Even as a physician, it can be difficult to always practice what you preach 100% of the time. I will admit to having some pretty unhealthy habits, such as my devotion to the sweet stuff.
For me, it all began at the age of 13 when my school was holding a fundraiser selling candy bars. Of course, I ended up indulging in way too many of those delicious chocolate bars from my own box that summer. Thus, quite a few years of sugar addiction followed – lasting even during my medical training. Eventually, I craved dessert after every meal. Dessert was so important to me that sometimes I chose restaurants when dining out with my family and friends based on the dessert menu. In addition, I always needed my coffee extra sweet. I even used to order blended caramel java beverages essentially as caramel sauce with a side of coffee.
We all know that too much sugar in your diet is not great for your health. But how much are Americans overdoing it? The recommended limit of sugar per day is 6 tablespoons for a woman and 9 tablespoons for a man. But our consumption actually averages anywhere from a quarter to half a pound of sugar per day.
One reason for this high intake is that sugar is added into 75% of all packaged foods on the market shelves in the United States. We recognize all the main culprits including candy, sodas, ice creams, and baked goods. But manufacturers sneak sugar into unassuming foods such as bread and sauces. Sugar is also sometimes difficult to spot on nutrition labels because added sugars come in a large variety of names such as sucrose, palm sugar, fructose, or corn syrup.
In addition, sugar has been proven to be habit-forming. It’s been shown that a sweet treat really does give you that “sugar high”, that jolt of energy that occurs when your blood sugar levels rise quickly. This can contribute to people reaching for that candy jar every afternoon at the office. Sugar also has been found to act like an opioid, stimulating pathways in the brain that lead to pleasure. Because of this, people will often turn to sweet treats in times of stress. Studies have also shown that sugar can be just as addictive as drugs like nicotine and cocaine. Unfortunately, over time the brain requires more sugar to attain the same feeling of satisfaction.
Everyone is aware that sugar can cause weight gain and that can give you cavities. It’s also a fact that you can end up with that dreaded “sugar crash” when your blood sugar levels eventually drop. But there are a multitude of ways that sweets can instigate long term harm to your body. Too much sugar can cause your pancreas to work overtime, pumping out insulin to combat the high blood sugar levels, and eventually leading to pancreatic failure and diabetes. Diabetes can then lead to kidney failure and damage to your eyesight. That extra insulin from the constant high levels of sugar can also cause the vessels of your arteries to grow and become less stretchy, adding stress to the heart leading to cardiac disease, heart attacks, and strokes. In addition, excessive sugar can cause inflammatory changes of the joints, leading to pain. And it’s not just on the inside that sugar wreaks havoc on your body – the inflammation can also cause your skin to age faster.
Thankfully, with time I managed to decrease my significant sugar intake. I’m still not perfect but I employed a few strategies to help kick those cookie cravings:
Aim to avoid sugar as much as you can. Use your willpower to avoid the afternoon slump candy. Put cookies and treats on a high shelf or hidden so you don’t see it. The less you eat it, the less you will crave it. Overtime, you will find your sugar dependence will decrease.
Try substituting fruit. It may not be as appealing at first, but over time, you may find yourself with a hankering for fruit rather than candy.
When you have a sugar craving, drink some water instead. Once you drink a glass, you may find that your urge to reach for the brownie will have subsided.
If you can, take a quick stroll. Sometimes a craving can be related to boredom. Also, a nice walk will leave you energized and invigorated in a much healthier manner.
I can certainly sympathize that a sugar addiction is a really tough habit to kick. But if a sugar enthusiast like me can decrease her intake over time, you definitely can too.
Originally from Orange County, California, Karen Tran-Harding is a radiology resident physician that found love, education, life lessons, and two corgis in the heart of the bluegrass. She has interest in medical media and education. She is a regular contributor to StantonMD and Everyday Medicine.