You realize how much we turn to certain foods to comfort us especially when we decide to remove them–even temporarily–from our diet. I have, as you know, decided to do a sugar cleanse and after several months of research and planning, these are the ten steps that I’ve naturally come up with in order to help make it a success. This may not be the steps that you personally need to follow, but hopefully it can serve as a well thought-out guide that will help you along your path.
STEP 1. Know that a food addiction is real.
The concept of a “food addiction” is relatively new. In the past, if I had seen someone who was morbidly obese or downing their fifth Twinkie, I would think to myself that the person has a lack of willpower or discipline; a common thought had by many. However, as Richard L. Atkinson, Emeritus Professor of Medicine and Nutritional Science at the University of Wisconsin, penned in the journal Nutrition and Health (2005), this is no longer defensible given all the current studies showing how sugar and other substances definitively alter our biochemical pathways. This is an absolute paradigm shift in the way we think about what we eat. It shouldn’t however, be hard to believe once you understand that sugar is 8 times as addictive than cocaine. Whether we realize it or not, many of us use food—and in particular, sugar—to alter our brain chemistry..Most commonly, that sugar induces the release of serotonin, endorphins and dopamine, changing our brain chemistry, and subsequently, our moods.
STEP 2. Learn how biochemical pathways are altered after consuming sugar.
It’s difficult to summarize the complex processes surrounding the release of serotonin, endorphins and dopamine. The best and easiest-to-understand explanations I found were in a book entitled Anatomy of a Food Addiction published in 1991, though it was helpful to supplement those explanations with newer research.
We actually have a mass of neural tissue in our gut called the enteric nervous system that scientists have dubbed “the second brain.” According to Scientific American, this area contains over 100 million neurons and more than 30 neurotransmitters, just like the brain. In fact, 95 percent of the body’s serotonin is found in the bowels. Serotonin brings relief and this likely evolved in our body because we generally eat when we feel safe. If we’re being chased by some bad guy who wants to hunt us down, we’re likely not going to take a leisurely stroll through the market or go through the fast food drive-thru to grab some grub. We’ll wait until he’s out of sight! It’s only when we feel safe again that our stomach sends us the signals to eat. When we eat, the food is designed to comfort us. For some of us—perhaps those that have lower serotonin levels to being with—food like refined carbs, sugar, alcohol, and white bread are used to boost the serotonin that we’re lacking
Endorphins are often also released when people eat sweets, starches and fats. These help relieve discomfort and pain and allow people to temporarily feel good. If you eat sugar, beta-endorphin is released and you’ll likely want to eat more sugar. This will continue to release more beta-endorphin and you’ll want to eat more. A more detailed explanation of this process is in Anatomy of a Food Addiction, but to sum it up: Stress triggers the release of dynorphin, a type of endorphin that is a powerful appetite stimulant. When you eat, the act of chewing releases dopamine, and dopamine comforts. Thus, stress was comforted by eating. For sugar addicts, we often turn to sugars and starches for comfort. When we eat that sugar, our dopamine levels—or reward centers—are turned on, making us feel good. The problem? Over time, we need to eat more and more sugar to obtain that same level of dopamine release.
STEP 3. Determine whether you have an addiction and the extent to which you have one.
Yale’s Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity produced the Yale Food Addiction Scale, which is a series of 25 questions designed to identify whether someone has a substance dependence with the consumption of high fat/high sugar foods. The quiz and the way the scoring is tallied is here and here. According to the quiz, I do not qualify as having a food addiction, though I do exhibit withdrawal symptoms and have 3 symptoms out of 7 if scored on the continuous scoring scale. This is helpful to identify because it gives me a goal to work toward improving or resolving.
STEP 4. Know where your sugar comes from.
Where we obtain our sugar naturally varies from person to person. It would make sense to keep a journal on where and how much sugar we consume on a daily basis, but for those of us who don’t have the time, we can instead become aware of how the majority of us—unknowingly—consume sugar. About 29 pounds (17 percent) of the 152 pounds that we consume each year comes directly from traditional sugar. About 26 percent of added sugars in our diets come from prepared foods like ketchup, spreads, salad dressings, canned vegetables and fruits, and peanut butter. Around 33 percent of added sugar in our diet comes from soft drinks—consumption of soda has increased fivefold since 1950. Approximately 10 percent of our sugars come from sweetened fruit drinks; five percent from candy and cake; four percent from cereal; and the same goes for table sugar, honey, cookies, brownies, syrups and toppings.
STEP 5. Research what you can and can’t eat.
When you go on a proper sugar detox, it means taking out all sugars and starches for the time you are doing the detox. This is not a diet. It is a nutritional reset so that you may be able to break the cycle of sugar reliance and addiction. That means you need to overcompensate for a while in order to achieve those goals. A list of foodstuffs you need to avoid and that I’ll be removing from my diet over the next 30 days can be found here.
STEP 6. Clean out your kitchen out.
Some of us are more prone to an external food sensitivity, which means that we get cravings after seeing or smelling food—despite whether we are hungry or not. You know yourself better than anyone else, so if this is something that sets you off, then I would suggest cleaning out your kitchen of anything that would serve as a weakness. Take a look at salsas, salad dressings, juice, soda, candy, sweets, fruit and grain bars, and instant oatmeal. All of these items will have some sugar in them. Try to remove as much of the temptation as possible.
STEP 7. To break your sugar cravings, you need to abstain—not moderate.
It’s far easier to follow a program when restrictions are very black and white. One little bit of sugar can actually set them off on a downward spiral, so it’s best to remove sugar completely from one’s diet…at least for some time. There are so many programs on the Internet advertising different lengths of time. Behavioral research shows that the length of time to course correct from a bad habit varies dramatically from person-to-person, and some people aren’t able to ever touch a substance again. My suggestion is try the detox for 30 days; observe how you feel after it; reflect on your ability to work through the detox; revel in how you were able to follow the plan; and then determine if you’d like to continue forward with your newfound health plan. Remember: This isn’t a permanent diet—this is a lifestyle plan to help you cleanse your system of your sugar cravings and help you start eating more wholesome foods and live a healthier life.
STEP 8. Plan your recipes in advance
It’s far easier to follow a program when you have a list of ingredients and recipes that you can work from. Over the past few weeks I’ve been taking a look at the ingredients that I can have and coming up with interesting recipe ideas that would personally work for me in addition to asking friends to suggest their own.
Variety is the spice of life! Make sure you have a collection of recipes in your arsenal for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snacks. Enjoy the challenge and adventure of preparing healthy, simple meals; and come up with any food contingency plans around special events like birthday parties and celebrations. All of these plans will help guarantee greater success.
STEP 9. Remove risks by finding support.
When I decided that I would do this detox, it was natural for me to tell all of my friends. I knew I’d be cooking nearly every day for the next 30 days, so it made sense to invite friends over. What I didn’t expect was that so many people would be inspired and interested in doing a detox with me. It’s this type of support within your network that is indispensable to achieve success.
STEP 10. Help yourself by helping others.
If you look into or have partaken in any recovery programs, the last step is always helping others through the same issue. Hopefully by sharing your journey, your own actions will inspire others, which is a powerful positive feedback loop that will naturally keep you satisfied—without the sugar!
Good luck on your journey!