If your New Year resolution was to be healthier then you could do a lot worse than quitting sugar. Sugar makes us fat, gives us Type II diabetes, hypertension, heart disease, kidney disease, fatty liver disease and makes us more prone to infection, just to name a few of its greatest hits. The only problem is that it is just a wee bit addictive, so quitting is an awful lot easier said than done. Happily, the emerging science of ‘habits’ might be just the ticket we need to eliminate the Sweet Poison from our lives.
We do a lot of things habitually. A habit is a low energy automated thought process. We use them all the time to do repetitive tasks. We use them help us navigate to a place we travel to every day. We use them to catch a ball and we use them to cook our dinner. I am using them now to type this article. I don’t need to know where the keys are. My brain just knows and lets me focus on what I am typing rather than how I am typing it.
Habits are procedures that we have assigned to the ‘auto-pilot’ domain in our brain (the basal ganglia) so we can do some higher order thinking (or watch Netflix) at the same time. It’s as close as the human brain comes to parallel processing. We shove as much of our thinking into Habit subroutines as we can. Our brain is constantly on the lookout for repetitive actions that can be packaged up as a habit because every habit we can create decreases our brain’s energy requirement or increases the amount of thinking we can get done.
Uncertainty creates habits
To record a habit, we need dopamine. Dopamine is generated if the procedure being coded either, requires we make lots of decisions or generates a reward or both. When we learn the route (without navigation) to a new destination we are on high alert because we have high levels of uncertainty about every decision we make – do I turn left before or after the McDonalds? The uncertainty ensures dopamine levels are high and our learning is quickly encoded into a habit routine. This is why manually learned routes are ‘memorable’ but routes ‘learned’ with the assistance of Google Maps are not. Using an app is outsourcing your habit formation routines to the software.
Sugar creates habits
Sometimes the behaviour itself generates the dopamine. Some substances artificially stimulate it, ensuring any behaviour associated with obtaining the substance is efficiently packaged as a habit. Sugar is one of these substances. This is why we develop habits around consuming it.
We go to the same coffee shop every morning and buy the same muffin. We see the same drink machine in the same place each day and automatically buy a Coke. We walk past the sweets bowl on the receptionist’s desk and automatically take one. We relax in front of the telly and automatically reach for ice-cream. We buy a pie and automatically add sauce. These are all habits. They all happen without us really thinking about them at all. And we will do them all over and over again without a moment’s thought – literally.
Just because we don’t think about habits, doesn’t mean we can’t. We can manually override a habit subroutine, but it does require persistent effort. As soon as you aren’t watching you will slip back into the habit subroutine unless you break the habit.
Breaking sugar habits
There are four steps to breaking a habit created by an addictive (dopamine generating) substance:
- Identify the habit
- Remove the sugar from the habit
- Neutralize the craving
- Find support
Identify the Habit
Identifying a habit is a simple as making a list (or preparing a fearless self-inventory as Step 4 of Alcoholic Anonymous puts it). You can do it now. Think about your day today. Now fearlessly list each and every time you consumed something that obviously contained sugar. Your list might look like:
- Ate Sultana Bran for breakfast
- Drank orange juice for breakfast
- Purchased muffin with morning coffee
- Ate birthday cake at afternoon tea in office
- Took handful of jellybeans from co-worker’s lolly jar
- Bought energy drink from vending machine at train station
- Had ice-cream in front of TV after dinner.
Every one of those things is likely to be something you do most of the time. And in each case, you probably barely remember doing it. Indeed, you probably struggled to list them at all and even now you’re not sure you got them all – amiright?
You could progressively eliminate each habit in its entirety but that will be hard going. The science tells us it is easier to change an element of a habit than it is to delete it altogether. Your brain went to a lot of trouble to create these habits and it will not let go of them easily. So, I suggest that the best approach is to remove the sugar containing element but otherwise leave the habit intact.
So, for the first two listed above this means having breakfast as usual but substituting a low or no sugar alternative – say Week-bix instead of Sultana Bran and water, milk or a hot beverage instead of the juice. You are still executing the habit routine; you are just doing it without the dopamine generating sugar.
Nix the Craving
Needless to say, it will not be that easy. Cravings for dopamine generating substances do not just vanish because you changed your breakfast one morning. Repeated dopamine hits cause our brain to temporarily rewire so that we crave more hits. You will need more than a simple substitution plan.
The craving will fade but it can take up to three months and you will need help while it does. Two things will help you get through the withdrawal phase, dopamine hit substitution, and peer reinforcement. Substitution is the strategy used in many drug assisted addiction programs. They substitute methadone for heroin or nicotine patches for cigarettes. The idea is to replace the addictive substance with one that is still potentially addictive but delivers a lower dopamine hit, then lower the dose over time. If you wanted to implement it with sugar, then caffeine could be the way to go. Replace a sugar hit with a coffee (without sugar) in habits that permit it. Substitution can work but, on its own, it is not particularly effective.
A recent review of all popular smoking cessation programs available in the UK found that of the available pharmacological interventions, the most likely to succeed is varenicline, a drug which produces a less powerful dopamine release than nicotine. The next most effective method is a combination of nicotine patch with nicotine gum or spray. With each method, the counselling that goes with it makes a massive difference.
The counselling sessions are based on a variety of theoretical models that have very little in common. It seems the model used does not materially affect the outcome. The important things seem to be the existence and scheduled nature of counselling and whether or not it is in a group setting. Group therapy, being able to talk to other people who have quit or are quitting, triples the effectiveness of all pharmacological treatments. Similarly, the group meetings are likely to be the secret to the success of Alcoholics Anonymous.
The most effective method we know of for breaking addiction is anything involving group therapy. It doesn’t seem to matter what that group therapy entails if there is regular contact with people in the same boat. That contact can be in person or online, but it must be regular. There is something about the group dynamic which makes us want to do what the group values; that is, remaining abstinent. The research shows we can quit on our own but three times as many of us succeed if we can regularly interact with people who are quitting or have quit.
Addiction is not a choice we make. People don’t choose to keep doing something that will kill them. In fact, most don’t want to keep doing it. Most smokers would quit tomorrow if they could. Simply telling yourself that ugly things will happen to you if you keep going with the addictive behaviour or substance has no effect whatsoever. That is just stressful information, and the thing most people are likely to do to relieve stress is turn to their favourite addiction.
The key is to find the sugar hidden in your daily habits, admit it is there, plan for it not to be there and do it all with others who are in the same boat. It might sound like tinkering, but these small changes to cravings driven routines will cumulatively drag you kicking and screaming away from sugar addiction. Suddenly you will be in a place where you, and not an addictive substance, determine what you will eat and the circumstances in which you eat it.