To understand why we’re all sugar-junkies let’s look at how sugar affects the brain and why you might experience sugar withdrawals when you go keto. The human brain is ‘hard-wired’ to get very excited about sugar! In the not so distant past food shortages and famine were a common problem. So we developed survival mechanism to make us love sweet tasting, energy-dense foods. But, nowadays it is food excess that’s causing us trouble. Our love of sugar is actually addiction. That’s why some people experience sugar withdrawal symptoms when they go cold turkey.
Our bodies have THREE key survival mechanisms involving sweet-tasting foods. Firstly, we enjoy it. That’s because sweet-tastes stimulate a cocktail of ‘feel-good’ chemicals in the brain. Sweetness stimulates reward mechanisms creating a natural high which temporarily boosts our mood. The mechanisms controlling this reward are very similar to ones for drug and alcohol addiction. So, like other drugs sugar withdrawal will affect individuals physically and mentally.
The second survival mechanism is appetite. Our appetite is increased when we eat sweet foods. This helped our ancestors eat as many precious calories as possible. In case next week there was no tasty sweet foods to be found!
The third survival mechanism is fat storage. When we eat insulin stimulating sugary foods fat storage is increased. In the past this ensured any spare calories were kept safe until they were needed. These mechanisms worked out great for our ancestors. But, modern highly refined sugars and super-sweet foods are like crack-cocaine to our brains. The survival pathways simply cannot cope with the super-stimulation. Refined and processed sugars act like a potent drug in the brain - making it go crazy.
We experience sugar withdrawal symptoms when our ‘drug’ is taken away. Some people who are heavy sugar addicts have more keto flu symptoms. There are actually changes to receptors in the brain when you eat a lot of refined sugars. This means, like a heroin user, you gradually need more to get ‘high’. Physically, sugar is much more addictive than many street drugs, which is why it is so unfair that it’s ‘slipped’ into so many foods.
If you are used to eating a lot of sugar, you may find that your first few weeks on keto are like a drug-detox. You might be thinking about your favorite sugary treats frequently. Your addicted brain will try and ‘persuade’ you to give in to temptation - just like an addict. But, stay strong and stay keto! This is the sugar withdrawal impacting your usually rational thought processes. There will be a period of adjustment as your brain ‘re-sensitizes’ itself. Sugar withdrawals will last anywhere from a few days to a few weeks, depending on how addicted you were.
Gradually, you will come down from the sugary high and sweet foods will become less tempting. Fortunately, your taste buds quickly adapt to sugar-free keto foods. You will appreciate more subtle sweetness, like blueberries. After a few weeks you will feel much more relaxed and less anxious around food generally. Many people experience a sense of calmness around food they never thought possible.
That’s the magic of keto! Once the sugar withdrawal has subsided you will feel more in control and cravings will subside.
However, we still experience pleasure from sweet tastes, that doesn’t change. But, you will be able to satisfy that pleasure-seeking instinct without getting high. You will be able to moderate your desires, and not go crazy. For many people with a history of overeating, keto gives them a brand new relationship with food, one in which THEY have control, not the food.
Sadly, sugar is a complex and profitable addictive substance routinely added to your food! So, to keep yourself keto safe you need to understand what sugar is, that way you can confidently avoid it. Sugar is really a collection of different chemicals which the body can use to create energy. What we typically call ‘sugar’, white granulated table sugar, is actually sucrose. This sugar is made by plants, such as sugar-cane, which is harvested and purified. It is a DIsaccharide meaning it is made from two carbohydrate units. This is not a sugar you will be eating on keto, as it’s pure carbs!
Another sugar you might be familiar with is glucose. When doctors measure your blood sugar levels this is what they are looking at. It’s a MONOsaccharide – which is a single unit of carbohydrate. This is another sugar you don’t need to eat on keto. Your body does need a tiny bit of it though. But it will very cleverly, and easily, make it all by itself from either protein or fat. You do NOT need to eat glucose on keto, that’s a keto myth that’s been busted!
Did you notice how both sugars end in ‘ose’ this is a clue on labels if the name ends in ‘ose’ it’s a sugar for sure! Monosaccharides are simple sugars – a single unit of carbohydrate. This includes glucose (also called dextrose); fructose and galactose. All of them are keto UN-friendly and to be totally avoided. The single sugars can be joined together In pairs they form DIsaccharides. Sucrose, lactose (the natural sugar in milk) and maltose (found in malt) are naturally occurring disaccharides.
But they can also be made into long chains, a bit like stringing together beads. This makes complex sugars like starch. Starch is found in potatoes and other root vegetables. Plants store spare energy as starch, much like we store spare energy as fat. Starch, from root vegetables and grains, like wheat, is also pretty much off the keto menu.
But there are some special extra-long chains of carbohydrates which make a unique type of sugar which you can eat on keto, which we explore in our keto friendly sugars article