Why we crave the sweet stuff.
In lots of ways, sugar does have drug-like properties. We’ve all experienced that intense, all consuming need for something sweet. That alone is a testament to the power of this craving.
Sugar affects us from the moment we are born, literally, because sugar is present in breast milk. Of course, this illustrates that not all sugars are problematic. For example, sugars in fruit (which occur naturally) are also part of a complete nutritional package with fiber, antioxidants, and vitamins. Fiber helps slow the release of sugar into your bloodstream, helping to prevent the insulin spike that science has proven to be harmful. So fruit sugars are not the devil.
But there are other kinds of sugars we need to be aware of. White sugar, of course, goes through a process of refining and bleaching, leaving it in a form that’s almost unrecognizable by our bodies. It is not only without fiber, but also totally devoid of any nutrition. When we eat this kind of sugar, our bodies immediately want to expel it from our systems, which is part of the reason why it raises blood sugar so quickly. Because of that blood sugar surge, our bodies use the hormone insulin to pull that sugar out of the blood, making insulin levels spike. After a comprehensive review of over 30 clinical trials, New Zealand researchers at the University of Otago found that eating more sugar is associated with weight gain, and eating less equates to weight loss.
Note also that many so-called “natural” sweeteners can be just as problematic as white sugar. One popular sweetener, known as agave nectar, is refined like the high fructose corn syrup you find in soda and contains an even higher concentration of fructose than corn syrup. There are studies that show refined fructose interferes with Leptin, the hormone that makes you feel full—so you are constantly hungry. Researchers have found that corn syrup-sweetened beverages not only raise blood sugar, but also play a direct role in obesity. They do that, in part, by turning off the hormone leptin that makes you feel satiated. And if you’re thinking, “that’s okay, because I only drink diet soda or beverages”—think again! One alarming study from the University of Texas Health Science Center San Antonio found that diet sodas could actually be worse. Subjects who drank two or more diet sodas a day, over a nine and a half year period, averaged 500% greater increases in their waistline than those who drank no diet soda at all.
All this research points to the massive roles both sugar and sweet cravings play in our lives. When these cravings come over us, it’s nearly impossible to maintain control, and this is why it’s helpful to have some coping strategies in place. One is to have low-calorie natural sweeteners like xylitol or stevia with you, and then you can make something like hot cocoa with almond milk, cacao powder and a little of the natural sweetener—which will keep you from reaching for the sugar-laden chocolate in your office or at the grocery checkout.
I also think it’s helpful to understand sugar on an energetic level. Sugar is considered to be a “yin” food in traditional Chinese medicine, which means that, in contrast to salt, it’s one of the most expanding foods. (Salt is very contracting, which means that it causes cellular fluids in the body to contract.) Because sugar has these expanding properties, when we eat foods with sugar, we tend to feel more relaxed and open. This is part of the “high” that keeps us stuck in the cycle!
The relaxing properties of sugar are another reason why we seek out sugar, especially during stressful or tense times, and why it can become so addicting. Eating sweets can feel very comforting and almost like a “reward”—which triggers the release of endorphins. To combat the root of sugar cravings, it is essential to find other forms of rewards and stress-relief to create balance, whether it’s checking out a yoga class after work, getting out for a walk in the fresh air, or getting (or giving yourself) even a 10-minute foot rub.
In Ayurvedic medicine, which has been practiced in India for thousands of years, it is believed that you need all tastes—including sweet—present in your meal in order to feel satisfied. This is another reason why you might not feel like you’re meal is done, and keep eating (sometimes overeating!), until you’ve had something sweet. Again, having dark chocolate on hand, or the ability to make hot cocoa with natural sweeteners like stevia can help give you that sweetness you crave, and help signal to your body that it’s time to stop eating.
If you opt for a sugar-alternative, I don’t recommend Splenda, which is made from sucralose—a synthetically manufactured, chlorinated, artificial sweetener created as the dangers of aspartame and saccharin were exposed. An early Duke University Medical Center study has shown that it can reduce beneficial bacteria in the gut by as much as 50%. Your gut is your second brain and plays a role in your weight/metabolism, immune system, skin health, and more. Suppressing gut health is very bad for beauty.
Ultimately, our relationship with sugar is complex and critical to our health – and thus, it’s to our advantage to understand its workings and impact on our bodies. This knowledge will help us make wiser decisions when it comes to sugar, and be less vulnerable to our cravings, whenever they arise.