In part 1 of this series on sugar cravings we established that humans have evolved a taste for sweetness. However, I also made it clear that although this evolutionary adaptation can help explain why we are often drawn towards sugar-laden junk food, it can’t explain many common phenomenons, such as why some people have more of a desire for sugary foods than others. In part 2 I explained how the brain and the gut microbiota impact our dietary preferences. Basically, willpower and discipline aren’t the only factors that determine what you eat! This has important implications for how we look at nutrition and body fat regulation, as it goes against the idea that obesity is simply a result of “sloth” and “gluttony” (Which I’ve repeatedly shown is an overly simplistic look at the obesity epidemic). Let’s go back to the 3 unanswered questions from part 1 and summarize what we’ve learned…
Why do some people have more of a sweet tooth than others?
- One explanation for why we evolved a taste for sweetness is that it helped us seek out energy-dense food. Basically, some people have suggested that this desire for sweetness attracted us to animal source foods rich in fats when we lived in an environment where fruits and honey were scarce. This could partly explain why some people feel that they get their “sweet fix” from foods such as red meat.
- Differences in gut microbe populations can help explain why some people have more of a “sweet tooth” than others. People with no apparent sugar cravings probably have a healthier gut microbiota than people with an intense sweet tooth.
- People who rarely feel the desire to snack on sugar-laden food have never entered into a cycle where highly processed foods are a substantial part of their diet, and they’ve therefore never “acquired” a taste for these foods in the same degree as someone with an intense sweet tooth.
- Some people are more susceptible to the effects of highly rewarding foods. For these folks, fast food can literally be addictive.
Why do some people report that dietary changes (or other factors) dampen their sugar cravings?
Intense sugar cravings are a result of a vicious cycle, where sugar-laden junk food alters the gut microbiota and overactivates the reward center in our brain, which in turn enhance our desire for these foods. By making the right dietary changes, you get out of this vicious cycle, and your cravings subside.
Why is it so hard to stop yourself once you’ve taken a bite of something sweet and delicious?
- Sugars activate the sweet taste receptors on the tongue, and these receptors send signals up to the reward system in the brain. Dopamine is released, your brain labels the food as safe and energy-dense, and behaviour is reinforced.
- The food affects your upper GI tract microbiota, which probably influences your appetite.
7 steps for curbing sweet cravings
- Establish a healthy food environment at home and work. Don’t have doughnuts, chocolate cake, etc. lying around.
- Plan your meals so you don’t go hungry. Bring with you some nuts, eggs, salad, meat, etc. when you’re on the go.
- Make a set of rules so you don’t have to make decisions in the moment. This is more effective than you might think. E.g., I’m never buying anything at the cafeteria at work.
- Eat a lot of traditionally fermented foods (e.g., sauerkraut, greek yogurt (non-sweetened)) and prebiotics (e.g., cold potatoes, green bananas, onions, leeks).
- Eat plenty of meat, fish, eggs, and vegetables.
- Completely eliminate sugar-laden foods for 2-3 weeks (Don’t replace them with fruit, at least not at first). I know, this one is tough, but it will help you get out of the vicious cycle you’re in.
- Replace your favorite sweets with other snacks that aren’t so rich in sugar. E.g., greek yogurt (non-sweetened. Preferably full-fat yogurt from pasture-fed animals), vegetables with sour cream dip, dark chocolate (this can be addictive as well, but it’s better than doughnuts). If you’re going to use a sweetener, then I recommend FOS (fructooligosaccharides). Start with 1/2 ts a day.
These steps aren’t just based on the researched discussed in part 1 and 2, but also on my own personal experience and my experience with helping clients with their diet. Anecdotal reports from people switching to paleo diets, low-carb diets, etc. also suggest that although we have evolved a taste for sweet things, it’s definitely possible to control how intense these sugar cravings are.
Bottom line: The body adapts to your diet and lifestyle, and the way to curb an intense sweet tooth is to get to a place where the body no longer craves the constant influx of sugar.
Now I want to hear from you. Do you feel like you’re almost “addicted” to sugar-laden junk food? Are you ready to make the necessary changes to get out of the vicious cycle you’re in?
All articles in this series:
The Reasons You Crave Sugar. Part I: A Taste For Sweetness
The Reasons You Crave Sugar. Part II: From Fruits and Honey to Doughnuts and Candy
The Reasons You Crave Sugar. Part III: Getting Out of the Vicious Cycle