You know that sugar isn’t good for your health. But it also tastes great.
Eating too much of it is associated with obesity, heart disease, and diabetes. But, again, delicious.
So, BuzzFeed Health reached out to two experts from Precision Nutrition: Krista Scott-Dixon, director of education, and registered dietitian Brian St. Pierre; plus Dr. Holly Lofton, director of the Medical Weight Management Program at NYU Langone Medical Center. Here are their tips for understanding your sugar cravings and learning how to lessen them.
2. First, figure out whether or not you really need to cut down on sugar.
Not everyone needs to make it a goal to eat less added sugar. If you’re meeting your goals for health, performance in your workouts, and body composition, and you feel good, you might be doing just fine with your present intake, says St. Pierre. As BuzzFeed Health has previously reported, if you eat a healthy and balanced diet of whole and minimally processed foods, having a couple cookies regularly probably isn’t something to worry about. So if that’s the case, maybe just keep enjoying those sweets.
3. Here’s a simple way to tell if you’re eating too much sugar.
The American Heart Association recommends limiting added sugar to 6–9 teaspoons a day, or 24–36 grams. To put that into context, there are almost 10 teaspoons of added sugar in one 12-ounce can of soda. So just one soft drink could put you over that limit, not to mention that about 75% of all packaged foods contain added sugar, too. That means that if you regularly have soda and some sweets every day, you’re probably well above that recommendation.
4. It turns out that our brains legit find sugar really rewarding.
What happens is that eating something sugary causes the release of insulin, whose job it is to take that sugar out of the bloodstream. The insulin does this but leaves behind tryptophan, which cues the production of serotonin. Serotonin is the neurotransmitter that’s responsible for improving your mood and making you feel calm, relaxed, and at ease.
TL;DR: You eat a sugary thing and your brain produces a rush of a chemicals that makes you feel A-OK, explains Lofton.
5. Which is part of the reason we crave sweet stuff.
Lofton explains that when your serotonin levels drop — maybe because you’re bored or sad or your boss just yelled at you — you crave something that’ll pick them back up again. One of the reasons an ice cream sundae seems like the solution to all your problems is because your brain’s reward center has actually learned to associate that sugary treat with that increase in serotonin that makes you feel better.
6. Another part of the reason we crave sweet stuff is that fat and salt are usually involved, too.
When you crave something sweet, you probably don’t yearn for a packet of sugar. This is because the sweet stuff we love — cake, brownies, cookies, ice cream — tends to also have fat and salt, a combination that really stimulates our brains’ reward centers, explains St. Pierre.
Since this combination of ingredients is relatively new to us (evolutionarily speaking) our brains find those foods incredibly stimulating. And the more intense the reward, the more trouble we will go to to seek it out, says St. Pierre. If you’ve ever stood in a long line for funnel cake or ice cream or fried dough, you’ve spent time seeking out a helluva good reward.
Plus, once your brain gets used to this intensely stimulating food, you need more and more to feel satisfied, says St. Pierre. For example, if you rarely eat candy, half a Snickers bar might be just enough. If you eat lots of candy regularly, half a bar won’t come close to satisfying you.
7. Cravings aren’t just physiological. They’re also totally emotional.
When you feel hungry, your gut is telling your brain that your body needs fuel and pretty much anything with calories will do. A craving, on the other hand, is a desire to eat, says Lofton. And not just anything — the foods we look to when that serotonin drops are usually ones that have a history of comforting us or that we have a nostalgic connection to, says Lofton. Like the ice cream cones you got at the beach, yellow cake from birthday parties, or doughnuts you were allowed for a special treat as a kid.
8. If you want to cut down on added sugar, the first step is to figure out the exact role sugar plays in your day (or life).
Eating sweet stuff does different things for different people. The first thing to determine is what it’s specifically doing for you, Scott-Dixon tells BuzzFeed Health via email.
Sugar might be:
• Soothing and calming
• A pick-me-up when your energy is low
• A “guilty pleasure” (a secret indulgence that allows you to treat yourself in a way that’s “bad” or “naughty”)
• Just part of daily life and something you’ve never really thought much about
(These are just a few of the most common examples.)
9. Then you can start to develop strategies for dealing with each kind of craving.
Using the examples above, Scott-Dixon explained how to approach each kind of craving.
• If sugar is soothing:
“We look at other ways for people to calm themselves down when stressed; we also make sure that people have enough slow-digesting carbs in their diets so the supply of feel-good brain chemicals is still there,” she says.
• If sugar is a pick-me-up:
Scott-Dixon recommends boosting energy naturally with foods that have slow-digesting carbs, protein, and fat, taking quick movement breaks, and adjusting caffeine intake.
• If sugar is a guilty pleasure:
Find other ways to treat yourself, recommends Scott-Dixon. “One of my favorites is an ‘irresponsibility break’ — find a way to be just a little bit ‘irresponsible’ without food, booze, or some self-harming behavior.” For example, take a half-day from work and see a movie or opt out of a social obligation.
• If sugar is just part of daily life:
In this case, when the person isn’t emotionally tied to sugar, Scott-Dixon suggests making substitutions you can live with. “For example, instead of fruit juice how about a piece of actual fruit? Could we switch to a brand of yogurt with less sugar? And so on.”
10. 1. Have a reasonable amount of the thing you crave on a regular basis and savor the hell out of it.
When people binge on foods they’ve been craving, they tend to enjoy the release of finally letting go of control rather than enjoying the delicious food, says St. Pierre. This can make it all go by really fast and make it feel like you never had the thing at all.
If you think that your problem with sweets is that you try to mostly avoid them and then totally go to town on a tray of brownies, you can try having a reasonable amount on a regular basis, says St. Pierre. When you do this, work on eating slowly and really noticing and enjoying everything about it. This should help reduce cravings and bingeing behavior, says St. Pierre. “Don’t gobble the chocolate; nibble it and let it melt in your mouth. Be present with it,” says Scott-Dixon.
11. 2. Figure out what usually drives you to sweets so you can interrupt that cycle.
Lofton recommends identifying the chain of behaviors that leads you to eat sweets. Maybe it’s that you work from home, get stressed or bored, walk to the pantry, and grab cookies.
You could break that chain at the very beginning by working from the library instead where the cookies aren’t available. Or you could remove cookies from the pantry so that when you walk over to it, there aren’t cookies to grab. Or you can put in place the practice of responding to being bored or stressed by giving yourself 20 minutes of watching Netflix.
12. 3. Train yourself not to stress eat by practicing being around tempting foods when you’re relaxed.
This is a cognitive-behavioral approach that can teach you how to not stress-eat, says Lofton. Let’s say that when you’re stressed or anxious or angry or sad or lonely you put on your jacket, leave your house, and walk to the corner store and buy a candy bar. Or when you make a mistake at work you get up from your desk, walk to the cafeteria, and buy a doughnut. You can retrain yourself by basically replicating these behaviors without ending on sugar, says Lofton.
Choose a time that you’re not feeling anxious or stressed and put on your jacket, leave your home, and walk into that same store, buy a bottle of water, and leave. Or get up from your desk, walk down to the canteen, don’t buy anything at all, and return to your desk. It’s crazy but true: “The body will become accustomed to walking into the store and leaving or getting a water. You can make a new brain pathway, which means making a new behavior,” Lofton says.
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13. 4. Probably don’t go cold turkey or eliminate carbs.
Lots of people try to just eliminate sugar and carbs rather than deal with cutting down. But being deprived of something usually just makes you want it more and eventually binge. And besides that, your body does want some high-fiber, nutrient-rich carbs to function properly.
You’re better off having “about a handful or two of slow-digesting, high-fiber, nutrient-rich carbs — like beans, legumes, potatoes or sweet potatoes, whole grains, fruits, etc. — at each meal. … A banana at breakfast and a cup of chickpeas at lunch might save you a 3 p.m. run to the candy machine,” says Scott-Dixon.
14. 5. Be wary of relying on “healthy versions” of stuff, like paleo cupcakes or black bean brownies.
“Sometimes, this works great. Maybe you hit on a recipe that hides veggies in something, and has less sugar, and makes you happy in the way that you were seeking. That’s a win,” says Scott-Dixon. However, she adds that when we know something is healthier, we tend to overeat it or justify sketchy food choices later on. Like: “Well, I had that healthier muffin, so now I can have a pizza.”
15. 6. Also, don’t look to artificial sweeteners to address your cravings.
Some people have success cutting their sugar intake by swapping in, say, diet soda for regular. But “keeping very sweet tastes in your food routine means that your palate never really adapts to things being less sweet — you’re still always expecting everything to be super-sweet and you’re disappointed when it isn’t,” says Scott-Dixon. She recommends some trial and error to see if artificial sweeteners help reduce your cravings.
16. 7. Don’t rely on willpower alone; make changes to your environment whenever possible.
All the motivation and willpower in the world won’t help you if you’re surrounded by sugary snacks or if you don’t have anything to eat on hand other than office snack food. Scott-Dixon recommends making that kind of food totally inconvenient — if you have to get in your car and drive to the store to get ice cream, you’re less likely to go to it when a craving hits. And if you can add healthier options to your immediate environment, you’ll be more likely to go to those.
17. 8. Most importantly, be very kind to yourself. And seek help if you need it.
For some people, sugar can feel incredibly compelling and powerful, like a drug, Scott-Dixon says. If this sounds like you, remember that beating yourself down won’t help, but getting help from a dietitian or therapist will.
“If you feel ‘addicted’ to sugar, you don’t need more self-criticism; you need self-compassion and the recognition that this battle may be stronger than you alone,” says Scott Dixon.
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