Worldwide sugar consumption is rising at more than double the rate of population growth. We’ve developed an insatiable appetite for the white stuff, but it’s full of empty calories that could be making us fat – and possibly sick.
And it’s not just sugar’s high-energy density that’s the issue. Animal research by The Johns Hopkins University of Medicine in Baltimore suggests that the brain metabolises fructose (when it is in table sugar along with glucose) in a way that stimulates appetite. The study implies that consuming sugar encourages you to eat more.
Beyond this, there is a mounting body of evidence pointing to how excessive fructose in table sugar can act as a toxin in the body, although this theory is the subject of ongoing debate. Robert Lustig is a paediatric endocrinologist and expert in adolescent obesity at the University of California. He makes the claim that, because fructose is metabolised primarily by the liver (whereas glucose is broken down by every cell in the body), too much fructose makes your liver work harder. This leads to chronic liver damage and impaired insulin function, which in turn contributes to obesity, hypertension and type 2 diabetes.
Not everyone in the nutrition community agrees with his argument, but there is general consensus that too much sugar is unhealthy and we are better off only eating small amounts. But the pull of that sugary taste can be incredibly strong. Cravings run deep, unsurprising perhaps when you consider how many of us were rewarded as children with sweet treats. We’ve come to expect them – and feel we deserve them. What do you do if you’d like to decrease your sugar intake but every evening after dinner you get a hankering for something sweet to complete the meal?
There’s much about sugar cravings that are behavioural, but there is some evidence to suggest sugar can also be addictive and cravings physiological. The Biggest Loser Club nutritionist Susie Burrell says that having a sweet food at the same time of day, every day, is an unhelpful habit that needs to be broken.
“A cold turkey approach does work well for some people,” she said. “However many sweetened products also have caffeine, for example as soft drinks, and this can give rise to some pretty nasty side-effects such as headaches. So instead I tend to wean my clients off sugar.”
Manage your sugar cravings
A little bit of real sugar, rather than an abundance of artificial sweeteners such as aspartame, stevia, saccharin and cyclamate, can teach people behavioural control, Susie argues, thereby tackling the real craving issue.
“Having to finish the pack is a behavioural response. We constantly have food around. It’s not going to run out. We need to learn to control ourselves in this environment.”
Susie tells her clients to never feed a sugar craving with sweet food. “The most powerful thing you can do is to change the taste in your mouth,” she says.
Counteract your sweet craving with a savoury or neutral taste. This works to neutralise the palate, distracting your tastebuds and taking your mind off sugar.
Ways to cleanse your palate and stave off a craving:
- Sip green tea
- Eat a small piece of cheese
- Chew gum
- Add a lemon wedge or a few drops of lemon juice to your water.
- Eat a piece of fresh or pickled ginger
- Nibble a small piece of crusty bread
Always choosing the same ‘cleanser’, such as green tea, signals to your brain that eating has finished. You will eventually come to associate green tea with dinner being over and this will encourage you to move on to thoughts beyond food.
If your cravings are also habitual – for example, if you always crave something sweet mid-afternoon – change your environment too. Go for a walk, have a shower or play some music – anything, as long as it’s outside your usual routine.
Sugar and emotions
Refreshing your tastebuds and keeping your hands busy will help, but if you’re an emotional eater the lure of sugar might be too much. So what can you do to help? Susie advises you to break the cycle and get out of the routine of eating after certain emotional triggers. “You must manage the emotions in other ways,” she said. “Identify the underlying cause of how you feel. Are you lonely? Angry? Invest some time in exploring the emotion rather than masking it with food. The long-term benefits will extend beyond the numbers you see on the weighing scales.”