I’m breaking up with sugar. Here’s how you can too.

Photo: Jonathan Dennis

Photo: Jonathan Dennis

It’s time to break up with your sweets.

I’ve always had a healthy relationship with my body, and anyone who knows me can attest that I’m (for the most part) a clean-eating, active individual. On average I exercise five times a week for at least one hour a day—and have since I was a little girl. Alcohol and coffee have never passed my lips; and I rarely imbibe in caffeine. My cravings, however, exist in the form of America’s (and the world’s) most popular recreational drug —sugar.

To say I grew up in a health-conscious household is an understatement. My mother was a ballet, tap, jazz, and aerobics instructor and was the principal gardener and grocery shopper in our household. She knew the detrimental affects of sugar and forbade the substance in the home, opting instead for safflower burgers and those giant wheat cereal biscuits that look more like a loofah that you’d scrub your feet with rather than something you’d eat. Her plans were not foolproof however. Sugar always seemed to creep into our home—often masquerading in over four dozen different names or forms like high fructose corn syrup (HFCS), maltose, dextrose, and cane sugar.

I’d placate my cravings by raiding the cupboards for anything we had in whatever form—as long as it was sweet. Occasionally I’d find myself downing packets of hot chocolate (without any water) or grabbing a handful of semi-sweet chocolate chips. Grandma’s house was always a joy too; she had copious amounts of sugar in all forms— ice cream, frosting, candies, cakes. I would fill my pockets with all sorts of goodies laced with my favorite drug. Luckily by the time I was a teenager, my candy-eating days had waned, but to this day certain sweets still trigger me.

The other week a substantial portion of red velvet cake made its way to my desk. Its creamy frosting was generously slathered over its moist red center. It’s as if some childhood hoarding mentality had reared its head. I had to reach for a fork and taste it. Granted, it was quite possibly the best red velvet cake I have ever eaten, but why did I feel compelled to taste it? Was I even really hungry? I don’t get the same cravings if someone shows up with a juicy burger or a freshly-baked bread loaf or steamed veggies…so what is it about sweets—and certain sweets in particular—that provoke my salivary glands? 

Sugar is a drug.

Sugar is an addictive substance that has been shown to change your biochemical pathways, override self-control mechanisms, and prompt you to eat more of it. Any food executive looking to get customers hooked would quickly realize that they could do so legally with a generous dose of sugar. Michael Moss, the author of Salt, Sugar, Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us writes, “the optimum amount of sugar in a product became known as the ‘bliss point,’” and food inventors are obsessive on finding the exact amount that keeps us coming back for more. He reports that some of the largest food companies have been employing the use of brain scans to understand how we neurologically respond to sugar (it’s not unlike how our brains would respond to cocaine, another highly addictive and harmful substance). As a matter of fact, sugar is far more addictive than cocaine. A 2007 report demonstrated that when given the option of water sweetened with saccharin or intravenous cocaine 94 percent of rats preferred the sweet taste of saccharin. Increasing the doses of cocaine didn’t even override the preference for sugar in the rats.

Not surprisingly, a substance this addictive is big business. According to a recent report from BCC Research, the global market share for sugar and sweeteners in 2012 was $77.5BN and is projected to grow to a whopping $97.2BN in 2017. Sugar and other sweeteners have become ubiquitous: A 2014 study by the National Center for Biotechnology Information shows that on average, 75 percent of all our foods and beverages contain added sugar—across an array of types of foods and brand names. That means if we were blindfolded in a supermarket and had to pick food at random, three out of four times we’d grab something with sugar in it!

Our bodies are going into sugar shock.

Refined sugars were virtually absent in our diets for much of human history, so it should come to no surprise that our bodies aren’t used to the chemical assault that we have unleashed upon them. Three hundred years ago people—on average—consumed a measly 4 pounds/year! This was in part due to the novelty of sugar and its hefty price tag. During that time a pound of sugar was equivalent to around $45, which is far pricier than what we can buy it for today, which is about $1.70/pound at retail. By the time we reached 1800, people were consuming about 18 pounds of sugar per year. And when England’s prime minister, William Gladstone, removed the sugar tax in 1874, the consumption of the addictive substance blossomed into 100 pounds per person per year by 1950—a little less than 2 pounds/week.[1] Since 1950, the amount of sugar intake per capita has quietly crept up.  1980 saw an increase to 120 pounds; by 2010 it was 132 pounds/year; and current consumption, according to the USDA, hovers around 152 pounds annually, which is inching towards 3 pounds/week!

As you can imagine, three pounds of sugar every week is well outside the suggested intake. In March of this year, the World Health Organization proposed new draft guidelines that sugar should not exceed 10 percent of a person’s total energy intake/day and by reducing our intake to five percent of our energy intake/day we would have additional health benefits, like preventing tooth decay, which has become prevalent across the world. To put that in perspective, 5 percent is equivalent to around 25 grams or 6 teaspoons/day or a little over 1/3 of a pound/week. Considering that on average we’re consuming 9 times our daily allowance, we are really pushing our limits.

After learning more about this all-too-common chemical assault on my body and reflecting on my past obsession with sugar, I began to feel more empowered and energized to make a change. At the risk of sounding like this is one giant ad for taking control, I’ve decided to do a 30-day sugar detox to once and for all break free of my sugar cravings. In the coming days, I’ll not only share with you the process that I will go through in order to do this nutritional reset; but also the highlights, the recipes, and the good friends who will be helping me along the way. Since this process is new to me, as it will be for some of you, I welcome you to provide your thoughts, advice, and educated opinions on the matter so that those interested in the journey may learn along with us. 

[1] http://ajcn.nutrition.org/content/86/4/899.long

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