Sugar Begets Sugar

I had a client in my office recently and he remarked “It was so much easier to stay away from sugar before (when I took it out of my diet completely). Now that I’ve let myself have it again, it is creeping back in all over the place - a little here, a little there.”

It’s true. The more sugar you eat, the more sugar you will crave.

When you eat sugar regularly, you get caught in a vicious cycle: the more sugar you eat, the more sugar you crave...and the more sugar you crave, the more sugar you eat. This happens because: you have sugar, then blood sugar rises quickly, next a bunch of insulin gets released, then blood sugar drops and now you need more sugar to counterbalance the excess insulin. Hamster wheel, anyone?

In classical conditioning, we know that a stimulus leads to a response. The reason that sugar detoxes are so effective is because once you remove the response (eating sugar), you also remove the stimulus (sugar craving). This sounds counterintuitive. Why not remove the stimulus instead? Because it’s really, really, really hard to do when you have sugar in your diet regularly.

In a previous blog post, we talked about the different reasons we eat. The reason we reach for sweets can be due to any of the four triggers (biological, environmental, emotional or social). In the case of environmental and social triggers, removing the stimulus can work. For example, you stop passing by a bakery on your walk home (environmental). Or, you stop hanging out with people who peer pressure you into eating junk (social). For emotional and biological triggers, however, it’s better to focus on eliminating the response.

With emotional triggers, you can’t always control the stimulus (e.g., getting angry, feeling sad). The trick is to change how you respond to that stimulus (or emotion, in this case). Instead of reaching for ice cream the next time you’re feeling down, call a friend, watch a rom com or get out in nature. Do something, anything but feed your emotions with sugar.

With biological triggers, we crave sweets for a number of reasons, but I’ll focus on two:

1) An innate reward system: When we eat sugar (and sugar-like substances), the pleasure centers of our brain light up. The release of “feel good” chemicals makes us feel all warm and fuzzy inside. And, this becomes a self-reinforcing system: our bodies learn that anytime we eat a sweet treat, we will feel pleasure. [Kessler does a phenomenal job exploring this concept in his book, The End of Overeating, if you’re interested in exploring this topic further.]

2) An imbalanced microbiome (e.g., yeast, bacteria): Yeast and bacteria survive on sugar and so your “cravings” may actually be the yeast or bacteria talking; they are sending out signals for fuel in order to stay alive.

In both of these cases, removing the sugar is the solution. In the first case, removing sugar rewires your neural circuitry; once you stop reinforcing a neural pathway, it becomes less prominent. In the second case, removing sugar starves the bacteria and yeast; once they are gone, so too are your cravings.

Now, let me clarify before you think I’ve gone off the deep end: it is not necessary to completely remove sugar forevermore. However, it is important to realize when you are running sugar and when sugar is running you.

If you find that you are on the losing end of the battle with sugar, I’d suggest taking it out for two weeks and then re-assessing. Many health-minded folks like yourself aim for their diet to be 80% clean and 20% celebration. However, sometimes when you’ve been operating closer to 50/50 (such as around holiday time), you may have to go to 100% clean for some time to balance things out again. Just a thought. Try it on for size and see how you go.

P.S. This principle is also true in other areas of life. Success begets more success. Laziness begets more laziness. Margaritas beget more margaritas. Alas, we will save that for another day...