We’ve all had it—that intense feeling when you get home from work, or while you’re watching late-night TV, when you need to have a piece of chocolate right this minute. While satisfying your sweet tooth may feel good at the time, giving into sugar cravings too often can wreak havoc on your health and waistline. Here’s the scoop on why you should rein in your sweet tooth, and how to do it.
The Dirty on Sugar
“Added sugars” are sugars and syrups added to processed foods while they’re being made. They’re not the same as naturally occurring sugars in foods like fruit or milk, which also provide vital nutrients like calcium, vitamin A and vitamin C. Added sugars come with calories but have little to no vitamins and minerals. And when you go overboard on calories, it can lead to weight gain.
What’s more, a study in The Journal of the American Medical Association found that having too much added sugar in your diet can raise your risk of dying from heart disease. Other research shows that added sugar is linked with type 2 diabetes, obesity, cavities and certain types of cancer.
How Much Is Too Much
The 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans say to limit added sugars to no more than 10% of your total calories per day. This means if you consume 2,000 calories each day, no more than 200 calories, or about 50 grams of sugar, should come from added sugar. If that sounds like a lot, consider this: One can of cola contains a whopping 41 grams of sugar. This is why it can be easy to exceed the limit.
Where the Sugar Hides
A high amount of added sugar isn’t just in obvious treats like soda, candy and ice cream. In fact, much of the sugar people consume today is in processed foods that we don’t consider sweets. It’s added to frozen meals to enhance flavor and pasta sauces to balance out the acidity. Added sugar may also lurk in protein bars, cereals, barbecue sauces, ketchup and sports drinks.
Finding out how much added sugar is in your food and drinks can be tricky, because the nutrition label does not differentiate between sugars that are added and those that occur naturally. Instead of relying on the number of grams listed on the label, check out ingredient lists to learn how much sugar has been added to a product. Some common names for added sugars include:
Corn syrup or high-fructose corn syrup
Fruit juice concentrate
If any of these names show up first or second on the ingredient list, the item is likely packed with sugar. Consider swapping it for a healthier choice.
How to Kick Your Sweet Tooth to the Curb
Sugar tastes good and it surrounds us, so controlling your cravings is often no easy feat. But know that with the right tools and mindset, you can tame your sweet tooth and reduce your sugar intake, replacing nutritionally-void choices with options that are higher in vitamins and minerals. Try these tips:
1. Go cold turkey.
Some people find it’s best to avoid all added sugars to nip their cravings. With this approach, the first 48-72 hours will likely be especially challenging, but some people say that their cravings go away within a few days. Remember to read labels closely since sugar is hidden in many packaged foods.
2. Give in a little.
On the other hand, giving up sugar altogether isn’t for everyone. In fact, being too restrictive can backfire and cause you to crave sugar more. Then you may overindulge and feel guilty. Allowing yourself one small treat each day may keep you from overdoing it.
3. Avoid processed foods.
Sugar is added to most processed foods to enhance flavor and extend shelf life. Swapping processed foods for whole foods, including vegetables, fruits, whole grain products, lean sources of protein and dairy can help lower your overall sugar intake.
4. Eliminate temptations.
You may be more likely to eat sugar if you can get it easily. Clear the candy bar stash from your cupboards and avoid the snack aisle at the grocery store. When you host gatherings, send guests home with leftover treats. Out of sight, out of mind.
5. Keep a bowl of fruit on the counter.
If the urge for sweets strikes and you can’t resist it, have a piece of fruit instead. Its natural sweetness should quench your craving, and it will give you a dose of vitamin-rich nutrition. Stock up on apples, oranges, watermelon and berries so you’re always ready the moment a craving hits.
6. Roast your veggies.
It’s true—you can satisfy your desire for sugar by eating vegetables. This is because roasting veggies brings out their natural sweetness. Try roasting sweet potatoes, purple cabbage and Brussels sprouts for a tasty, nutritious treat.
7. Schedule snacks and meals.
It’s not uncommon to mistake hunger for a sugar craving. Eat healthy meals and snacks at set times to prevent yourself from feeling famished and making unhealthy food choices. Keep snacks at your desk and in your car. You’ll always be prepared with a nutritious option when hunger strikes.
8. Buy single servings.
If you really want ice cream, don’t purchase a half gallon. Instead, buy a single serving size. This way, once you’ve eaten it, it’s gone. The rest of the ice cream won’t be in the freezer tempting you to polish off the carton.
A lot of people eat when they’re stressed. But it’s not usually broccoli we’re reaching for. Studies show that people crave “comfort foods” (foods often high in sugar and fat) when they’re under physical or emotional stress. Finding ways to ease stress may keep you from turning to sweets. Consider taking up exercise or trying meditation to combat stress.
10. Distract yourself.
Cravings tend to be short-lived. Instead of giving into a craving when it hits, take a break from whatever task you’re doing. Go on a short walk or call a friend. Distracting yourself for a few minutes can make you forget about a craving.
11. Keep a journal.
When you crave sugar, make a note of the time, the food you want, how you feel and how you avoided giving in. Eventually, you may notice a pattern and learn what strategies work best to beat your cravings. Then you’ll be better equipped to overcome cravings in the future.
12. Enlist a buddy.
Don’t go at it alone. Ask a friend or family member to cut down on sugar with you. Having a buddy can help you stay motivated and hold you accountable. Plus, you can trade tips on how you’ve cut down on sugar.
Amy Magill, MA, RD, LDN is Manager of Clinical Programs at Walgreens, where you can find nutritious snacks and vitamins. She prides herself on educating others about how to live healthy lifestyles through a balanced diet.
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