Sugar – Is the addiction real?

21 Mar 2018, Posted by Colleen Rempel in Coaching, Digestion, Fat Loss, Health, Mental Health, Nutrition



It is not a foreign subject to any of us.


Most of us grew up having desserts for special occasions, like cupcakes for birthdays and soda when going out to eat with friends. The psychological connection between sugar and “comfort” is deeply hard-wired into our emotional makeup and it’s not one that is going to change overnight.


However, the food environment that we live in has changed drastically over the past 20 years, making it extremely easy and convenient to load up on sugary snacks all day long. Now, consuming desserts and foods high in added sugar is no longer a once in a while “treat” but an everyday occurrence.


As the abundance of sugar has increased, the health of Canadians has decreased. Non-communicable diseases such as heart disease, cancer and diabetes account for the largest number of early death rates and over the next 20 years are predicted to cost the global community more than $30 trillion USD (1). It is recognized that unhealthy diets are a major risk factor for these diseases (1). While I am certainly not saying that sugar is the only culprit, it would be prudent to ask, is sugar consumption influencing these changes?


So, today, we are going to talk all about sugar, and ask the questions:

Is sugar actually that bad for our health and wellbeing?

Is it addictive?

Or is it all just a bunch of hype?

Sugar 101


Sugar has been coined as one of the most addictive substances on the planet (2).


In fact, it even activates the same reward center of our brain as cocaine, called the cerebral cortex (2).

Image: PET scans of obese and cocaine-addicted brains. Source: https://mic.com/articles/88015/what-happens-to-your-brain-on-sugar-explained-by-science#.dqSODgQwn

Over activating this region of the brain can lead to loss of control, craving and increased tolerance to sugar (2). And yet, compared to other addictive substances such as alcohol and nicotine, it is not regulated, taxed or controlled in any way in Canada.

Many health care professionals think it should be. For example, many have advocated for a tax on sugar-sweetened beverages (3) In 2014, the World Health Organization (WHO) released a new recommendation that individuals should eat less than 10% of their daily calories from free sugars, less than 5% for added health benefits (4).  


Dr Francesco Branca, Director of WHO’s Department of Nutrition for Health and Development states that: “We have solid evidence that keeping intake of free sugars to less than 10% of total energy intake reduces the risk of overweight, obesity and tooth decay.” (4)


What does the WHO recommendation look like in real life terms?


For an average adult that eats 2000 calories/day, 10% of that is 200 calories or 50g of sugar, while 5% is 100 calorie or 25g (6 tsp) of sugar.

Source: http://bristolmedicalcentre.com/how-much-daily-sugar-intake-is-recommended/


However, the average American consumes 66 pounds of sugar per year or roughly 22 tsp of sugar per day. That is equal to:

  • 88g of sugar
  • 352 calories
  • 18% of a standard 2000 calorie diet

So, if we were to add up the sugar in foods that make up the Standard American Diet (SAD), we would be looking at something like this…

¾ cup Go Lean Cereal = 13g
1 cup Original Silk Almond Milk =7g

AM snack:
6 oz Yoplait Strawberry Yogurt = 26g

Tim’s Ham & Cheese Sandwich = 2g

PM Snack:
Tim’s Large Double Double = 30g
Vector Mixed Nut Granola Bar = 8g
Domino’s Pizza BBQ Wings (8) = 20g
Side Salad with Thousand Island Dressing = 5g

Total Free Sugars = 111g


Where is all of this sugar coming from?


As you can see from the above example, much of the sugars consumed today are “hidden” in processed foods that are not usually seen as sweets. Some other foods you may be surprised by the sugar content include:

  • 1 Bottle of Vitamin Water = 32g
  • 8 oz Stonyfield French Vanilla Yogurt (organic) = 29g
  • ¾ cup Kashi Go Lean Cereal  = 13g
  • 2 Tbsp Kraft Honey BBQ sauce = 13 g
  • 1 Tbsp of ketchup = 4 grams

And let’s not get started on the sugar content of coffee drinks:

  • Double-Double = 30 g
  • Pumpkin Spiced Latte = 50g
  • Mocha Frappuccino = 80 g

Based on this list…how much sugar do you think you consume in one day?


Health Impact of Sugar


Why the recommendation for consuming less than 50g per day? What’s the big deal if you go over that?


What if I’m not overweight and my teeth are healthy?! Well that’s a great start!


However, if you want to improve the performance of your brain and prevent several other chronic diseases, it is extremely important to be mindful of your sugar intake!


Excessive added or free sugars in the diet have been associated with:

  1. Decreased brain performance, especially related to memory (5)
  2. Insulin resistance, which increases sugar cravings and risk of diabetes and obesity (6)
  3. Increased risk of pancreatic cancer, gout and kidney disease (6)
  4. Increases blood pressure and risk of Heart Disease (6)
  5. Main contributor to Non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (6)
  6. Increased risk of mental health problems, such as anxiety and depression (5)

The disease listed above may just seem like just words on a piece of paper, but they significantly decrease your quality of life and your ability to function at your optimal capacity.

So, if you want to have optimal memory, moods, energy and decreased risk of diabetes, pancreatic cancer, gout, kidney disease, high blood pressure and heart attacks, it’s vital to decrease your sugar intake.


What do you think? Is sugar negatively impacting your health?

  • Have you felt any negative effects after having a lot of sugar in one sitting?
  • Do you crave sugar regularly and wish you could stop?
  • The thing is, the more you eat, the more you crave it. Let me explain…


Perpetual sugar addiction

The sugar addiction can be summarized into 4 different main steps:

  1. You eat sugar
  2. Your blood sugar levels spike
  3. Your blood sugar levels fall rapidly
  4. You get hungry and have sugar cravings

Source: http://ahealthyview.com/10-low-sugar-snacks-to-cut-cravings/


How do we break this cycle? Although it’s no really a one-size fits all approach, there are 5 steps that can help anyone break the powerful addiction to sugar.


5 Steps to Break the Sugar Addiction


  • Step 1: Set yourself up for success
  • Step 2: Eat PCF at every meal
  • Step 3: Stop feeding the cycle
  • Step 4: Replace with healthy options
  • Step 5: Boost your feel good hormones!



Step 1 – Set Yourself Up for Success


Let’s be real. If sugar is close by and you get stressed, or sad, or angry, there is a good chance you are going to reach for it. The human brain is also designed to respond to visual clues, so if you keep sugary food close by, the chances you will eat it increases, even if you aren’t feeling particularly emotional.


Bottom line, the more sugar you have around you, the more likely you are to consume it.


So, create an environment that will allow you to succeed. Clean out your desk, pantry and any other place you keep treats. Next, we need to replace these snacks with healthy foods!


Step 2 – Eat PCF at Every Meal


Colleen, what on earth is PCF? It stands for Protein, Carbs, and Fat. Of course, this recommendation is for the general population and not intended to replace any specific dietary protocols you’ve been given. Your meal should look something like this:

Source: www.precisionnutrition.com


In other words, eat a BALANCED meal. This also triggers the release of dopamine in your brain so you aren’t craving something sweet 1-2 hours after your meal.

This is what proper portion sizes of a meal should look like for the average person.

I love this model because you always have your hand with you. No matter where you are eating, you can eyeball if something is the size of your palm, fist or thumb.


Step 3 – Stop Feeding the cycle


Start being mindful of the foods you are eating and reduce the number of foods you eat that contain free sugar. Set a goal for yourself and stick with it!


GOAL (Example): keep free sugars to under 4g/serving in order to stay under 30g/day


How do you do this? Check the labels for these ingredients!


Don’t be fooled by more natural-sounding names either.


Sweeteners like cane juice, beet sugar, fruit juice, rice syrup, and molasses are still types of sugar.


Check out their place in the ingredients, list, too. The higher up an ingredient is on the list, the more of it is included in a product.


Other names for added sugar include:

  • Brown sugar
  • Confectioner’s powdered sugar
  • Corn syrup
  • Corn syrup solids
  • Dextrose
  • Fructose
  • High-fructose corn syrup (HFCS)
  • Invert sugar
  • Lactose
  • Malt syrup
  • Maltose
  • Molasses
  • Nectars ( peach or pear nectar)
  • Raw sugar



Step 4 – Replace with Healthy Alternatives


Please, please, please DON’T replace sugar with artificial sweeteners such as aspartame, sucralose and ACE-K, as they can all actually increase your desire for sugar by preparing your digestive system to receive carbohydrates, and then you don’t eat them.


Some examples of replacements you can make today include:

  • Strawberry yogurt > unsweetened yogurt and add your own fruit
  • Dessert > Fruit or Dark Chocolate
  • Pop > Perrier with lime
  • Coffee with sugar > remove sugar or decrease by half to start
  • Juice > Water


Step 5 – Boost your Feel Good Hormones (without sugar)


As we’ve described above, the foods you eat have a huge impact on your mood and brain function!


Here are 6 ways you can increase your feel-good hormones so you don’t reach for sugar:


  1. PROBIOTICS: Add in those foods that are high in live beneficial gut bacteria, such as kombucha, coconut yogurt, or sauerkraut
  2. PROTEIN: Include protein rich foods at each meal: lentils, chickpeas, hummus, eggs, chicken
  3. SUPPLEMENTS: this is very individual, but almost everyone can benefit from taking Vitamin D
  5. SUNSHINE & Time in Nature (Vitamin G…green)



If you’ve tried to quit sugar on your own, and know you need some extra support and guidance, feel free to reach out, we would be happy to help! At Winnipeg Nutrition, we know that one size doesn’t fit all and customize a plan just for you!  You can contact us at 204-952-7982 or at nutrition.winnipeg@gmail.com.


Cheers to your health!


Colleen Rempel, Certified Holistic Nutritonist




  1. Jacka, F. N. (2016). Global and epidemiological perspectives on diet and mood. The gut-brain axis dietary, probiotic, and prebiotic interventions on the microbiota(pp. 141-158) doi:10.1016/B978-0-12-802304-4.00008-6
  2. Ahmed, S. H., Guillem, K., & Vandaele, Y. (2013). Sugar addiction: pushing the drug-sugar analogy to the limit.Current Opinion in Clinical Nutrition & Metabolic Care16(4), 434-439.
  3. Blaze-Baume, K. (2017). Soft drinks and hard decisions: What Canada is doing amid the global sugar tax debate. The Globe and Mail. Retrieved from: https://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/national/sugar-tax-debate-canada-soda-childhood-obesity/article36591805/
  4. World Health Organization (WHO) (2015). WHO calls on countries to reduce sugar intake among adults and children. Retrieved from: http://www.who.int/mediacentre/news/releases/2015/sugar-guideline/en/
  5. Knüppel, A., Shipley, M. J., Llewellyn, C. H., & Brunner, E. J. (2017). Sugar intake from sweet food and beverages, common mental disorder and depression: Prospective findings from the whitehall II study.Scientific Reports, 7(1) doi:10.1038/s41598-017-05649-7
  6. Dinicolantonio, James J., O&Amp;Apos, & Keefe, James H. (2016). Hypertension Due to Toxic White Crystals in the Diet: Should We Blame Salt or Sugar?Progress in Cardiovascular Diseases, 59(3), 219-225.

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