Thanks for the great question from @TravellingTerri (Twitter follower). She asked if I had any suggestions on how to curb sugar addictions & cravings? The answer is yes.
First some background on the topic.
Although there is dispute in the research as to whether or not carbohydrate addiction is "real" or not, there are some facts that are interesting on this topic.
1) Weight loss programs that target a moderate reduction in carbohydrate intake produce better results.
2) Around the world Native cultures who have been exposed to white sugar or white flour products show significant health challenges (the same ones the Western world face).
3) From a behavioral perspective, treating weight management as you would an addiction produces better outcomes than not accounting for the psychological addiction component.
4) People who reduce calories but are still exposed to processed food items, have a very difficult time sticking to a calorie controlled plan (due to activation of the appetite center in the brain).
5) Some research shows that some individuals who are using artificially sweetened products also intake more calories likely due to activation of the appetite center in the brain. Based on my experience with clients this happens about 50% of the time and is an individual thing. If you find yourself getting hungrier or having a craving as a result of eating the artificially sweetened item then you would do better to avoid sweet flavors all together.
You can see why there is much disagreement as to whether the addictive nature of carbohydrates is true or not, however, I believe we can honestly say that consuming processed carbohydrates makes us want to consume more processed carbohydrates.
Now, let's look at the why.
Evidence strongly suggests that there is something called the serotonin effect that occurs with consumption of simple carbohydrates (processed flour & sugar, etc...). When we consume these readily available carbohydrates they elicit an insulin response from our pancreas (in response to a variable blood sugar increase). The result of this is the body tucks away sugar molecules into fat stores and into the liver. One longer term consequence of this pattern is the potential for insulin resistance which could occur over time with the liver becoming full of fat and eventually preventing insulin from working correctly (often associated with increases in visceral (or omental) fat (i.e. waist circumference)) or leading to Metabolic syndrome. In the shorter term, when insulin levels increase in the body, they not only tuck away the sugar molecules but also several amino acids, including some that would compete with the branched chain amino acid Tryptophan for spots in the transporter that leads into the brain. The result of this increased non competitive flow of Tryptophan into the brain is an increase in the neurotransmitter Serotonin. Serotonin is a monoamine neurotransmitter (see diagram) that has been implicated in contributing to feelings of well-being and happiness. Obviously, in today's high stress world, anything that will produce a rapid increase in feelings of well-being would be something that we might want to do again and again. Specifically, food items that elicit this result are often referred to as comfort foods. This is not just a label, but actually refers to the fact that many of them cause these increased levels of well being in us. The challenge is that because the the food item releases the bulk of it's carbohydrate load so quickly (due to the processed nature of the food), the resulting increase in Serotonin is quite short lived. It produces a rather large spike in Serotonin and of course an inevitable crash that can occur later. It's when we experience this crash that the pattern becomes that of addiction. We feel the need/overwhelming desire to create that feeling again and it's easily accomplished if we eat more processed food. This is obviously not a good strategy because of the possible long term consequences of weight gain, metabolic syndrome and diabetes that could result from continuing to eat this way to "feel better". A much better strategy would be to get ALL of your carbohydrates from less processed sources. Focus on starchy vegetables & whole fresh fruits as your primary sources of carbs. Therefore, eliminate all processed sources of carbohydrates (and all processed foods while your at it) out of your diet for at least 1 month. See if that helps. Remember if you are someone who is sensitive to artificial sweeteners, then avoid these as well. Go cold turkey. Replace the simple, processed carbs with more complex, less processed ones in order to wean yourself out of the Serotonin highs and lows cycle. I work in a Psychiatric facility and I can tell you that I see this phenomenon especially in people who experience seasonal affective disorder, as well as other mood disorders. Below are some recommendations that I've found help break the cycle.
1) Eliminate all processed foods (especially carbohydrates) out of your diet for 1 month.
2) Build meals around lean, high quality proteins.
3) Use starchy vegetables and fruits as your primary carb-rich sources.
4) Consume the bulk of your 10 fists of fruits & vegetables per day from non starchy (low carb) vegetables.
5) Hydrate well - drink 2 cups of water 15 minutes before each meal.
6) Consume Green Tea and/or Hot water with Lemon in order to limit sweet cravings (due to the astringent and sour flavor of these items).
7) Use herbs & spices liberally in order to expose your taste buds to other flavors and not rely so heavily on sweet.
8) Do this for a minimum of 1 month. Then please comment or email me to let me know how it went.
If you have any further questions about this protocol, email me with them.
Hope this helps.
Nutrition and physical degeneration, Weston A. Price, 2000, La Mesa, California, USA.
Advanced Nutrition and Human Metabolism 3rd Edition, James L. Groff and Sareen S. Gropper, 1999, Brooks Coles.