Do you have a sweet tooth? I certainly did (and I have the cavities to prove it!). Hundreds of years ago, sugar was known as a “fine spice,” however, today, you would be hard pressed to find products without even a dash of added sugar. Believe it or not, even my Listerine mouthwash contains sugar (sorbitol specifically, an alcohol sugar). While sugar is nice, sweet, and is the “comfort” in many of our “comfort foods,” we all know that too much of it isn’t good for us.
Recently, I have been trying to cut down on my sugar intake — no easy feat. I have decided to cut down on sugar for health reasons, however, not the obvious health reasons you may expect. While we all know that too much sugar can have negative consequences on the body, another pernicious side effect is on the mind — the food cravings.
Scientists claim that sugary foods can have a drug-like effect on the human brain, “driving the loss of self-control, overeating, and subsequent weight gain.” In the past, when I have tried to cut down on unhealthy food. I would take a moderation approach, which for me meant eating the same foods in smaller quantities. However, with sugary foods, this can be extremely difficult because the sugar-induced cravings persist.
A few years ago when I was in graduate school, I was on the leadership team of a residence hall council. One of our most controversial topics of the day, believe it or not, was what types of foods we should provide at our meetings. Specifically, one resident sent our council an email complaining that she did not want to attend the meetings because we “never offered any healthy food choices.” The resident complained that having unhealthy food was too tempting at the meetings and that she would rather not attend than be tempted by the treats…. This to me was a bit bizarre. Our meetings were 1. optional, 2. at an after-dinner hour, and 3. free. That is to say, that the food we provided (which was admittedly unhealthy takeout food) was just a fun side rather than a mandatory meal. Why would a resident have a problem with free food?
While I could not see the harm in offering FREE less-than-healthy food at our meetings, another council member was in support of the resident’s declaration. This member, let’s call her Rowena, argued that sugar is addictive and that people simply cannot control themselves around sugar. Rowena’s argument that humans uniformly lost control around sugar created more controversy….
Bert, a resident in our community, taking a position of personal liberty, started up an “anti-healthy food” crusade, arguing that we should be free to eat what we want including unhealthy foods. Why let the council control our dietary choices? Bert’s main point was that we can choose whether to eat unhealthy food and mandating that the council only provide healthy food was a stupid policy.
Somehow the healthy food debate spanned very many weeks. We asked ourselves what makes food unhealthy? Was it sugar? Fat? A lack of vegetables? Rowena proposed that we take a vote on whether the council should provide healthy food exclusively and to my memory, I believe that we did not come down hard against “unhealthy food.”
However, as bothered as I was about the resident and Rowena’s claim that “people cannot control themselves around sugar,” I find that sentiment to hold some truth within me. I simply do not feel as tempted to indulge in sweets when I avoid sugar.
Nowadays, I am doing my best to eliminate excess sugars. Sugar lurks all over. Finding a breakfast cereal without added sugar means reading each and every label carefully (even the “multigrain” and “bran” varieties often have added sugar). Also, even though I love peanut butter and dates (more here), many varieties of these products do include added sugars that I try to avoid.
While at first this change has made my diet feel a little drab, as my taste buds adjust to the new flavors, I find myself satisfied with less sugar. I feel like my brain is a sugar detector now. I accidentally did buy dates with added sugar and upon eating a few, I could feel how the sugar was inciting my old cravings — it’s not a great feeling! Now when I feel hunger, I don’t feel like I’m dying for something sugary, salty, or fatty, I just feel hungry sans cravings.
So, altogether, the fewer sweets I eat, the less of a sweet tooth I have. Now with the holidays coming up, I have the added challenge of baking with less (or no!) added sugar. An impossible feat? To be determined….