“I love junk food, and I can’t stop craving it,” a reader posted on my Facebook page. “What do I do?”
If you can identify with my reader, you’re not alone. Of the more than 600,000 food products – note I said food products, not food – 80 percent have added sugar.
We went from eating about 10 pounds of sugar per person, per year in 1800 to 152 pounds of sugar (and 146 pounds of flour) per person, per year today. Think about it: On average we eat about one pound of sugar every day!
Those sugar-loaded foods literally become drugs: Doses of sugar and flour that hijack our metabolism and make us fat and sick.
Many patients tell me once they dive into a box of chips or cookies, they literally can’t stop eating. Have you ever wondered why you would devour a box of cookies but you wouldn’t binge on wild salmon?
The reason isn’t because you lack self-discipline or are weak-willed. You are not emotionally weak or lazy. You are biologically addicted to sugar, and willpower doesn’t work here.
The good news is that I have something that does work. But let’s take a quick look at what created that addiction.
The Science of Sugar Addiction
A powerful study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition proves that higher-sugar, higher-glycemic foods are addictive in the same way as cocaine and heroin.
Dr. David Ludwig and his colleagues at Harvard proved that foods with more sugar — those that raise blood sugar quickly or have what is called a high-glycemic index — trigger a special region in the brain called the nucleus accumbens. This is your brain’s pleasure center that, when activated, makes you feel good and drives you to seek out more of that feeling. This area becomes ground zero for conventional addictions such as gambling and drug abuse.
The study ultimately proved two things:
- – Your body responds quite differently to different calories, even if the protein, fat, carbs, and taste are exactly the same.
- – Foods that spike blood sugar are biologically addictive.
That addiction triggers a vicious cycle of hunger and cravings that sets the stage for diabesity and other chronic diseases.
Constantly eating sugary foods causes a spike in your blood sugar, which in turn, activates your brain’s pleasure center. This triggers more cravings, and drives you to seek out more and more of the substance that gives you a “high.”
You become powerless against your brain’s hardwired response to seek out pleasure. No wonder you feel trapped!
We are programmed genetically to crave sugar and refined carbs.
Why Your Junk Food Addiction Isn’t Your Fault
How long can you hold your breath underwater?
That might seem like a strange question concerning sugar addiction, but if I tell you to use your willpower to hold your breath for 15 minutes and that I will give you a million dollars if you do, there is still no way you can do this.
Sure, you might try, but you would fail. That’s because we are programmed for certain needs like air, water, food, and sleep.
These things are essential to our survival. If you are addicted to sugar and I tell you to resist giving in to your cravings by using willpower, I might as well tell you to hold your breath for 15 minutes. It simply won’t work.
Nobody wants to be overweight or suffer the emotional or physical consequences of diabetes or obesity. But willpower simply isn’t enough to overcome the cravings for chips, cookies, soda, and more.
We’re up against powerful biochemical mechanisms created by food addiction. Willpower becomes useless when industrial junk food and sugar are in charge of your brain chemistry.
Fake foods we’ve been introduced to in the 20th century – many of which contain high-fructose corn syrup and other added sugars – have hijacked our brains, our hormones, and our metabolism.
These Frankenfoods have literally created a vicious cycle of hunger and cravings.
There is no such thing as junk food. There’s just junk, and there’s food.
I have a simple yet radical proposal: Let’s send the trillion-dollar junk food industry a message and eat real food. That means foods nature created, which don’t come with barcodes, fake ingredients, or an ingredient list at all.
To do that, we need to rewire our brains. A researcher at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) told me the real regulator of our weight and metabolism isn’t our stomach, but our brain chemistry. The right foods send a message to your brain to shut down hunger and cravings so you burn fat and feel great. Sugary, processed foods send the opposite message.
The Right Mind Shift to Fight Cravings
Making the right choices to opt for real, whole, unprocessed foods becomes crucial to ditch the junk food habit, but so do your emotional triggers and emotional health.
Whenever you get a strong desire for a chocolate chip cookie or other junk food, ask yourself two questions:
- – What am I feeling?
- – What do I need?
What we need does not involve stuffing your face, I can assure you of that.
We have a chance today to stop and detox, not only from junk food, but also from junk thoughts. We must de-clutter our bodies and our minds.
Breaking these addictions and rewiring your brain is easier than you might think. It doesn’t take weeks or months. These eight strategies can help:
1.) Eat real food. You need to eat fat and protein for each of your meals. Whole foods carbohydrates like veggies, legumes, nuts and seeds are perfectly healthy. Broccoli is broccoli. Processed, sugary junk foods are not real foods. They set the stage for sugar addiction and all its ugly consequences.
2.) Steady blood sugar levels. Eat a nutritious breakfast with some protein like eggs, protein shakes, or nut butters. Studies repeatedly show that eating a healthy high-protein breakfast helps people maintain weight loss. Also, have smaller meals throughout the day. Eat every three to four hours and have some protein with each snack or meal (lean animal protein, nuts, seeds, beans). Avoid eating three hours before bedtime.
3.) Ditch sugar. Go cold turkey. If you are addicted to narcotics or alcohol you can’t simply just cut down. You have to stop for your brain to reset. You must eliminate refined sugars, sodas, fruit juices, and artificial sweeteners from your diet. These are all drugs that fuel sugar addiction.
4.) Reduce stress. Stress eating and junk food go together. When you’re feeling stressed, you’re more likely to reach for that bag of chocolate chip cookies or whatever your vice might be. Learn to address the root cause of your stress and address it with something like deep breathing. My UltraCalm CD becomes a great way to melt away stress and anxiety and beat your junk food addiction.
5.) Exercise smartly. The next time you get a hankering for something sweet, walk it off… Literally! Besides creating a healthy distraction to avoid nose-diving into a pint of butter pecan ice cream, exercise tapers cravings and raises feel-good endorphin levels. Whether you’re a newbie or a seasoned athlete, you can find an easy-to-implement exercise plan here.
6.) Determine whether food sensitivities could be causing your cravings. We often crave the very foods that we have a hidden allergy to, including gluten dairy, and sugar.
7.) Sleep well. Ever notice you’re hungrier for something sugary after a terrible night’s sleep? Studies show lack of sleep increases cravings. To get eight hours of solid sleep every night, check out these 19 tips here.
8.) Implement crave-cutting supplements. These include vitamin D and omega-3s. Also consider taking natural supplements for cravings control. Glutamine, tyrosine, and 5-HTP are amino acids that help reduce cravings. Stress-reducing herbs such as Rhodiola rosea can also help. Chromium balances blood sugar and can help take the edge off cravings. Glucomannan fiber is very helpful to reduce the spikes in sugar and insulin that drive cravings and hunger.
Mark Hyman, MD is the Director of the Cleveland Clinic Center for Functional Medicine, chairman of the Institute for Functional Medicine, and founder and medical director of The UltraWellness Center. He is the #1 New York Times bestselling author of The Blood Sugar Solution 10-Day Detox Diet, The 10-Day Detox Cookbook, The Blood Sugar Solution, The Blood Sugar Solution Cookbook, UltraMetabolism, The UltraMind Solution, and The Ultrasimple Diet, and coauthor of The Daniel Plan.