17. How to Approach Sugar
Welcome to the Mindful Weight Loss podcast. I am your host and your coach, Emily Erekuff, and today we are talking about sugar.
Today we are going to continue talking about dopamine and how it relates to sugar.
And I know for many sugar is a sensitive topic. Some believe that sugar is evil and many believe that it's addictive. And I'm sure many of you have called yourselves sugar addicts seriously and flippantly.
I'm right there with you, or I was. There was definitely a time in my life when I felt that sugar was the enemy and that if I could just rid myself of it I would suddenly be free, but I have since learned that is not the right approach for me and I'm betting that it's not the right approach for most of us who overeat and binge.
While sugar is absolutely something that we can desire intensely, the effects of consuming sugar do not meet the clinical standards for addiction and while some love to point out that it gives us a response that is similar to hard drugs, that fact is often abused because the volume of brain response is no where near the same and you could say the same thing about exercise. Anything that stimulates dopamine can be something that's craved.
And what's really interesting is that we're craving the dopamine response that sugar or exercise gives us no the sugar or exercise itself. And that is true even with drugs. You don't crave the drug itself, you crave the dopamine rush they produce and the problem with drugs is that they they stimulate way too much dopamine.
That’s why smoking crack is more appealing than snorting powder cocaine even though the substance is the same: smoking it and breathing it into your lungs produces a faster , larger dopamine rush than snorting it. And this is one reason why people tend to get drunk more quickly on cocktails vs beer. They drink faster, not because the alcohol is more pleasurable, but because the more potent the alcohol the bigger the dopamine rush and the more we try to keep that going.
Now sugar and food are similar in that sugar produces a faster larger dopamine rush than other foods, but let me assure you that the brain changes that lead to needing more and more cocaine to get the same high aren't seen with sugar.
With drugs, dopamine has gotten to levels that are so off the charts, your baseline has really been thrown off and you literally can't replicate that same dopamine high.
Recent research also shows that evidence for addiction to specific macronutrients is lacking in humans. and that eating addiction - i.e. the behavior, not the stimulus, actually better captures addictive like eating behavior.
And at the end of the day, it simply does not serve you to refer to yourself as someone who is addicted to sugar, or simply to eating for that matter. Remember your thoughts create your emotions which generate your actions. It doesn't serve you to think in a way that makes you feel powerless. Because then you will behave as if that's true.
So there you have it. Yes, sugar does produce a dopamine high and we need to be aware of that, but let's stop calling it addictive. Let's stop believing and acting as if we don't have control over it because we do.
And there is a second issue with sugar to be aware of that will also help you understand why you tend to want more of it once you start eating it and that is the way it interacts with insulin in the blood stream.
When we ingest a high amount of sugar, insulin is released into our bloodstream to clean it up. Insulin acts as a key for the glucose to enter the cells in muscles and elsewhere where it is used for energy. And once the insulin does its job, your blood sugar drops again. So right after you experience a sugar rush, you then experience a drastic drop 30 to 40 minutes later which leaves you feeling drained.
And it turns out that sugar is more of a sedative than we think. Yes, you get an initial kick, but high sugar consumption inhibits the production of a chemical in your brain called Orexin which makes you feel awake. So the more sugar you eat, the more sleepy you will feel.
And so here's what tends to happen. You eat sugar, get an initial high and then 30-40 minutes later you feel that low when your blood sugar drops. You feel drained and lacking in energy and the thought occurs to you to eat more sugar. And then because it stimulates dopamine, of course that seems like a good idea. Dopamine is ready to get more. and this cycle can repeat itself for a long time until you feel gross and really tired. I totally experienced this last year with Christmas cookies and treats. They were out on the table all day and probably every 30-40 minutes, I'd walk by and pop something else into my mouth. And by the end of the day I felt terrible. But that was before I understood what was going on, and why I felt the way I did.
So does this mean that you shouldn't have sugar? No. And remember that if you restrict it, that is going to make it more attractive as far as dopamine is concerned.
What you need to do is eat it from a place of awareness. Allow yourself to fully experience it so you can recognize these patterns and label them appropriately. Understand that when you want more it's not because you are weak-willed or addicted. It's simply because your hormones are sending some confusing signals to your brain. But now you have knowledge about what's going on and you can decide how to interpret those signals. You can observe the sugar low and say, gosh, yeah I want more sugar right now, but that's because eating sugar in the first place actually made my blood sugar lower, so I'm going to ride this out instead of perpetuating this vicious cycle.
And if you can let yourself have sugar and experience it and observe these sensations in your body, just like my experience with the mac and cheese you will come to understand that it's not magical, and that you probably think it's better than it really is - that the sugar crash you get later actually isn't worth it. It's those who really pay attention to how they feel when they eat sugar who end up abstaining from it most of the time out of continual choice rather than those who decide to quit sugar for life because they think it's evil.
With weight loss, we've been taught to want rules and black and white judgements about certain foods, but it just doesn't work that way. Life isn't that way.
But while we don't live in a world of black and white, we do live in a world of cause and effect and sometimes those things are subtle, and that is why we need awareness and greater trust in ourselves. Now that you know what to look for you can observe that cause in effect in yourself and as you continue to trust yourself you can form your own opinion about how much is sugar is good for you.