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General Health

How to Quell a (Raging) Sweet Tooth

Sugar is undeniably sweet, but its effects on the body are not. Here’s how to handle those sugary cravings.

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If you’re like many of us, your sweet tooth is probably going into overdrive, especially during the pandemic. But we know that when eaten in excess, sugar can harm your health. So what’s a sweets lover to do? Work to tame that tooth. 

How sugar harms the body

Having a sweet tooth stems from a biological reason. “Sweet foods set off a chemical reaction in your brain’s reward center, such as releasing dopamine, which makes you feel good,” says Dawn Jackson Blatner, R.D.N., C.S.S.D., nutrition partner with Daily Harvest and author of The Superfood Swap (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016).

Yet most people don’t understand how dangerous sugar is, says Robert Lustig, M.D., professor emeritus of pediatrics at the University of California, San Francisco and author of Metabolical (Harper Wave, 2021). He points to three things sugar does to the body. 

For starters, sugar creates liver fat. “Your liver metabolizes sugar like alcohol, and while a little won’t hurt you, a lot will,” Lustig says. 

Sugar also causes an aging reaction in the body. Think, for instance, of ribs slathered in barbecue sauce. That’s what the inside of your body looks like because of sugar. “That caramelization reaction is the aging process, and fructose in sugar makes that reaction run seven times faster,” Lustig says.

Finally, fructose in sugar activates the brain’s reward center. “Anything that activates the reward center is pleasurable,” Lustig says. “But in the extreme, it’s addictive.” 

To be clear, the deleterious effects of sugar are coming namely from added sugar. There’s also sugar found naturally in foods like whole fruit and unsweetened dried fruit. “Natural sugar is considered better than added sugar because it comes with vitamins, minerals and nutrients naturally found in those foods,” says Blatner, adding that excess added sugar can cause weight gain, low energy, bad mood, increased anxiety and stress, decreased memory and focus and skin problems like acne or wrinkles. The World Health Organization recommends limiting added sugar to less than 10 percent of total daily calories.   

Curb those cravings

As long as your sweet tooth hasn’t progressed to a point where you’re so addicted that you require professional help, you can work on taming it at home. Follow these five strategies: 

  1. Do things to increase feel-good hormones. “You’ll need less sugar if you’re getting good feelings from other places,” Blatner says. Think exercise and any other activities you enjoy.
  2. Eat regular balanced meals. Each meal should have a little carbohydrate like sweet potato or quinoa along with protein, vegetables and fat. “This will keep blood sugar and energy levels steady to reduce the instinct to look for quick sugar energy,” Blatner says.
  3. Switch to satisfying, natural sources of sugar. When you want something sweet, choose nourishing options, Blatner says. For instance, try apple nachos (sliced apple drizzled in nut butter and topped with unsweetened coconut and cacao nibs) or strawberries dipped in dark chocolate. 
  4. Look for hidden sugar in labels. Sugar has many different names and hides in so many foods, namely processed and ultra-processed foods. That’s why you need to read labels. “If a food has a label, that’s a warning label,” Lustig says. 
  5. Enjoy an exceptional dessert, but only once a week. “I am for dessert but not dessert for breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks,” Lustig says. When you have that dessert, choose a spectacular one.