How to Crack Your Sugar Addiction

Find out how to change what you crave for a healthier life.

broken lolipop
Adam Voorhes for Reader’s Digest

Imagine making a nearly life-size sculpture of yourself out of sugar cubes and consuming it over the next 365 days. That’s essentially what many of us are doing. The typical American eats an average of 128 pounds of added sugars each year, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. And it affects our bodies on every level.

People who got between 10 and 25 percent of their calories from added sugar were almost three times more likely to die of heart problems than those who consumed less than 10 percent of their calories from sugar, researchers reported earlier this year in a major medical journal. The stats held up even after they accounted for overall diet quality; in other words, sugar may harm your health even if you’re thin and eating reasonably. Previous studies have found links between sugar intake and higher levels of triglycerides and LDL cholesterol and lower levels of HDL cholesterol. Excess sugar is also associated with inflammatory chemicals that raise heart disease risk.

Countless other studies link our sky-high sugar intake to obesity, type 2 diabetes, and even certain cancers. Sugar interferes with your brain’s satiety signals, which is a fancy way of saying that normally, your brain would tell you that you’re full, but you can’t hear it over the sugar buzz, so you keep stuffing yourself. Excess sugar hinders fat-burning enzymes, encouraging fat storage.

Worst of all, even if you know the health consequences, you may still find it hard to stop eating sugar. That’s because sugar can be addictive. When rats eat sugar, their brains flood with dopamine, the same chemical released during gambling and cocaine use. As the rats eat more sugar, their brains’ reward systems adjust, so the animals need more food to get the same effects.

Human brains appear similarly vulnerable. Last year, a paper in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that high-sugar chocolate milk shakes lit up the reward centers of participants’ brains more effectively than milk shakes that were calorically identical but higher in fat and lower in the sweet stuff. This sugar-stoked reward system can drive compulsive eating, the researchers believe. 

A Sweet Solution

As scientific studies and media headlines scream about the dangers of sugar, public health experts urge people to cut back. In March, new World Health Organization (WHO) guidelines proposed that people consume less than 5 percent of their daily calories from added sugar — that’s about six teaspoons a day, or about the amount in one 8-ounce bottle of sweetened lemon iced tea. The average American consumes almost quadruple the WHO recommendation — 22 teaspoons of added sugar a day.

But sugar-proofing your diet is tricky. Sugar has infiltrated so much of our modern food supply that you’ll find it where you would never think to look, including healthy cereal, savory salad dressing, and yogurt. Lurking on the ingredients lists of processed foods are more than 50 different names for sugar, from fruit juice concentrate to maltodextrin to rice syrup.

To make a permanent change, you need to understand what’s really in your food—and what to eat instead.

Working at the forefront of this effort for more than 30 years is nutrition and fitness expert High Voltage (aka Kathie Dolgin), who recently appeared in Fed Up, the Katie Couric– and Laurie David–produced documentary about the nation’s sugar crisis. Decades ago, she beat her own food addictions by eliminating excess sugar, white flour, and salt from her diet, then developed a plan called Energy Up, which she took to girls at New York City high schools. When Columbia University Medical Center studied the program, researchers found that over nine months, more than half of students lost weight and obese girls shed an average of 13 pounds.

This year, High Voltage teamed up with Reader’s Digest to adapt the program for people of all ages, then asked 15 women with various food and health issues to try it. In six weeks on our Sugar Savvy Solution plan, the women cut sugar cravings and lost almost 168 pounds — and gained energy and confidence. Many saw lower blood pressure, blood sugar, and triglycerides.

“My taste buds have changed. I want healthy foods instead of junk,” says test panelist Megan Johnston, 22, who lost 13 pounds in six weeks. Patricia Nolan, 47, who shed 16 pounds, rediscovered a love of fresh fruits and vegetables. Before Sugar Savvy, Cheryl Lee, 50, was a self-described “carb junkie” who would eat cookies and cake all night. Now she’s strong enough to resist when her daughter wants to order fried chicken and biscuits or other junky fare.

Sugar Savvy Solution is not a diet; it’s an effort to change how you think about food. “I have one very simple motto,” says High Voltage. “Eat what you want, but Sugar Savvy Solution will change what you want.”

QUIZ: Are you a sugar addict?

Answer yes or no to the following:
1. If you reach for one cookie or chip, is the bag empty before you know it?

2. Can you skip dessert but empty the bread basket — and the pasta platter?

3. Can you control your food intake during meals but lose it when you start to snack, especially on chips and crackers?

4. When you want to lose weight, is it easier to skip meals altogether rather than just eat smaller ones?

5. Are you tired all the time? Are there things you’d love to do but just don’t have the energy for?

6. Once you’ve had “just a taste” of bread, bagels, muffins, crackers, pasta, or rice, do you go back for a second (or third) helping?

7. Do you spend the day on a roller coaster of snacking highs and lows, hitting the doughnuts in the morning, the vending machine chips or candy in the afternoon, and the ice cream at night?

8. Do you eat healthy around other people but lose it when you’re alone?

• If you answered yes to two or more odd-numbered questions, your food addiction likely lies with sweets or salty snacks—cookies, chips, cakes—that have been carefully engineered by food scientists to keep you eating and eating and eating.

• If you answered yes to two or more even-numbered questions, you are highly susceptible to the addictive powers of white flour (which acts like a sugar during digestion).

• If you answered yes to two or more odd- and even-numbered questions (at least four total questions), you are highly susceptible to food addiction, period.

Next: How to stamp out sugar »

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