Commentary: Craving another cup of your bubble tea? You may be addicted to sugar
To test if you have a sugar addiction, try abstaining from it for a couple of weeks and see if you start to crave for it, says health coach Justin Wee.
Be truthful - during the festive season, how many servings of cake and how much candy and chocolate did you allow yourself to indulge in?
Just like any addiction, bingeing, withdrawal, cravings, and cross-sensitisation may be present with sugar addiction. To test if you have a sugar addiction, try abstaining from it for a couple of weeks and see if you start to crave for it. If you do, perhaps you have a sugar addiction.
WHY IS SUGAR ADDICTION DANGEROUS?
We get it. It’s hard to avoid sugar. It’s in every convenience shop, at every checkout aisle and on every menu.
Singapore, too, seems to have an obsession with bubble tea that has withstood the test of time, prevailing and even intensifying during the COVID-19 pandemic (remember the snaking queues for bubble tea before the lockdown?)
There are more than 60 brands of bubble tea in Singapore. You can easily find an outlet within walking distances of most MRT stations and bus terminals, making ignoring this easily available sweetened beverage difficult. In a neighbourhood like Toa Payoh, there are 18 bubble tea shops and compared to only five gyms.
Although the occasional sweet beverage may not necessarily be harmful to someone who does not overindulge regularly, research shows strong association between fructose-containing sugars and cardiometabolic risk including weight gain, cardiovascular diseases and diabetes.
Whenever there is excess sugar in the blood, insulin released from the pancreas spikes to convert the excess sugar to glycogen which is stored in the liver. The liver can only store a finite amount of glycogen and the excess gets converted to fat which may lead to fatty liver syndrome.
The other danger is tooth decay, which is caused by sugar feeding bacteria that leaves acid as a by-product, eroding our enamel.
Its highly addictive nature coupled with its ease of availability makes drinking sweet beverages regularly dangerous to your health.
In line with this, pre-packaged beverages such as soft drinks, juices and milk were required from Dec 30, 2022 to carry new Nutri-Grade labels. The four-level grading system is based on the sugar and saturated fat content in the beverages.
Food and beverage outlets will also be required by the end of 2023 to include nutrition labels on their menus for freshly prepared drinks that are higher in sugar, fat content.
If you feel that you may have a sugar addiction, here are some ways to cut back:
GOING COLD TURKEY
This is a common way to break any addiction. Total abstinence of sweetened beverages may be too extreme and challenging for some but may work for others.
For those who wish to do so, having an accountability partner may increase your chance of success. Keep it fun by turning it into a 30-day challenge and invite your friends to join in so you can be accountable to each other.
The first two weeks are the toughest, but it does get easier. At the end of the month, celebrate with the knowledge that you have successfully overcome a huge ordeal instead of celebrating with a litre of soft drinks or extra-large bubble tea.
When the cravings disappear and you don’t need to use all your will power to resist a sweet cup of iced lemon tea after lunch, that is when you know you have truly succeeded.
This method is not for everyone, and some people may fail. In addition, cross-sensitisation may occur. It is a phenomenon whereby abstinence from an addictive substance causes you to indulge in other addictive activities. It can potentially be counterproductive if such activities encourage negative health behaviours - for instance, if abstaining from your post-lunch “teh si” causes you to consume a sweet dessert instead or causes you to consume more alcohol.
For those who choose the cold turkey method, be sure that you do not replace sugar with other potentially dangerous health behaviours or choose one of the other suggestions below.
CUT EVERYTHING BY HALF
As the title suggests, this method aims to increase your chance of success by reducing the difficulty level of the cold turkey method by half. By doing this, there is a more gradual weaning off of your sweet beverage.
There are a couple ways to go about this. First, you may keep to the same frequency of consumption while cutting sugar level by 50 per cent. If you usually order 100 per cent of sugar level, make it a point now to ask for only 50 per cent. If you usually order 50 per cent, cut to 25 per cent. You get the drift.
The other way is to cut your frequency of consuming sweet beverages by half. For example, allow yourself to only buy sweet drinks on odd days, leaving even days for abstinence. Once you can do that successfully, cut down that frequency by half again and continue.
Temperature also plays a role in our taste. Research has shown that the optimal temperature for taste sensitivity is between 20 and 30 degrees Celsius. By avoiding beverages that are neither too hot nor too cold, our taste buds get more sensitive, and we would require less sugar.
The cutting everything by half method also requires half the willpower for starting, hence making it less intimidating and more achievable. Each time success is attained, your body gets a release of dopamine that would encourage that behaviour and increase motivation.
FIND A REPLACEMENT
A randomised controlled trial in 2020 found that stevia consumption did not increase blood sugar levels, concluding that it can be a safe alternative to sugar in diabetic patients.
If you need to have that sweet taste in your mouth and do not wish to use to go cold turkey or cut everything in half, then stevia may be for you.
Alternatively, you may replace sweetened drinks with water infused with fruits, herbs or vegetables which adds flavour to water making it more appealing and palatable.
Infused water contains zero calories, making it an ideal sweet drink replacement. We tend to drink more when thirsty. Hence, it's better to quench our thirst with water and perhaps the urge to consume a sweet drink would reduce. It is also important that we keep hydrated during the day with unsweetened beverages to reduce the thirst response.
MAKE THINGS DIFFICULT FOR YOURSELF
When it is easy to perform a certain behaviour, we are more likely to do it. For instance, if there is a huge supply of soft drinks chilled in the refrigerator, it doesn't take too much effort to walk to the fridge, open the can and consume.
Conversely, if the drinks were stored in the storeroom, buried under piles of boxes and toilet paper, you would first have to remove the obstacles, grab the canned drinks, chill it in the fridge for a couple of hours then drink it. The inconvenience may be off-putting enough to stop the addiction.
DEAL WITH THE DEMONS IN YOUR LIFE
Every addiction springs from something much deeper. The bliss and satisfaction derived from addictive behaviours temporarily distract us from reality and take us to a happy place.
We may use a sweet beverage to seek comfort from work stress or to sweeten a bitter life. Sweet drinks may also provide respite from emotional pain.
Dealing with the source would require dealing with some of the demons in our lives and at times professional help like a counsellor or a psychologist is required. Dealing with the source may be the most uncomfortable and difficult, but it would bring the greatest success in overcoming your sweet beverage addiction.
Justin Wee is a health coach at The Next Step Health Coaching and principal physiotherapist at Specialist Rehab Clinic Orchard.