The phrase "addictive white powder" probably makes you think of illegal drugs. Add sugar to that addictive group. Americans consume vast quantities-and suffer withdrawal symptoms when they don't get it. In fact, animal studies indicate that sugar is more addictive than cocaine.

Excess sugar has been linked to obesity, cancer, diabetes and dementia. What to do...

Sugar, sugar everywhere

In the US, the average person consumes about 142 pounds of sugar each year, the equivalent of 48 teaspoons a day. Of that amount, 74 pounds is "added" sugar-about 23 teaspoons every day. Added sugars are defined as those sugars added to foods and beverages during processing or home preparation as opposed to sugars that occur naturally.

People who want to cut back on sweeteners usually start with the sugar bowl. They spoon less sugar on their breakfast cereal, for example, or use a sugar substitute in their coffee.

This doesn't help very much. The vast majority of added sugar in the diet comes from packaged foods, including foods that we think are healthful.

For example, eight ounces of one brand of sweetened apple yogurt contains 44 grams of sugar, according to the nutrition facts label. Four grams equals one teaspoon, so that's 11 teaspoons of sugar. (You cannot tell from the label how much sugar is from the yogurt, how much is from the apples and how much is added sugar.)

Most of the added sugar that we consume comes from regular soft drinks (there are about 10 teaspoons of sugar in 12 ounces of nondiet soda), candy, pies, cookies, cakes, fruit drinks and milk-based desserts and products (ice cream, sweetened yogurt).

If you look carefully at ingredients labels, which list ingredients in order of quantity, you will see that the first two or three ingredients often are forms of sugar, but many have innocuous-sounding names, such as barley malt, galactose and agave nectar. Other forms of sugar include honey, maple syrup, corn syrup, corn sweetener, dextrine, rice syrup, glucose, sucrose and dextrose.

Dangerous imbalance

The difference between sickness and health lies in the body's ability to maintain homeostasis, the proper balance and performance of all of the internal functions. Excess sugar disturbs this balance by impairing immunity, disrupting the production and release of hormones and creating an acidic internal environment.

It's not healthy to maintain a highly acidic state. The body tries to offset this by making itself more alkaline. It does this, in part, by removing calcium and other minerals from the bones.

Result: People who eat too much sugar experience disruptions in insulin and other hormones. They have an elevated risk for osteoporosis due to calcium depletion. They also tend to have elevated levels of cholesterol and triglycerides (blood fats), which increase the risk for heart disease.

Break the cycle

Sugar, like drugs and alcohol, is addictive because it briefly elevates levels of serotonin, a neurotransmitter that produces positive feelings. When a sugar addict doesn't eat sugar, serotonin declines to low levels. This makes the person feel worse than before. He/she then eats more sugar to try to feel better-and the vicious cycle goes on.

For the best chance of breaking a sugar addiction, you need to ease out of it. This usually is more effective than going cold turkey. Once you've given up sugar entirely and the addiction is past, you'll be able to enjoy small amounts of sugar if you choose, although some people find that they lose their taste for it. How to break the habit...

Divide sugar from all sources in half. Do this for one week.

Examples: If you've been drinking two soft drinks a day, cut back to one. Eat half as much dessert. Eat a breakfast cereal that has only half as much sugar as your usual brand, or mix a low-sugar brand in with your higher sugar brand.

Limit yourself to one sweet bite. The second week, allow yourself to have only one taste of only one very sweet food daily. This might be ice cream, sweetened cereal or a breakfast muffin. That small "hit" of sugar will prevent serotonin from dropping too low, too fast.

After about two weeks with little or no sugar, your internal chemistry, including levels of serotonin and other neurotransmitters, will stabilize at a healthier level.

Eat fresh fruits and vegetables. These foods help restore the body's natural acid alkaline balance. This will help reduce sugar cravings and promote better digestion. Be sure to substitute fresh fruits for juices. Whole fruit is better because the fiber slows the absorption of sugars into the bloodstream. The fiber also is filling, which is why few people will sit down and eat four oranges-the number you would need to squeeze to get one eight-ounce glass of juice.

Helpful: All fruits are healthful, but melons and berries have less sugar than other fruits.

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