Sugar and Your Sweet Tooth

How to beat your sweet tooth

Did you know current guidelines dictate that men should have no more than 33g of added sugar per day, and women no more than 25g? This equates to 8 teaspoons for men, and 6 teaspoons for women.

That might sound like a lot, but it’s surprisingly easy to surpass the limit. A single can of coke, for example, contains a whopping 35g of added sugars. Even an average strawberry yoghurt contains over 10g.

And far from simply causing tooth decay, we now know the ramifications of excess sugar are far-reaching. Studies suggest that that high consumption of the sweet stuff can lead to type-2 diabetes, heart disease and cancer [1, 2, 3]. Newer research is even linking excess sugar to the development of dementia [4].

So why is our intake still so high?

The issue is two-fold. Firstly, people are consuming sugar without realising it. Secondly—and perhaps most importantly—we’ve all learnt to eat in a way that primes us to crave sugar. You can have the strongest willpower in the world, but eventually physiological drives become too hard to ignore.

However, the good news is that you can make your physiology work for you. You can reset your palate, tame your appetite and banish those sugar cravings—in turn protecting your health for the long-term. Here’s where to start:

1) Check ingredients labels

A key step in controlling your sugar intake is knowing when you’re eating it. We’re all aware that there’s a good dose of sugar in cakes, sweets and fizzy drinks, but did you know it can also be lurking in cereals, crisps and condiments? A single serving of ketchup, for example, contains a whole teaspoon of sugar.

Get into the habit of checking ingredients labels. As a rule of thumb, if sugar is listed within the first 3 ingredients, that food is best avoided (at least while you’re resetting your palate). Remember, sugar comes in many guises. As well as straightforward ‘sugar’, look out for the following ingredients: barley malt; corn syrup; dextrose; fructose and maltodextrin.

2) Embrace fat

As well as enabling many metabolic functions—including the production of some hormones—eating adequate healthy fat is essential for regulating your appetite. In fact, a 2017 study found that eating a meal that included polyunsaturated fats significantly decreased hormones associated with hunger, and increased hormones associated with satiety [5]. If you often find yourself craving something sweet after a meal, upping your fat intake can be an easy way to diminish that desire.

Good sources of polyunsaturated fat include fatty fish, flaxseed oil, walnuts and sunflower seeds. Women should aim for a thumb-sized serving with each meal, while men should shoot for two thumbs’ worth.

3) Harness the power of protein

Like fat, eating protein has a powerful impact on your appetite. In fact, one study found that increasing protein consumption reduced total daily energy intake by up to 500 calories [6]. Protein helps to keep your hunger in check—so eating the right amount of this macronutrient could prevent you from reaching for those sugary snacks in between meals.

Guidelines dictate that the average adult should consume 0.75g of protein per kilogram of body weight daily. However, focusing on exact numbers is neither helpful nor sustainable in the long-term. Instead, simply focus on eating a palm-sized portion of protein with breakfast, lunch and dinner. This could be from animal sources such as meat, fish, dairy and eggs, or from vegetarian/vegan sources such as pulses and legumes.

4) Choose ‘low and slow’ carbs

When it comes to controlling your cravings, balancing your blood sugar is critical. When you eat something sweet or starchy—typically in the form of refined carbohydrates—your blood sugar shoots up, only to crash soon after. The resulting state of low blood sugar makes your body think it needs more glucose, so it revs your appetite to drive you to eat even more sweet and starchy foods.

So how do you get off this blood-sugar rollercoaster? Along with eating appropriate amounts of protein and fat, a simple yet powerful tactic is to choose complex carbohydrates. These typically contain more fibre, so are broken down and absorbed more slowly, thus preventing those blood sugar spikes and troughs [7].

Fibre-rich sources of carbohydrates include whole grains, sweet potatoes, root vegetables and pulses.

5) Say no to sweeteners

When you’re looking to reduce your sugar intake, it seems logical to swap sugar for alternatives. After all, we’ve been lead to believe they have no effect on our metabolism. Right?

Sadly, this simply isn’t the case. One illuminating study revealed that individuals who drink diet fizzy drinks—which contain sweeteners such as aspartame and sucralose—actually weigh more and have a wider waist circumference on average [8]. We don’t yet know the exact mechanism behind this, but it’s likely that the synthetically sweetened drinks prime our bodies to expect sugar. When no sugar is available to be absorbed (as is the case with diet drinks) the body revs the appetite as a compensatory measure, leading people to eat more overall.

Along with sugar, reduce (and preferably eliminate) all synthetic sweeteners from you diet. You’ll be amazed at how quickly your palate readjusts—and you’ll soon find that you no longer desire such sweet flavours.

6) Focus on low-sugar fruits for a month

It’s true that fruit, and particularly tropical fruit, can be rich in sugar. However, unlike simple added sugar, fruit provides you with a plethora of vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients and fibre. Not only do these help you use glucose appropriately, but they also play a role in host of other metabolic functions.

Having said this, repeatedly eating sweet things can make you crave more sweet things. While you’re endeavouring to reset your palate, it’s sensible to opt for fruits that are naturally less sugary.

Good low-sugar choices include berries (blueberries, raspberries, blackberries, blackcurrants and redcurrants), apples, pears and plums. Enjoy up to two servings daily for a month or two while you retrain your taste buds. After this, go ahead and add the occasional portion of sweeter fruits (such as grapes, mango and pineapple) back into your diet.

Other considerations

Stay hydrated. It’s easy to confuse hunger with thirst. If you’re tempted to reach for that quick fix, drink a large glass of water. Wait a few minutes, and you may well find your hunger has abated.

Go to sleep. It’s well-known that being sleep-deprived makes you crave more sugar [9]. This is because an exhausted body requires a rapid source of energy, which comes in the form of glucose. To keep those cravings at bay, prioritise getting between 7 and 8 hours of good-quality slumber nightly.

Combat stress. Cortisol, your stress hormone, raises the level of sugar in your blood. This is fine and often necessary and on a short-term basis, but chronic stress can lead persistently elevated blood sugar. This, in turn, raises the level of the hormone insulin, which can make you hungrier [10]. A hugely important part of getting on top of your cravings is to manage your stress levels, as this will stop the appetite-revving hormonal cascade. Find an activity that relaxes you—such as reading, meditation or even talking to a friend—and make it a non-negotiable part of your day.

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