What is sugar addiction, how can it affect us, and what can we do to overcome it? We explain more about how you can find help for sugar addiction.
Sugar is thought to be one of the leading causes of the obesity crisis in the UK. Too much sugar can lead to high blood pressure, inflammation, type 2 diabetes, weight gain, tooth decay, heart disease, fatty liver disease, and even certain types of cancer (including breast and bowel). It can also lead to an increased risk of heart attack and stroke. For many, it can also have a psychological impact, leading to issues such as lower self-esteem, lower confidence levels, and even depression.
While many of us are becoming more aware of the risks of ‘empty calories’ in the form of added sugar to processed foods, sugar can sneak into our diets more than we may realise.
According to the NHS, most adults eat about the recommended 30g of ‘free sugars’ each day (sugar that is added to food, drinks, or found naturally in honey, syrups, juices, smoothies, and purees). Even more worryingly, nearly half of us admit we do not understand what we should eat.
But how can we know when we’re having too much sugar, and is having more than your recommended daily allowance really a bad thing? We explain more about sugar addiction and what help is available if you’re worried about your health or habits.
What is sugar addiction?
Sugar addiction can be both behavioural and chemical.
Behavioural sugar addiction could mean you find yourself eating dessert every evening even when you aren’t hungry, or snacking throughout the day regardless of if you are hungry.
Chemical sugar addiction refers to when your body becomes so used to having sugar, you experience negative effects and physical cravings when you try to cut back or stop eating sugar altogether.
Is sugar addiction real?
While, historically, some people have argued that sugar addiction is not real, studies have shown sugar can produce more symptoms than is required to be considered an addictive substance both chemically and behaviourally. A 2017 study revealed that added sugar can cause drug-like effects, including:
- binge eating
- developing a tolerance to sugar
- withdrawal symptoms
- increased tolerance
Some experts believe that we can develop an emotional or psychological dependence on sugary food and drinks, due to the energy boost (or ‘short-term high’) they give. This means that, if you’re feeling stressed or tired, you may be more likely to pick up a sugary snack, treat, or meal as, unconsciously, you may associate this kind of food with feeling happier or more energetic, thanks to that release of endorphins. Over time, this can become a comforting habit, and create an unhealthy method of coping.
Signs and symptoms of sugar addiction
There are a number of different signs and symptoms of sugar addiction and/or wider problem eating. You may find yourself experiencing frequent ‘sugar highs’ – a rush after you eat something sugary, followed often by a ‘crash’ a little while later, as your blood sugar levels lower or drop suddenly, leaving you feeling worse than before.
Other common symptoms that can indicate problem eating or a sugar addiction can include:
- feelings of guilt when eating
- hiding your eating habits from friends, family, or colleagues
- making excuses or deals with yourself to justify unhealthy choices (eg, ‘I’ll eat better tomorrow’ or ‘I’ll have an extra portion because today was really hard!’)
- an increasing need for more to satisfy your cravings (larger portions, extra sugary drinks or snacks)
- purposefully or compulsively eating sugary or sugar-filled things even when not physically hungry
- constant cravings for sweet or salty foods (your body trying to counter too many sugary foods)
- emotional eating (comfort, celebration, stress, upset)
- poor skin health or frequent breakouts of spots
- dulled taste buds
- periods of lethargy or low energy after eating (sugar crashes)
- feel out of control when you eat (eg, you may eat more than you planned, may ‘binge’, or
- feel unable to stop past the point of being full)
If you have tried to reduce your sugar intake, you may also experience:
- fatigue, lethargy, or trouble sleeping
- feelings of anxiety or depression
- cravings for ‘junk food’ or carb-heavy foods
- nausea, light-headed, or dizzy
Am I addicted to sugar?
Read more about eight common signs you might have a sugar addiction.
How do I stop my addiction to sugar?
If you are worried about your sugar intake or think that you may be addicted to sugar, there are different things you can try to overcome sugar cravings.
Learn more about food, nutrition and a balanced diet
Learning how to identify the source of sugar in your diet can be a positive first step toward making changes. Many people can forget that everyday foods, such as flavoured and fruit yoghurts, unsweetened fruit and vegetable juices, sauces, condiments, tinned foods, and alcoholic and non-alcoholic replacement drinks, often contain sugar with few to no beneficial fibre, vitamins, minerals, or other nutrients.
While tips to help cut back on sugar that focus on a more balanced diet may help some people, simply being told to cut back on sugary drinks, processed foods, or fast food isn’t always that helpful. Regardless of if you struggle with your weight or not, people can develop unhealthy habits that link to their food and behaviour. For example, using food as a way to comfort themselves after a stressful or emotional week; as a reward for eating healthier or completing a hard task; as a bribe to do a chore or task that they really don’t want to; or even as a habit that may slowly spiral out of control (such as fortnightly takeaways becoming weekly, becoming twice a week, or more).
Simple changes to your diet can help you to feel fuller for longer. For example, increasing your protein and fibre can help give you an energy boost and feel full for a longer period of time, which can help you to hold back on reaching for more sugar-filled foods.
Drink more water
Ensuring you are drinking enough water can also help, as it can become easy to confuse thirst with hunger over time. Ensuring you drink the recommended two litres of water a day has more benefits than you may realise. Drinking water can help to improve your skin and helps your body function. Not drinking enough water can increase your blood pressure and cholesterol levels.
Try to avoid switching from full sugar fizzy or carbonated drinks to diet or low-calorie versions. While these can seem like a happy compromise, research has shown that artificial sweeteners can encourage our sugar cravings and dependence, rather than helping wean us off of them.
Should I try a sugar detox diet?
While some people swear by detox diets, quitting sugar cold turkey can not only lead to you feeling awful in the short term but may also be setting you up for failure. When you make a drastic change to your diet, without looking at the underlying issues that caused your poor food choices in the first place, it means you are more likely to return to old, bad habits AND feel worse, as you have ‘failed’ your diet.
Tackling a sugar addiction isn’t just about ‘mind over matter’ - it’s about recognising unhelpful behaviour patterns, identifying underlying issues that have led to the development of these patterns and behaviours, and making sustainable changes to your lifestyle and mindset.
Reduce your stress levels
Almost three-quarters of us have felt stressed in the past year. Over time, stress can lead to serious health problems, including headaches, heart problems, diabetes, depression, anxiety, and high blood pressure. Managing your stress levels can not only help decrease your likelihood of experiencing these issues but can also help reduce sugar cravings whilst boosting your sense of well-being.
The more overwhelmed we feel, the less we feel able to cope. This can push us back towards unhealthy or unhelpful habits as a way of trying to numb or ignore these feelings.
We may not even realise that how we’re feeling emotionally (anxious, easily irritated, angry) or physically (trouble focusing, difficulty making decisions, racing thoughts, exhaustion, headaches, changes in appetite, problems sleeping) is being caused by stress. Increasing your exercise levels, practising relaxation techniques such as mindfulness or meditation, taking up hypnotherapy, or making time for self-care can help you manage your stress.
How long does it take to break a sugar addiction?
According to experts, taking a break from sugar for two weeks can help you to reset your body. Other experts advise that it can take up to four weeks for your brain and body to stop craving sweets, and begin wanting healthier, more satisfying, nutritious foods.
Hypnotherapy for sugar addiction
If you are worried that you might have an unhealthy relationship with food, working with a hypnotherapist can help you to change your eating habits, break behavioural patterns, and rediscover new, healthier ways of coping with stress. A hypnotherapist can help you to:
Find underlying issues
Emotional eating can often be triggered by underlying issues that you may not even be aware of. Stress, anxiety and overwhelm call all lead you towards ‘comfort eating’, if you don’t already have healthy, sustainable coping mechanisms in place.
Recognise and challenge unhealthy patterns and thoughts
Over time, we can develop unhelpful patterns, habits or behaviours. A hypnotherapist can work with you to change negative thoughts, help you learn to recognise signs that you may be eating out of habit or due to how you are feeling, and introduce you to more helpful, sustainable behaviours
Learn how to listen to your body
Using mindfulness, grounding and self-care techniques, a hypnotherapist may be able to help you relearn how to recognise hunger cues (when you are full or hungry) and start listening to what your body has to say.
Share self-hypnosis and mindfulness techniques
Through learning self-hypnosis techniques, you can continue to reinforce new habits and suggestions made between hypnotherapy sessions. Mindfulness techniques can also help you to become more self-aware, helping you to better recognise what, when, where, and how much you are eating – as well as the reasons behind why you are eating.
Willpower alone is not enough
As with many different forms of addiction, willpower alone is often not enough to overcome sugar addiction. Through working with a qualified, experienced hypnotherapist, you can better understand underlying feelings that have contributed to creating unhealthy coping mechanisms. By addressing these underlying issues, you can lay the foundations for success.
A hypnotherapist should not recommend you go on a diet nor offer nutritional advice (unless they have additional training and qualifications in nutrition). Instead, a hypnotherapist can help you to cultivate a healthier mindset, identify the root cause that has led to your sugar addiction, and help you to make lasting changes.
How can I find a hypnotherapist?
Ready to make a change? Finding an experienced, qualified hypnotherapist that resonates with you is the next step. You can find a hypnotherapist near you using our advanced search, or enter your location in the search bar below to find an in-person or online hypnotherapist.
Many clients come to hypnotherapy hoping that the hypnotherapist has some kind of magic wand that can make the process of quitting easy. There is no magic wand, however, there is the understanding of how to undo that feeling of inner conflict, which reduces the need for willpower, making it easier for us to stop doing something we don’t want to anymore.
- A hypnotherapist explains more in Do you find willpower alone not enough to break a habit?