Q - "What do you count as 'sugar'?"
I have a number of strategies that I use to combat the sugar rush/crash that sets off sugar addiction and craving in me (I can't really speak for anyone's body but mine):
1) Fruit -- I only eat 'whole' raw fruits, that is no dried fruit, fruit puree, spreadable fruit, fruit juice, etc. I do this because having the cell walls of the fruit intact and all of the fiber present slows absorption (smaller spike = lesser crash.) I also limit quantities - approximately a 1/2 to 2/3 cup at a go -- and I never eat fruit by itself. I will have a bowl of fruit, yogurt and nuts, for example, because the protein and fat in the yogurt and nuts will slow the absorption of the fruit (again, flatten out the spike/crash.) I control what fruit I buy in the store, and avoid the really high-glycemic fruit such as watermelon and grapes. I tend to get less-sweet fruit such as berries. Reading this I see that it sounds complicated (obsessive?) but I have learned through trial and error what spikes me and what sets off a cycle of cravings/binges. I want the micro-nutrients in fresh fruit but this is the only way I can eat it without setting myself off.
2) Simple carbs hidden in everything -- I learned years ago that to my body, a simple carb is a simple carb. I get almost as triggered by white bread or a bowl of white rice with butter as I do by a spoonful of sugar in a cup of coffee. I have to read the labels on everything now and avoid anything with added starches, sugars, flours, anything that adds simple carbs to a food.
In my opinion, food manufacturers have become both more creative and more insidious about stuffing cheap, addictive carbs into everything! Food fabricators know about the "avoid sugar" strategies of their customers, so several years ago they started putting five or six different sources of starch/carbs/sugar into a food, thereby lowering the total contributed by EACH ingredient (moving each separate ingredient down the ingredients list), thereby sneaking all the sugar past busy shoppers who might just glance at the top of the ingredient list ("OK, the first few ingredients seem alright") and not really understand that dextrin, glactose, maltose, natural flavors, malt, evaporated cane juice, etc. are all refined sugars:
"It has about 70 names, including sucrose, high-fructose corn syrup and other names like diastatic malt, ethyl maltol, D-mannose, crystalline fructose and galactose – which sounds like it’s from another planet."
My opening strategy is to look at the total grams of carbs, fiber and sugar, calc the net carbs, and ask myself if it appears to have a lot of hidden/added carbs? If so then I don't even bother to keep reading the label. I just set it back down. For example, if I pick up a package of chicken sausage and it has three grams of carbs and three grams of sugar per sausage link, then I put it back. I know that I can find sausage with 0 grams of carbs and 0 grams of sugar because meat and fat have zero carbs. Obviously the manufacturer has added some refined/simple carbs to their recipe and I'd rather stick to the sausage with 0 grams of carbs/sugar. I don't need to wade through a long ingredient list to find out if "ethyl maltol" or "glactose" have been added -- I just need to know that a food that should/could be carb free has been adulterated.
3) Against the grain, and the roots -- I've been experimenting with avoiding all grains and starchy tubers, that is any source of concentrated carbs/starch, including potatoes, the so-called "health whole grains" such as brown rice, oatmeal, polenta/grits, whole-wheat bread, whole-wheat pasta, etc. etc. etc. If it's a concentrated source of starch/carbs, I don't eat it. Extreme? Maybe, but it makes my life so much easier. If I am going to eat a few grams of carbs per meal, they're going to come from one of just a few, easily controlled sources: plain yogurt, low-glycemic veggies (leafy greens, broccoli, mushrooms, collard greens, cucumbers, celery, asparagus, avocado, etc.), the aforementioned 'whole fruit' (in small quantities) that are high in vitamins and phytochemicals (e.g. blueberries, roma tomatoes), or some lemon/lime juice squeezed on a salad (great way of getting Vitamin C without all the sugars in citrus juices.)
When I'm 100% honest with myself, I know perfectly well what sets off binges vs. what does not. Someone else can have "one ounce of dark chocolate" after a meal. I will keep going until the box is empty and then go to the store at midnight for more. Someone else can stop at one modest PBJ sandwich on whole wheat bread twice per week, I'll clean out the whole loaf and both jars in two days. I can take or leave the unsweetened almond milk or raw almonds, but if I open a package of almond cookies, even the "healthy whole grain" kind sweetened only with "natural honey", they'll be gone before morning.