Breaking your sugar addiction – Part 5

When I decided sugar was no longer going to be part of my life, I went cold turkey on it.  Well, actually I didn’t.  I did indeed stop eating (and more particularly in my case, drinking) sugar, but I couldn’t bring myself to pay good money for a bottle of water instead of my traditional Pepsi (or 6) a day.

I switched to Pepsi Max because it was the one that tasted (to me) the most like sugar.  I didn’t make this decision based on science.  I couldn’t find any that conclusively proved that sugar was addictive (this was 2004) let alone that substituting sucralose (the active ingredient in Pepsi Max) was any less addictive. 

I just knew that I had to stop drinking sugar but that I just couldn’t get out of the habit of wanting a sweet drink, so Pepsi Max it was.

What I found was that swigging the Pepsi Max was only partially satisfying.  It did nothing for how dreadful I was feeling – I was in the depths of sugar withdrawal and had the whole works -headaches, hunger and cravings.  But what it did do was satisfy the habit part of my addiction.  I was in the habit of having a sweet drink whenever I spotted a vending machine or when relaxing on a hot day.  The ‘Max took care of the habit part of things. 

I could still have my sweet drink as per my habit.  It was nowhere near as satisfying, but it was enough to get me through withdrawal.  The habit kept going, but it didn’t make me consume fructose.  After the withdrawal period ended, the habit itself slowly died.  The ‘Max started tasting more and more metallic as my previously fructose-blasted taste buds returned to working order.  After about two months, I just switched to water when I was thirsty.  And by then, the water was actually more refreshing than the (by then) strange tasting ‘Max.

So for me at least, I didn’t trade one addiction for another.  The substitute was not addictive, despite what some particularly excitable websites maintained.  But gee, it would have been nice to have some science to point to before suggesting my experiment was able to be generalised. 

A great little experiment would be to get a group of people and remove their tongues (so you could be certain it wasn’t the sweet taste that was stimulating the dopamine response).  Then give them unlimited access to solutions which were either sugar or sucralose based and note if they developed a preference for either (while measuring the dopamine levels).

Well the good news is that some researchers at Duke University in North Carolina have done just that.  Ok they chickened out on the tongue removing thing and preferred mice over men, but they did manage to obtain a breed of mice that were genetically unable to taste anything.  And guess what – they did in fact develop an addiction to the sugar solution but not the sucralose solution, even though (to them), they both tasted like water.

For me this study confirms that you can safely substitute (at least one) artificial sweetener(s) for sugar to help overcome habit driven access to sugar (see Part 4).  Reassuringly, this backs up my own experience.  But with the good news comes a caution.  Not all artificial sweeteners are created equal.  

Some of them follow exactly the same metabolic pathways as fructose and are therefore likely to be just as addictive.  Some may not be addictive but do damage in other ways.  In fact I can’t rule any out of the ones in this category altogether but there are some which I can definitely say should be avoided.

To help navigate the minefield, I’ve prepared some lists (as always, these are qualified by the weasel words to the effect that this is what I think the science supports at the moment, but it may be subject to new news):

Not addictive and not damaging (but also not sweet until you have broken your addiction):

  • Dextrose
  • Glucose

Probably not addictive but possibly damaging in other ways (your best bet for substitution to break habits if glucose tastes bland to you):

  • Acesulphame potassium (#950)
  • Alitame (#956)
  • Aspartame (#951)
  • Aspartame-acesuphame (#962)
  • Cyclamates (#952)
  • Erythritol (#968)
  • Neotame (#961)
  • Saccharin (#954)
  • Stevia (#960)
  • Sucralose (#955)
  • Thaumatin (#957)
  • Xylitol (#967)

Probably not addictive but definitely damaging in other ways (see post on inulins):

  • Inulin
  • Litesse
  • Maltodextrin
  • Maltodextrose
  • Polydextrose
  • Wheat dextrin

Likely to be just as addictive as sugar (and therefore to be completely avoided):

  • Agave Syrup
  • Corn Syrup
  • Fructose
  • Fruit Juice Extract
  • Fruit Sugar
  • Golden Syrup
  • High Fructose Corn Syrup
  • Honey
  • Isomalt (#953)
  • Lactitol (#966)
  • Maltitol (#965)
  • Mannitol (#421)
  • Maple Syrup
  • Molasses
  • Sorbitol (#420)
  • And, of course, Sucrose

Next Week – How to start withdrawal.

Join the discussion 8 Comments

  • Karyn says:

    Stevia is a plant and actually has health benefits – as long as you are using stevia without anything added.

  • kayoz says:

    Hi David,
    I’ve just found your blog via a twitter retweet…

    I’m curious about your sugar substitures – particularly glucose, since you recommend it as good-good – can you use it as a substitute for sugar in baking – in, say, muffins? that sort of thing? I have used Xylitol this way, but it is very expensive (and not in your perfectly safe list).

    I try to bake healthy food for my kids (eg for school morning teas), but I do use some sugar…

  • kayoz says:

    Also, what about eating fresh fruit? Is that feeding the fructose addiction?

  • Mally says:

    Read Sweet Poison – trying hard to do without fructose (I love fruit but will try limit) xylitol touted as wonderful but as you say so is sugar – do you have comments on xylitol

  • aris says:

    I am also in the process of breaking the addiction. I found stevia particularly well suited. While it satisfied my sweetness craving, I was over wanting sugar and then stevia within a week and a half. Then, another week down the track, my desire to drink coffee went. Quite happy with it all.

    BTW I would suggest that you revise and remove stevia from the “damaging” list. The EU approved it as a food additive recently and it is totally natural.

    Also note that glucose and dextrine are the same thing and that sugar is 50-50 glucose-fructose.

    Ah! Stevia has zero GI too!

    OK. All that.

  • Melanie says:

    Wow, what’s wrong with maltodextrin? I thought it was just long-chain glucose molecules? I have a friend with chronic fatigue who doesnt eat sugar but uses maltodextrin to level out his blood sugar…he puts it on all his meals. what is it doing to him? :s

  • Chelsea says:

    Um. Why is corn syrup on the addictive list and dextrose isn’t?!?! Both are two glucose molecules from corn sugar. The corn syrup I buy doesn’t have any additives like HFCS so why is it listed as bad here and yet dextrose, chemically the same thing, is listed as ok?

  • David Gillespie says:

    Corn syrup is generally fine – when the list was first put out some US products incorrectly labelled HFCS as corn syrup (and that may still be the case) so it is best to be wary.

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