We're hardwired from birth to love sweet tastes and dislike bitter ones. It's the way an infant's taste buds tell its brain that sweet tastes means a source of energy (carbohydrates), while unpleasant bitter tastes serve as a warning for toxic foods.
But somewhere between birth and adulthood, the majority of us develop a sugar habit which, it's being discovered, can do as much harm as – or more harm than – eating a steady fare of salty, fatty foods.
It's an issue that is addressed in the film Fed Up, a documentary that explores the relationship between Americans' doubling of sugar intake since 1977 and the explosion of obesity and Type 2 diabetes over the past three decades. Fed Up acknowledges the collusion between government and big food companies as a powerful contributor to a dire prognosis: Today's kids – the first generation in two centuries – are expected to have shorter life expectancies than their parents.
The theory that excess sugar causes obesity – rather than the widely accepted culprit, dietary fat – is gaining steam. Last fall, CBC's the fifth estate explored the surprising science connecting sugar, obesity and a myriad of chronic diseases.
Many of us eat sugar because it makes us feel good. The sweet stuff boosts serotonin levels in the brain, which can make you feel calmer and happier.
The food industry also helps condition our craving for sweet. In an effort to make us like (and buy) their products, companies have dumped more and more sugar into processed foods. As our taste buds get used to sweeter-tasting foods, we crave more sugar.
There's also the habit factor. The desire to eat a cookie with a cup of tea or to finish your meal with ice cream may occur simply because it's what you're used to. Habits can have a powerful hold – the more often you reach for that sugary treat, the less conscious you become of the behaviour.
So what are the signs that you might have a sugar addiction?
Ever notice how having a morning muffin can leave you craving something else sweet? Can't finish a meal without eating dessert? Always reach for sugary snacks to boost lagging energy?
Here's the good news: Just as our palettes are conditioned to crave sugar, they can be trained to want less of it. While there's no hard data to show how long it takes to lose a sweet tooth, in my professional and personal experience, you can retrain your taste buds to prefer less sugar in three to four weeks (ditto for salt).
If eating sweet foods has become a firmly grounded habit, it may take longer to overcome your craving. Use the following strategies to help detox your taste buds and cut your sugar intake.
If you add sugar (or honey) to coffee and tea, or drizzle maple syrup over oatmeal, or blend agave nectar into smoothies, cut back incrementally to acclimate your taste buds to a less sweet taste.
Each week, reduce the amount of sweetener you use by one-quarter teaspoon. (Reduce by half a teaspoon if you typically use more than a teaspoon.) When you're used to the new level of sweetness, cut back again.
Dilute sugary soft drinks – pop, iced tea, lemonade, fruit punch – with plain or carbonated water.
Reduce the number of days each week you have a sugary dessert until you're indulging only once a week.
Stay clear of artificial sweeteners
Swapping artificial sweeteners for sugar won't lessen your sweet cravings; it will only continue to feed them. Plus, their intense sweetness can dull your taste buds to the taste of naturally sweet foods such as fruit.
Satisfy with natural sugar
Combat sugar cravings by including naturally sweet foods in meals and snacks. Serve winter squash with a dash of cinnamon and clove; add sliced strawberries or raspberries to green salads; mix chopped, dried apricots into quinoa and grain salads.
Snack on fruit instead of a sugary granola bar; serve fresh or stewed fruit for dessert.
Figure out your cues
Determine what's behind your sugar habit. Do you head to the cookie cupboard when you're bored or stressed out? When you're watching TV? Or simply because you know there's a bag of chocolate-chip cookies in the house? Cut out as many triggers as possible. Pick up a book instead of reaching for the remote. Or don't even bring cookies into the house.
Make a list of alternate things you will do when emotions arise that prompt your sugar habit. Review it often.
Eat every three hours
Waiting too long to eat can set you up to grab sugary foods to quell hunger. To keep your blood sugar stable and your appetite in check, eat three meals and a mid-morning and mid-afternoon snack.
To suppress appetite longer, include a protein-rich food – e.g., egg whites, Greek yogurt, poultry, fish, lean meat, tofu, legumes, nuts – at meals and snacks.