IS “SOCIAL JET LAG” MAKING KIDS (& US) FAT?

That’s what a just-published study suggests, and whether it’s actually true or not, it bears a closer look.

“Social jet lag”?

This is just the difference in our sleep schedules between workdays (for kids that means school days) and non-workdays. Usually it means we sleep later on weekends.

How could social jet lag make people fat?

This latest study, involved 3412 children ages 8-10 years, and found that those having a different sleep schedule on weekends (or non-work/school days) also are more likely to be obese and have metabolic differences associated with obesity, like a higher waist-to-hip ratio and higher body fat percentage.

Interestingly, the kids didn’t get any less sleep on weekends, they just went to bed later — about an hour later – and awakened that much later as well. Average delayed bedtime was about 43 minutes later than during the week, but most of the kids still slept their usual 9 hours (for adults, this is like a fantasy!).

This study can’t determine just WHY these results occurred because it wasn’t longitudinal, just cross-sectional. It’s possible that the higher weight of the late-sleepers is a lifestyle marker: kids who stay up later on weekends might also do more nighttime snacking.

It’s not just kids though. In this study of social jet lag in adults, the authors concluded, “misalignment of sleep timing is associated with metabolic risk factors that predispose to diabetes and atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease.” Even if we still manage to slog through the next day, but in the long run this practice may be doing more harm to our bodies and our weight than what we put into our mouths.

Re-setting our circadian clocks is totally doable

You or your kids may not be “morning people” but so much of their – and our – days, at least during the week, requires us to be awake and at our best in the morning.  Give yourself and the family some time to get this all done, but the steps are totally worth it, for better sleep, better functioning during the day, and maybe even better weight and health.

Here’s how to start:

Shut it down early. Even if you and your kids swear you’re not tired, cut the noise from TV, videos, and screens at least an hour before bedtime. Music is fine, but not stuff that makes you want to get up and dance.
• Lose the “blues” – blue light, from devices like cell phone and computer screens, but also from the TV and even the power lights from the routers and such, really interfere with sleep because they prevent you from winding down.
• No power napping in the afternoon. If your kids often need naps after school, they need more sleep at night, period.
Decaffeinate after noontime. The kids, too.  That means skipping colas, iced tea, and any of those sweet (and too caloric) coffee drinks that many teens (and adults) like.
Move more, sleep better. Daily, regular physical activity really helps re-set your sleep cycle. You’re more likely to want to wind down if you’ve been active during the day. It’s just healthy lifestyle practice anyway, and better sleep is another benefit.
CLOSE THE KITCHEN! Your digestive system has to wind down, too, and it needs to do so a good two hours before bedtime. You’ll get deeper, more satisfying sleep.

AND THE AWARD FOR WORST DIET GOES TO….

My last post was on the three best diets, according to US News. Now for the three worst:

• Keto Diet
• Dukan Diet
• Whole30 Diet

Keto has a certain “ick” factor here. You’re sent into ketosis – where the body burns fat for calories instead of the preferred glucose. You burn fat because that’s most of what you’re eating – about 70% of your calories are from fat (the saturated coconut oil at left is fine on this diet).

Of course, ketosis is NEVER a desirable state for the body. It’s what your body does to adapt to long-term starvation mode. This diet isn’t adequate, it shuns most carbs and the amount of carbs it allows is pitifully small.  Nutrient-loaded foods like fruit, grains, beans – all banned. Don’t even consider a sweet potato. I know of no health professional who would recommend this diet.

Dukan hooks you with its all-you-can-eat of lean protein foods – very alluring. It’s also complicated with its five stages and it’s still no nutritionally adequate. Uh, and there’s no independent research on it either. Just claims.

Whole30 is a big seller – it’s been # 1 on Amazon at times. It seems to imply that the majority of your health issues, everything from mood to infertility, is a result of diet. Evidence is based on “science and experience.” Note: any diet that is only 30 days long is telling you it’s not designed for forever. Forget it.

These diets bug me because they have several things in common that are horrible for dieters:
They’re sensational and gimmicky: Foods, even food groups, are forbidden and demonized. There’s always a fear factor because fear is motivating. Sorry, this doesn’t work in the long run. No one argues that it’s best to minimize
Magic bullet factor: Fast and furious results are promised: Fast weight loss doesn’t mean fast fat loss. Never does.
Promises, promises: Eat this way and you’ll be cured of what ails you. You’ve been victimized by your eating habits. Eating our way will rid your body of toxins.
They’re not balanced! A diet – even for weight loss, should be balanced, because an unbalanced diet can’t be a healthy diet.  Any diet that says, or implies, you should never eat a particular food is out of touch with real life. This IS language that sells books however.
Interesting: The above are also the types of factors that hook people on anything: extreme changes, big promises, fast results. These diets all claim that people are “hooked” by certain foods like sweets or refined carbs. To fix it all, they require you to follow rigid limits, not deviate, and they make ridiculous promises about your health.

Bottom line:
• Keto? KeNO.
• Dukan? DuNOT.
• Whole30? WholeZERO.

Sensationalism sells. Inducing “food-fear” sells. Demonizing food sells. But you’ll never balance your diet with an unbalanced diet.

There’s no quick-fix out there, but there are GOOD diets: DASH, Mediterranean, Flexitarian have some great attributes:

• All are balanced, reasonable, affordable.
• These are eating styles you can keep forever, whether you’re trying to lose weight or just eat better.
• They’re family-friendly, a huge plus.
• They have good science behind them.

They’re not sensational, they’re the best, so go for the BEST, not the worst. And be patient. Slow and steady beats fast and furious.

BEST DIETS: THESE 2 TIED FOR GOLD

It’s January, and that means US News has issued its “Best Diets” rankings. Out of the 40 diets ranked, both the DASH diet and the Mediterranean Diet tied for first place – again.

Why? They have the most research behind them and they’re both great for your health. The DASH diet (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) was created to reduce high blood pressure and the Med diet is intended for heart health – two very common health conditions.

Both diets emphasize plenty of fruits and vegetables. The main difference is that DASH also emphasizes at least 2 to 3 servings of low-fat dairy foods daily. The Med diet is strong on heart-healthy fats like olive oil, nuts, and fish, like salmon, because of its high omega-3 fat content. The Med diet can be a bit low on calcium, due to the modest intake of dairy foods.

“Flexibility” Gets a Bronze!

The Flexitarian Diet approaches vegetarianism but not obsessively so. I like this approach. It takes the best from the vegetarian diets but the only thing it banishes is the absoluteness. You don’t have to choose a camp here. For many people, veg is fine – but not all the time. This diet , and so supports this thinking, and so do I. Plus, it’s actually very healthful.
What I love about the DASH, Mediterranean, and Flexitarian diets is that they’re basically eating styles. You can lose weight on them, but they can be a way of eating for the whole family, even the kids. This is ideal for families where one person is trying to lose weight, but doesn’t want to make, or eat, different food from the rest of the family. These diets are all about healthy (and tasty) eating. They also take no special work, don’t require exotic food, and have enough options for everyone.

>>>Cut-to-the-Chase Eating Style: A “MediterDASHean Diet”<<<
Here’s my short-order combo of the DASH and Med diets:
• All fruits and veggies – and 5 portions of them (at least!) daily.
• Low-fat dairy foods of the DASH diet Aim for 3 servings but at least 2 (that’s still an improvement for most).
• Extra-virgin olive oil, fatty fish, nuts, and sure, a glass of wine (if you drink).
Basically a Med diet with more low-fat dairy foods. More inclusive, flexible, less limiting – IOMO.
Up next: The Worst Diets (NOTE: this could get ugly)

JANUARY 1 IS FOR EVOLUTIONS, NOT RESOLUTIONS!

New Year’s resolutions are well-intended, but most resolutions fade away after a few weeks.

Every year, our number one resolution is always to lose weight, and it’s probably why gyms can offer such great deals in January, knowing that most people will never use the full membership.

Stop “resolving” and start “evolving”.

Resolution implies bold, massive change. Evolution is all about baby steps. What gives them impact is consistency. Be consistent with any effort and it doesn’t matter how fast or slow you go – you’ll get there. Indeed, “evolution” is more focused on the journey – a good thing – because that’s where we’ll spend most of our lifetime!

Many of our daily routines and poor habits didn’t just happen — they evolved gradually – through baby steps – to become part of our lifestyle. That’s what makes them hard to break.

Slow – but steady – wins every race. If our resolutions are too extreme, we don’t keep them. Then we feel like we failed, but the resolution failed us, because it was too giant a step when baby steps would have been better, and more productive. Bodies aren’t technology. Accept that our bodies, behaviors, and attitudes will change more slowly than our phones.

Ultimate Success Starts With Good Prep Work

A gradual build towards better eating styles, more satisfying life and happier habits starts with good prep work. Below are some little changes that appear at the outset to have nothing to do with weight or even eating habits, but they definitely impact the choices you make during the day.

Here’s a start:

Make only the changes you KNOW you can make.  Success is guaranteed if you break everything down into steps you are sure you can manage. Even small successes are so motivating and can happen often.
Get more sleep. Do you get up every morning wishing you had just 30 more minutes of sleep? Get it. Make a deal with yourself for just one night (baby steps!) to get to bed early, so you can get at least 7 hours of sleep. See how good you feel. Then do it again and again.
No screens for an hour before bedtime. This 2017 study suggests light exposure from various electronic devices – in the evening – “may have detrimental effects on human health and performance,” and was associated with greater sleepiness during the day. Go old-school and read a book before bed instead.
MOVE MORE. Even thin people need to be active, so everyone plays here, regardless of weight. Benefits: it’s a proven mood-lifter, and you often make better food choices when you’re active daily. Start walking even five or 10 minutes each day, or as often as possible.
Re-connect with non-food pleasures. Make this a priority. Food is such instant gratification that other pleasures get pushed to the side.  Let’s remind ourselves that pleasure isn’t always about food.  Some ideas to consider:

  • Take that class you’ve wanted – yes, even the tap-dance class, or the weaving one, or the ceramics lesson. (Notice how these are NOT screen-friendly?)
  • Join a film, book, or hobby club. You’ll be more accountable to the other members – and you’ll find they value your voice, a reward in itself.
  • Take a day-trip on a bus or train. You’ll be back at the end of the day tired but happy.
  • Do something touristy – even take a “tour”.

These are just suggestions, but think out of the box and go for your own.

Evolution happens over a year, not overnight. Commit to a new baby step every month. Next January 1, we’ll be twelve steps ahead of where we are now (and we’ll deserve that New Year’s toast!)

EGGNOG ON! 10 WAYS TO STILL ENJOY THE YEAR’S HIGH-CAL DRINK

I have loved eggnog since childhood. If it were available, and I’d been allowed, I’d have drunk it all year long. To really savor every drop, I’d “drink” it with using a teaspoon. At about 330 calories per glass though, you need to think before you drink eggnog.

WHY SO HIGH IN CALORIES?

Troll through eggnog recipes and it’ll be no surprise why it’s so calorie-loaded. The bulk of traditional eggnog is made up of heavy cream and sugar. Sometimes it’ll include half-and-half or milk as well, but the “old-school” recipes deal with only the heaviest stuff. Then comes the eggs, vanilla, nutmeg and whatever else. Grown-up eggnog also adds rum or brandy – that doesn’t lower the calories, but you might care less about them.
Traditional all-heavy-cream eggnog can run you a good 600 calories a glass! Most eggnog sold in supermarkets however, is a milder 330 calories in every 8-oz. glass. Still pretty hefty. That’s more calories than in two glasses of full-fat milk, only with less protein and calcium. Despite fewer calories, it’s still thick and creamy, owing to the addition of some harmless vegetable thickeners.

10 WAYS TO EGGNOG SMARTER

I don’t want to have an eggnog-free life, but eggnog’s calories do need to be budgeted. Try these tips and you can fit eggnog in pretty much anytime of the year :
• Have a shot, not a glass. Sometimes you want just a taste and a shot will do just fine.
• Add a shot to your coffee for a rich, holiday sweetener.
• Add a shot to your tea, instead of milk. English breakfast tea or black tea are excellent this way.
• Top Greek yogurt with some eggnog and chopped walnuts or almonds. A shot is only about 40 calories – and easy splurge.
• Pour a shot over oatmeal, finish with dried cranberries. Make the oatmeal with milk, for added protein and calcium.
• Have your usual whole-grain cereal with your usual milk but then pour a shot of eggnog over it. the eggnog stays full-strength, so your taste buds get hit with flavor, not calories.
• Dilute eggnog 50-50 with skim milk. 4-oz of each gives you about 205 calories (165 for 4-oz of eggnog and 40 for the same amount of skim milk). Plus, you’ll have lots more calcium and protein and it STILL tastes sweet and rich.
• Go really light: add a shot or two to whole, low-fat, or fat-free milk. With fat-free milk, it’ll bring you home at about 110 calories per glass. Amp up the flavor by adding some extra nutmeg.
• Go high-protein and super-light: 1-oz. of egg substitute, 7-oz. of fat-free milk, two packets of zero-calorie sweetener of choice, nutmeg to taste (I like lots of this spice). You can use sugar, but you’ll have more calories and it’s harder to dissolve sugar.
• No-work eggnog: “Lite” eggnog is plenty available in supermarkets. Calories range from about 190-220 calories per glass. Have at it.
• Bonus tip: Not eggy, but “nutmeggy”: Try heating warm milk with a few dashes of nutmeg and a sweetener of choice. Really great at bedtime.

COULD “REVERSE RECESS” IMPROVE BOTH TEST SCORES & DIETS?

I’ve said forever that kids who eat breakfast do better in school. A growing pile of research also suggests that “reverse recess”, that is, having some physical activity before – not after – lunch, may also contribute to better test scores.  This reverse recess also seems to help0 kids want to eat more of what they need.

The latest study  included 1350 students in Texas elementary schools and looked at the differences in intake and test scores when schools scheduled recess before or after lunch.

Simple changes, big results

I love research like this. It’s simple and shows real results.

When students (third, fourth, and fifth grade students) had recess before lunch, they scored higher on the “3Rs” – reading, writing, and arithmetic. Not all grades scored higher on all measures, but the results were enough to impress school principals enough to consider changing the school’s recess schedule for next year.

There were nutritional implications here, too. In the schools with recess before lunch, students ate more of all lunch components: the entrée, fruit, milk, and even the veggies. Two things may be happening here to produce the results:

• The kids were hungrier after being active, so they had a better appetite for their lunch
• Having just actively “let off steam”, they were a bit more calm and more ready to eat, and with play time done for a while, they could devote more time to eating and socializing.

Another thing I love about his study is that it looked at “plate waste”. This is messy research, because it requires the investigators to look at how much food was actually eaten. It’s a dirty job, but I’m glad they did it, because the results are more informative than some other studies that look only at how much food is chosen, not necessarily eaten. That’s significant, because it’s not nutritious until they eat it.

More than nutrition: BEHAVIOR benefits, too?

A 2014 study done in an Oregon community however, found that the students having recess before lunch drank significantly more milk and were 20% more likely to drink the entire 8-oz. carton of milk than were the students having recess after lunch.

Even better: the teachers reported that having recess before lunch resulted in better classroom behavior and greater readiness to concentrate on academics after the lunch period.

What I love about these studies is that they really didn’t change the curriculum or even the offerings of the school lunch program. Only the scheduling changed, so that kids were given more activity right before they sat down to lunch. Easy fixes for nearly all schools, and most certainly worth a try, especially because virtually none of the schools offering recess before lunch noted any misgivings or negatives.

Finally, remember that kids like to eat stuff that tastes good, but we adults can stand to learn a thing or two about what we assume kids will eat. The kids in the 2014 Oregon school study ate the most fruit when pineapple and cottage cheese was served. Wake-up call here!

Eat Well During Holidays Without Crossing Over to the “Dark Side”

Healthy holiday eating and enjoyment are not mutually exclusive, IF you know the right tricks. Having a healthy eating style doesn’t have an “on-off” switch and. It’s not about choosing between living in a healthy food monastery, or crossing over to the dark side, where all enjoyment happens.

Being healthy is being on a food journey, not on a diet. On a journey, there’s room for everything.  Extreme, overly restrictive eating styles aren’t sustainable and most people wouldn’t want to sustain them either. I wouldn’t. But I think of holidays as just another opportunity to hone a better eating style. Keep in mind, my own eating style has evolved over the years. Give yourself permission to evolve a little, too.

Think about the reasons why our usual eating styles get “disrupted”:

• “…the kids were off from school this week”.
• “…it was the (fill in the holiday)”
• “…we had a party at the house this weekend.”
• “…we had family in from out of town.”
• “…we were doing a lot of socializing.”

Making holidays work FOR you, not AGAINST you

File all these reasons under “stuff happens” but they happen all year long, so make life’s little disruptions amount to nothing more than a minor nuisance. They may even open a new dimension to your eating style or give you different “routines” for each situation.

Here are some positive ways to help yourself during “disruptions”:

• MOVE MORE! Just make it a part of the fun. Activity is a total ace in the hole. The more you move, the more calories you burn, for sure, but the more fun you can have, too. Moving kicks in your brain’s “feel-good” chemicals called “endorphins” that lift your mood. Walk through decorated neighborhoods, go ice skating, and make sure you dance at all the holiday parties! Feel the fun, not the burn!
• Workday “me” time: take 30 minutes of your lunch hour and walk briskly. THEN have a modest lunch and you’ll deserve a little indulgence. Or bank it for tomorrow’s indulgence!
• Splurge on some delicious, healthful foods you like but usually deny yourself: smoked salmon and pre-seeded pomegranates, (where all the work is done for you) are two of my faves. Keep grapes and clementines on the counter for a tasty impulse-bite. Gift yourself the convenience of salad-in-a-bag to make sure you and your family have an easy way to get plenty of low-calorie, nutritious foods (throw in some of those pomegranate seeds!). It’s also an easy way to get kids started in the kitchen with simple prep. Try some high-end balsamic vinegar and you’ll need less oil.
• Expect the unexpected. If a disruption is likely to happen, keep the rest of your day’s eating smart. Leave 200 or so calories for something unexpected. That way it doesn’t set you back.

HOLIDAY WEIGHT GAIN? HERE’S HOW TO SKIP IT

Thanksgiving is over but we’re now in a full-on holiday food marathon. No one wants to diet or even hear about health until the first of the year. Food is everywhere. Even at work, people are deluged with treats “for the office”. Holiday parties abound, and all manner of family and social functions, each with their respective food character.

How much weight do people really gain during the holidays?
It was long thought that people gained about 5-7 pounds during the period from Thanksgiving through New Year’s Day. This, plus the obvious psychological milestone of January 1, probably triggered the massive focus on health and dieting at the first of EVERY year.

But a recent scientific review looked at studies that included adults, as well as children, and revealed that people tended to gain only about 2 pounds during the holidays. I know, you think that can’t possibly be true, and maybe it isn’t – for you. That’s the thing about these studies – they tend to put everyone into a big blender and get an average. This review did find however that overweight/obese people tended to gain more weight and normal-weight people. You’re not everybody, though. If YOU tend to struggle with your weight during the holidays, then maybe it’s time to do something different than in years past.

No holiday weight gain: It’s possible!

Maybe no weight loss, either, but that’s OK. Anything better than last year’s results entitles you to beat your chest with pride. How to get there? Think of this as just another “project”, and any successful project starts with a good plan and this one is no different. That said, it can be a fun plan that gives you a nice reward: waking up on New Year’s morning without the weight regrets of seasons past. If the holidays are traditionally a tough season for you, weight-wise, then victory is all about prevention.

Tips for strategic holiday eating:

Ask about the food and drinks that will be at social events. Plans work better without surprises.
Do a “buffet screening” and filter out one or two things you like the most. Keep the other choices good-for-you ones and eat those first, so you fill up on the low-calorie foods.
Keep it to one caloric drink only. Whether it’s an alcoholic drink or just a soda, minimize your liquid calories. Then, keep to water, seltzer, or diet soda (yes, they’re safe so calm down). Others may get smashed on booze, but you’ll wake up tomorrow feeling better and without the weight gain from the unneeded calories.
Never arrive to events hungry — it’s the ultimate trigger for overeating.
Get fussy about worksite food? If it’s some item you look for, plan for it. bring your lunch and make it a modest one, like Greek yogurt and some fruit or two hard-cooked eggs and some whole grain crackers and zero-calorie seltzer or iced tea. Keep the special food to a “hospital-sized” portion.
Move. More about this in my next post but get ahead of the game now. Do SOMETHING. Anything you do beats sitting still.

FINAL THOUGHT: Leave early. If the food is just too difficult to handle, it’s no party for you. Making a timely exit is a sing you’re in charge.  Pat yourself on the back!

Restaurant Meals: Delicious, Healthy, & Only $225 per meal! Who knew?

That’s not a typo.  It’s a New York Times story on famed chef David Bouley’s new project restaurant that espouses his new food philosophy: that eating should have three components: it should be delicious, be healthy, and be eaten communally.  Great, Chef David, but probably only 0.001% of the community can afford your food.  No wonder the restaurant’s capacity is only 24 seats.

That tab doesn’t include tax, tip, wine, or even waiters.  Drop your fork and get another one yourself in the drawer below your place setting.

 

Another healthy, delicious meal option…for $325

The day before the Times article appeared, the New York Post profiled another chef, Joel Robuchon.  He’d been diagnosed with high blood pressure and a blood test revealed elevated levels of blood glucose and cholesterol. Not healthy.  Indeed, the opposite of healthy.  So, he went on a diet, cut out butter and oil, and ate less bread, dessert, meat, and sugar.  He lost 44 pounds after four months and now he’s down 60 pounds, despite admittedly being “too lazy to work out.”  He added, “My headaches are gone.”

Now that these chefs have attained the nutrition nirvana, they want to tell the world.  The also have new restaurants to promote, both of which will be serving healthier dishes that reflect their new nutrition enlightenment.  Chef Joel must think his dishes are healthier than Chef David’s, as his 9-course tasting menu costs a whopping $325 per person, although if you go vegetarian, it’s a mere $145 per person.  “My menu is full of antioxidants and nutrients now.”  Great, but at $325 a head it should also come with a parade in the customer’s honor.  At least it comes with waiters.

My cut-to-the-chase take

  • I’m very glad Chef Joel lost the 60 pounds. Bravo, Chef, and please maintain the lower weight.
  • Elevated cholesterol, blood pressure, blood glucose?
    • Probably due to his weight as much as his diet. If he’d gotten obese eating a Med diet, he may have suffered the same blood profile.
    • Losing 60 pounds on ANY diet will improve your blood profile.
    • he headaches probably disappeared because of his weight loss, not the butter, Joel.
    • He attributes this to what he’s eating. I’d attribute it to what he’s NOT eating.  He’s not eating TO EXCESS
  • Chef Joel, you’re eating better, but move a little more, too, in a focused way. It’s the next step in your healthier lifestyle and do it.  We’d like you around, even if we can’t eat at your restaurant.

Meals for the other 99.99% of us

I’m sure the tasting menus at these restaurants are delicious.  I’m also sure most of us will never be able to afford them and we need to get over it. Fear not, there are plenty of ways to have a healthy diet that don’t involve fancy restaurants and kitchens with tweezers.   And yes, you can even include red meat, and pretty regularly if you like.  See my “Off the Record” post for a great (and great looking) steak dinner that I cooked on a weeknight in less than 30 minutes and. You don’t need a pro chef, just a few tips.  It’s delicious, healthy, eaten together, and just as enjoyable. It’s for the other 99.99% of us who will NEVER eat there.    No one should EVER think they can’t make a really delicious and healthy meal that is still is budget-friendly.

Cut-to-the-chase tips:

  • Forget the fancy frillery, all the research that shows the benefits of a diet with lots of fruits and veggies, whole grains, nuts and healthy fats, that was all done with regular supermarket produce.
  • Forget Chef Joel’s credo about “only organic avocados.” The best avocados are the ones you can afford and that you’ll eat.  No food is nutritious until you eat it.
  • It’s ALWAYS more economical when you make it yourself. Splurging on strip steak for the whole family is more affordable than eating steak for one at a restaurant.  (And as long as you’re getting your own silverware, it’s fork on the left, knife on the right, unlike the photo above.)

One great comment from Chef Joel: Once you establish a diet, you can make exceptions.  Once you’re able to balance it out.”  Chef Joel, now you’re sitting at OUR table!

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.