Using mindfulness to kick my sugar habit

Dr. Jen Kerns

Dr. Jen Kerns

I’m on day 6 of no sugar. I want to eat all the time. Previously (in 2019) I had been in a decent rhythm of time restricted eating (skipping breakfast and waiting until lunch to eat), but this week with the sugar withdrawal it feels more urgent and I’ve been eating a lot of healthy food (overeating healthy food) as my brain and body try to adjust.

I’ve been incorporating mindfulness over the past 2 months in order to help me effect change in my eating habit loops, because until this year I have managed my weight by white knuckling — forcing myself to adhere to a food plan and then periodically giving in and indulging my sweet tooth before resisting again. But this way of dealing with food has left me feeling like I am still addicted to sugar (as I confessed last week), and has not helped me to decondition my brain — a brain that has had 40+ years of repeated strengthening of this basic habit loop: feel a feeling or urge (trigger), eat sugary treats (behavior), numb the bad feeling or bolster the good one (reward)… repeat. I want more than anything to break this habit loop. To decondition my brain from expecting a sugary reward every time I feel something, every time a certain time of day arises. But how?

In order to decondition yourself from automatic behaviors/habits, you have to first NOTICE the behaviors, and notice the rewards (or results) of those behaviors: what did you get from it? It’s harder to decondition a rewarding habit or addiction (one that lights up the reward centers in the brain) if you haven’t started paying attention to the negative results you’re getting from that habit in addition to the immediate rewards. You have to start really feeling disenchanted with your results at a gut level to truly want to change. How many times have you told yourself you needed to lose weight on an intellectual level, but not really felt truly committed? This intellectual wanting leads to a temporary change in behavior through forcing it, and an inevitable backslide back into the behavior of overeating. Wanting something is not the same as committing to something. So, in order to really build commitment, it helps to start paying attention to the negative consequences of the actions you are trying to change. Even before you actually try to make the change, first just notice what result you are getting from engaging in the behavior. So for example, if you want to stop drinking, first you start paying attention to how you behave in ways you wish you hadn’t when you’ve been drinking, how crappy your body feels after you drink too much, how it affects your sleep negatively, how it gives you heartburn, and how lethargic, dehydrated and headachey you feel the following day. Noticing all of those effects and feelings can help really make you want to stop drinking on a gut level. This builds disenchantment with what you had previously felt was rewarding. Giving in to your cravings when you are in the early stages of change doesn’t mean you are a failure — it means you are learning, and giving in to urges can be an amazing teacher when you are open minded and aware.

For me, you must know by now that my substance of choice is sugar. Previously I had always felt somewhat out of control when I let myself eat it, but I had never really paid attention to its effects — to how I felt physically or emotionally — during or after eating a big pile of sweets. Instead, I just felt an urge to eat sweets, often urgently, and did it out of habit. Now that I am using mindfulness to help me kick my habit, I am much more aware of what sugar is giving me. Last week when I was binging on sugar, I paid attention to how I felt. And it was really eye-opening. After feeling an urge and deciding to eat sweets, I felt a surge of excitement and happiness. Good ole’ dopamine exploding in my brain in anticipation of the reward. Buying the sweets was like visiting Disney World. The first few bites were amazing. An explosion of deliciousness in my mouth and happiness in my head. Then, interestingly, I just wolfed down the rest of it rapidly and mindlessly, as if I was afraid I’d catch myself. (Quick! Eat it all before she changes her mind!) It was fascinating. After the first few delicious mindful bites (which probably amounted to 200 or 300 calories), the remaining 2000 or so calories was just numbing. I noticed that my reward after that initial exciting dopamine surge was an escape into mindlessness, a peaceful calm feeling. But soon thereafter I felt physically hot, and felt my heart pounding out of my chest- the relatively immediate effects of the excess sugar. Then the delayed effects. My low back, which has been bad for 2 years (a herniated disc and degenerative disease) was screaming. I’d had problems with very mild pain before, but never this significant (it made it hard for me to even sleep). And I realized the only thing different in my life was that I’d been binging on sweets. It turns out that sugar increases inflammation and might affect things like joint pain. Additionally, my sleep quality was total crap. I was running unusually hot at night and was super restless, tossing and turning. Oh, and I felt terribly listless and fatigued all weekend – like a lethargy monster had gotten hold of me and all I wanted to do was lie around and watch TV. Totally unlike my usual busy self. So I was consciously aware that I’d gained 5 pounds, my back hurt, I felt lethargic and just completely crappy, and the only thing that could explain all of those horrible feelings in my body and spirit was sugar. How had I never connected these things before?!

I am now, as I mentioned, on day 6 of no sugar. I have the urge to eat constantly, but my back feels back to baseline, I don’t feel hot all the time, I’ve had no pounding heartbeat, I am sleeping more soundly again, and my energy level feels back to normal. Sure, I’m tired toward the end of the day, but I don’t feel like a blobby Jabba the Hutt anymore. There hasn’t been a magical transformation — I don’t suddenly feel peace around food — but I sure do feel better than I did. I am committed to staying off sugar for the long haul, a minimum of 6 weeks and maybe indefinitely. In the meantime, I am working on getting through the first few weeks of sugar withdrawal and letting myself overeat healthy food as I adjust, even when I am not physically hungry. I’m being kind to myself an accepting that I want to eat a lot right now as part of the process. Paying attention as much as possible along the way. Practicing feeling the feelings, feeling the urges, and curiously noticing how they feel in my body. Allowing them to be there with an open mind and heart, rather than contracting into myself and resisting them or distracting myself away from them. Noticing they don’t kill me. Noticing. Deconditioning. Mindfully.

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