Here Are Strategies I'll Use to Help Me Quit My Addiction
I mean it! Like a junkie, I've tried this before and failed. But I know people who are successfully fighting alcohol dependence. I know plenty of people who have quit smoking. Some have had to try several times before the change stuck, so just because I've fallen short before is no excuse not to try again.
In fact, previous failure just makes it clear how essential it is for me to overcome my sugar habit. If it's so hard to do – even though I want to do it – that indicates addiction, right? And addiction to something that is so harmful in the long run has to be beaten.
Did you know that sugar acts like a drug in our brains? Glucose is the brain's main fuel, so we've been hardwired to like sweets. But sugar stimulates a dopamine response the same way heroin does. That strong feeling of reward makes us want even more. So when we have a sugar habit, it's hard to quit it.
But it is possible!
Okay, sugar is an addiction. So is salt (potato chips, French fries, barbecue-flavored nuts, etc.). How about fast food burgers, mindless scrolling on social media, unnecessary shopping, or something else? There are strategies that can help break any of these addictions.
2 preliminary steps to break any bad habit
1. Identify your triggers.
For example, say it's bedtime. That's probably a trigger for you to wash your face and brush your teeth. Or say your alarm goes off in the morning. That's likely a trigger for you to a) hit the snooze button, b) grumble, yawn, and stretch, or c) hop out of bed ready to tackle the day. It's a trigger for something, anyway!
So what are possible triggers for my sugar habit?
- I'm thirsty. For me, this is the "gotta have Starbucks" trigger. My body actually needs some cold, clean, invigorating water, but I've let that really good trigger morph into "get me a caramel latte now!"
- I'm hungry. Sort of the same thing – my body actually needs some healthy carbs, fats, and/or proteins, but I've let that perfectly natural need morph into "give me a cookie!"
- I've eaten dinner. Sorry, Mama. This is the old habit of cleaning my dinner plate so I could get the chocolate pudding with chocolate curls you made for dessert. A long, long time ago, finishing a healthy dinner became a trigger for stuffing in something sweet.
- I'm bored or tired. My mind needs to get creative and DO something, or my brain and body are dying for sleep, but I've somehow twisted those important needs into "give me a snack, quick!" Not only does that behavior increase my sugar intake, but it denies me the opportunity to either be productive or go to bed already!
- I'm reminded of sugar. You're innocently watching TV, and suddenly there's a Snickers ad. You go to a movie, and you pass through the popcorn/soda/every kind of candy under the sun concession stand. You're buying nice healthy groceries, and you pass the bakery area, or stand in line to pay surrounded by candy, gum, keto chocolate nut snacks, or whatever. You're with a friend, and they want to stop for frozen yogurt.
This is a little depressing, because triggers for sugar abound. If I'm not aware of them, I'm dead meat.
2. Design a good/better habit to replace the bad one.
Let's be clear – refined sugars are the culprit, not the sugars that exist in whole fruits or whole grains. Apple pie feeds my addiction, but an apple does not. (Case in point, have you ever eaten an apple and then wanted another apple right away?) Most crackers, cookies, and sugary cereals feed my addiction; a bowl of original unsweetened Cheerios with a splash of milk does not. Ice cream feeds my addiction; plain Greek yogurt with berries does not.
- So, if I'm really thirsty, I need to drink water, not sugar. I can infuse the water with citrus fruits, but I shouldn't turn it into sweet tea, soda, or a Pumpkin Spice latte.
- If I'm really hungry (and it's not yet time for a meal), I need to eat a small cube of cheese, a handful of raw almonds, or the proverbial apple.
- If I've finished dinner, I can have some fruit with a small scoop of cottage cheese or plain Greek yogurt.
- If I'm bored, I can do some stretching, take a quick walk, read my current book, or brainstorm my next blog post.
- If I'm tired, I should go to bed. (Yes, even if the clock says 8:45.)
- If I'm simply reminded of sugar, I should do any of the above.
Some scientific studies show that writing an "if/then" statement helps solidify an intention. So if I grab a few index cards or Post-Its and write statements like "If I'm thirsty, then I'll drink my fruit-infused water* that's in the fridge" or "If it's time for dessert, then I'll eat half of a toasted whole grain raisin English muffin topped with ricotta cheese," I'm far more likely to follow through.
Pro tip: Having a specific strategy in place is better than white-knuckling the temptation and hoping for the best.
* This blog is reader-supported. If you buy through my links, I may earn a small commission.
3 methods for quitting sugar (or anything else)
1. Go cold turkey.
Clean out your pantry and your fridge and remove every bit of refined sugar, including natural sweeteners like honey, maple syrup, and "fruit syrup"-sweetened jams. (It's too easy to overdo these – ask me how I know.)
If you live with a partner and/or children who "need" their sugary snacks, keep those items in one cupboard that becomes off-limits to you. Seriously, it's a black hole that will suck you in. Don't go there.
Warning: You are going to feel cravings. Like the cold turkey method for breaking other addictions, you will have to sweat this one out. Find an accountability partner, cling to your "if/then" statements, and remove yourself from the temptation if you need to (go for a bike ride, meditate, work on a hobby, meet a friend for coffee – milk, no sugar – etc.).
2. Gradually cut down.
So if you're used to eating sugary cereals, try mixing the sugary stuff half-and-half with plain Cheerios. Still sweet, but a lot less sugar. If you normally sweeten your coffee, use half of normal. If you like having ice cream every evening for dessert, fill your bowl with fresh fruit and add a dab of ice cream on top. If you're addicted to peanut M&Ms, try a quarter cup of plain dry-roasted peanuts with a teaspoon or two of dark (at least 70% cocoa) chocolate chips.
Warning: Do not simply replace your normal sugary items with "no sugar added" items.* There may not be sugar in those things, but there are plenty of other additives, some created in a lab (like Frankenstein's monster), and some that are natural but still not meant to be consumed in large quantities.
* Or your Oreos and tortilla chips with the low-fat version, or your cigarettes with nicotine gum.
There are many studies which show that our brains and metabolisms respond to sweetness whether it comes from sugar or not. Did you know that many dieters who drink sugar-free soda wind up gaining weight? I kid you not. And more and more studies indicate that overuse of stevia is bad for gut health and may also increase appetite.
Related article: Just Eat an Apple
3. Make it special.
- Your child or grandchild celebrates a birthday? Go ahead and have some ice cream with everyone else.
- Your niece gets married? Feel free to have a piece of wedding cake.
- Your partner takes you to a fancy restaurant for your anniversary? Share that special dessert as if you're two kids sipping the same milkshake.
- Your friend sends you some of her famous homemade fudge for Christmas? Savor a piece or two and then take the rest to the office. I guarantee it will disappear.
Warning: It's no longer "special" if it occurs too often. This is not an excuse to have a sugar binge every weekend. You wouldn't get drunk every weekend if you're "trying to cut down," would you? If sugar starts creeping its way into your life again, you're going to have to go cold turkey.
Do you struggle with any unhealthy addictions? What has worked (or failed) for you? Feel free to leave a comment, or email me at email@example.com.
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