The Science Behind a Sweet Tooth (1:03)
I have a problem. After just about every savory meal I eat, I crave something sweet afterwards. My love for sugar runs deep — I even have the special talent of growing a second stomach when it comes to dessert. But while working for The Dr. Oz Show for almost five years, I have come to learn that sugar is bad for you — like, really bad for you. I, like many other people, want to stop eating sugar for good. After all, it can not only play games with your blood sugar levels, causing you to feel sleepy during the day, but too much sugar can lead to serious health issues down the line like diabetes, heart disease, and obesity — just to name a few.
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If you need more proof, a 2012 study published in Neurology found that people who have higher blood sugar could be at risk for their brain shrinking. As terrifying as it may sound, this information isn’t meant to scare; it’s meant to inform. If you want to cut back on sugar but aren’t sure where to start, experts in the field (and former sugar addicts themselves) Molly Carmel and Dr. Mike Dow can help. Carmel is a licensed social worker and behaviorist who specializes in food relationships and struggled with sugar for 20 years before finally quitting. Dr. Dow is a psychotherapist who has studied the brain on sugar extensively and was formerly a diet soda addict. Here are their best tips (that are actually easy to follow!) to help you stop eating sugar for good.
Don’t Stop Cold Turkey
Dr. Dow says the first — and biggest — mistake people make when trying to quit sugar is to wake up one day and proclaim they’re done with it forever. What this does is create a cycle of self-blame and an inevitable set up for failure. “[When I wanted to stop drinking diet soda] I would go cold turkey, then I would obsess about the diet soda [I couldn’t have] and then I would give in and then I would be trapped in this downward spiral,” says Dr. Dow. “I would blame myself, I would characterize myself as weak, and then it would start all over again.”
Instead, Dr. Dow says, you need to rewire your brain to set yourself up for long term success.
Start Your Morning Off With a Smoothie
The best way to rewire your brain to prevent sugar cravings is by slowly eliminating sugar from your diet. If you usually have coffee in the morning that is loaded with sugar, milk, and flavored syrups, you should swap it with a healthy smoothie substitute.
I know what you’re thinking: smoothies have sugar in them too, right? While that’s true, if made the right way, smoothies can contain only a healthy amount of natural sugar from things like fruit (which is still okay to have). Try this smoothie recipe created by Dr. Dow and his team. This smoothie surprisingly has cauliflower in it for an extra dose of vegetables and nutrients in your morning. While it does contain cocao powder, vanilla extract, and fruit, these are all wholesome, natural, sources of sugar with vitamins and minerals that won’t elevate your blood sugar or cause you to crash mid-morning.
Can’t imagine giving up your morning Starbucks order? Don’t worry; Dr. Dow says it only takes about a month to create new habits and train your brain. So if you can make it through 30 days, eventually you won’t miss that sugary coffee.
Keep Yourself Full Throughout the Day
If you keep yourself full and satisfied, you’ll be less likely to get that 3 p.m. sugar craving. The best way to achieve this goal is to eat wholesome foods high in fiber and protein. Carmel recommends adding chia seeds to your daily regimen to keep you full. She adds them into her salads and sometimes enjoys chia pudding for breakfast or as a midday snack.
Avoid Artificial Sweeteners
Just because foods are labeled “sugar free” or “no sugar added” doesn’t mean you should eat them. Typically these items contain artificial sweeteners or sugar alcohols that are still sugar in some form.
Artificial, or “zero calorie”, sweeteners have long been touted as a healthy sugar alternative, but Carmel argues “artificial sweeteners are worse for you rather than better.” A 2019 study from the American Heart Association (AHA) found that women who consumed two or more artificially sweetened beverages per day were 23% more likely to have a stroke and 29% percent more likely to develop heart disease.
Drink Gymnema Tea
If you’re craving chocolate out of boredom or just want something sweet to eat after dinner, drink gymnema tea instead. Gymnema is an herb found in India and Africa that, according to WebMD, “contains substances that decrease the absorption of sugar from the intestine.” Preliminary research has shown that if gymnema is consumed before sugar, it can block the receptors on your taste buds that make sugar taste delicious. Brew a cup of this and drink it in order to avoid your sugar cravings. Dr. Dow recommends shopping for tea that contains 25% gymnema to get the full effects.
Eat Foods That Contain Tryptophan
You might associate tryptophan with falling asleep on Thanksgiving post-turkey, but tryptophan can also help you squash your addiction to sugar. According to Dr. Dow, “sugar will increase serotonin [the “feel-good” chemical] in the brain. So when you take away sugar, you’re going to be missing on some of that serotonin.”
Dr. Dow says that the best way to boost your mood without your regular dose of sugar is through foods that contain tryptophan, which also produces serotonin in the body. Most high-protein foods like eggs, chicken, and cheese, contain tryptophan. “These foods are high in protein and healthy fats. You’re going to get a lot of energy, and instead of [a sugar crash], you’re going to have a nice steady form of energy throughout the day,” he says.
Eat Cashew Butter
If you’re like me and crave something sweet after dinner, Dr. Dow recommends swapping your go-to sweet treat with two tablespoons of cashew butter. He says it’s high in monounsaturated fat and protein, which won’t spike your blood sugar before bed, but will still give you the taste of something sweet.
Wait 5 Minutes & Breathe
It may sound ridiculous to say “just wait it out,” but in the case of sugar, Carmel finds this to be the best advice. She’s found that if she waits five minutes post-craving and gets started on another task, the craving will pass.
If that doesn’t cut it, Carmel recommends and breathing exercise to pass the time. Why is this helpful? It’s common to get a craving for sugar when you’re stressed. By eliminating your stress and reducing your anxiety through a breathing technique, you can hopefully get rid of the craving. Carmel calls her technique “peace breathing”: Start with your hands on your stomach and then take a deep breath in for four counts and out for six counts. Repeat several times until you feel yourself start to relax.
If this entire article made you crave sugar (like it did me while writing it), now might be the perfect time to try out some of these techniques. Teach them to a friend our family member so you can practice and see what works best for you together.