happens when you eat it, so it produces these cravings to motivate you to go eat these foods.
OK, so you may be wondering where I am going with this and where aging comes into the picture. Let me lead you onto the next step, which is chronic inflammation.
Many of us associate inflammation with an injury or infection – this is acute inflammation and is an important part of the healing process. In contrast, chronic inflammation is incredibly bad for you and actually underlies many diseases, including cancer, diabetes, heart disease, and dementias, including Alzheimer’s disease. What does this have to do with sugar ‘addictions’?
Insulin resistance, as seen in pre-diabetics and type 2 diabetics, along with excess blood glucose levels, promotes chronic inflammation. If you are a sugar ‘addict,’ it is very possible that you are overweight and obesity and excess body fat also leads to inflammation. This is a double whammy! The worrying fact is that inflammation is a silent killer. You can’t see what is happening as it progresses through the body but what I can tell you, is that it kills brain cells, damages your DNA, and stops cells from working properly. Collectively all of these factors will accelerate aging and lead to diseases such as cancer and dementia. The only way you can manage inflammation is by removing the factors that are causing it, and in this case, I am pointing my finger at sugar (and stress)!
The good news is that sugar cravings can be managed; let me walk you through some top tips to overcome sugar addiction.
1. Check in with yourself
It is possible that you are hungry and your blood sugar levels are too low, and so you are seeking sugar to raise them to normal. To avoid this, eat high fibre, whole grain carbohydrates balanced with protein and healthy fats for each meal. If you are not hungry – see #2
2. Identify the craving trigger
So sugar cravings can be for multiple reasons, as I alluded to, it may be stress related or some other emotion like sadness. The brain knows that sugar will make you feel better for a while, if you can identify the trigger, you can intervene. For example if it is stress.related, you can go for a walk, listen to music or a podcast, read a book, do a short meditation or breathing exercises. Cravings pass, hunger comes on slowly but does not pass. If it is a craving cause a distraction and let it go naturally.
3. Dig deep
If it is a craving, talk to yourself very honestly. This can be quite hard to start with but with practice, you will become more comfortable with it.
Ask yourself ‘What do I really need at the moment?’
This helps identify what else the craving is associated with. Maybe you are feeling sad, angry, or bored?
Then you can ask yourself, ‘What would make me feel a bit better right now?’
The answer may be a cuddle, a call to a friend or family member, removal from an angry situation.
Investigating the cravings and being more mindful of your choices can help you to avoid the sugar and fulfill your needs in a way that is more in alignment with your health and wellbeing. I mention being ‘mindful’ because the brain is really smart at creating shortcuts, this means you do something automatically without thinking about it.
Here is a scenario – you are stressed, the brain remembers sugar helps and you reach for the biscuits. No thought was involved. Before you know it, you have eaten a biscuit. Raising awareness of what is happening within, can help you to make more conscious decisions so acknowledge the craving, investigate the source and intervene using reason and conscious thought.