Halloween’s Over, Holidays Are Coming: Need to Curb Sugar Cravings?

Sugar seems to have become the new trans fat: the thing everyone feels entitled to bash.  Not just added sugar, but even sugar naturally present in food is suspect.  See my previous column on “Paleo-inspired baby food”, made without any grains, dairy, even fruit, to avoid babies having a “sugar crash”.  Seriously?

Surprisingly, we’re eating LESS sugar now, with intake going from 109 grams/day in 2000 to 92 grams/day in 2016, according to USDA data. Still, people still get too much sugar and many say they crave it.

Cook County, that includes Chicago, recently defeated a referendum that would have levied a “soda tax”.  Get my take on this issue here.

What is a sugar craving?

A craving is an intense desire for any food that that goes above and beyond biological need.  It’s not the same as hunger, which is more physiologically based (think hunger “pangs” and stomach growling).  And a craving doesn’t necessarily indicate a dietary deficiency of something.

You were born liking sugar

Mother Nature didn’t set you up, we all evolved to prefer the taste of sweet things.  Infants only days old will suckle more strongly on liquids that are sweeter.  Indeed, breast milk actually has more natural sugar (lactose) than cow’s milk – if it didn’t, infants may not be as motivated to suckle, putting their very survival at risk.  Since sugar also helps stimulate fat synthesis in the body, eating more of it than you need when it’s available would help you out during periods of food scarcity.  Throughout nature, most naturally sweet foods, such as fruit and honey, are also safe to eat, so sweetness of a food may have also been our clue about its safety.

Do you want sugar when you’re stressed?

Anything stressful: family matters, time crunches at work or home, relationship issues, can all increase sugar cravings.  Indeed, holidays bring up all of the above, along with the pressure to be “happy” when indeed, you just aren’t feeling it.  Add in a lack of sleep because of all the increased demands on time and you have a perfect storm for stress-eating whatever your comfort food is.

When you’re stressed, your body screams for relief, and sweets are a quick fix.  Not the best one, just the quickest.  Sugar also stimulates the brain to make serotonin, which helps calm you down, at least temporarily.  And, like just about every other thing today, sweets are around everywhere, even more so during the holidays.  All those baked goods that aren’t around at any other time of year make us feel entitled to “get while the getting is good”.

Beating sugar cravings

Sugar isn’t angel food, but it’s not devil’s food either, so no need to avoid sugar, just make things manageable.  Here are easy action steps that keep sugar in the sweet spot – where it makes you happy AND still healthy:

  1. GO PRO EVERY MORNING: A nice protein load early in the day cuts those hunger pangs that can trigger sugar cravings later, but most people don’t get much protein in the morning.  Cereal and milk are a great start, but go further.  Have at least a 5-oz. cup of fat-free Greek yogurt or a hard-cooked egg (or two), some string cheese, or a piece of last night’s beef or chicken.
  2. SPEND SUGAR CALORIES WISELY: Sugary soft drinks are wasted calories, but low-fat chocolate milk or sweetened Greek yogurt (tip: a teaspoon of honey tastes like more) give you of something rich with flavor that fills some real dietary gaps at the same time.  That’s making sugar work harder for you.
  3. SUGAR SUBSTITUTES? Calm down about the prevailing culture. The science on their safety is solid as a rock.    Evidence shows they can actually be useful tools.  More about this in a FUTURE column, so watch this space.  For now, resist the mob mentality about these and use them as tools to help cut dietary sugar.
  4. PUSH YOUR SWEET BUTTON WITHOUT SETTING OFF ALARMS: When eating out with people, instead of dessert, order a cappuccino.  It’ll only be about 100 calories, even with whole milk and some sugar, and you’ll keep occupied while everyone else has dessert.  If they offer you a bite or two, take it.  You’ll visit your happy place but leave happy, too.
  5. SEE IF YOUR TASTE BUDS NEED A RE-SET: Is a fruit salad sweet enough without having to add sugar?  If not, your taste buds may have become “dumbed down” from eating too many sweets.  A few weeks where the sweetest thing in your diet is fresh fruit and flavored yogurt re-sensitizes exhausted taste buds so you can eat the occasional sweet but enjoy it even more.
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