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Most of us have been there at some point. You somehow find yourself barefoot in your kitchen at midnight, eating ice cream out of the container. Alternatively, the mid-afternoon energy slump has landed you in front of the vending machine pining for a package of candy. Maybe the kids didn’t exactly have to twist your arm to make brownies last weekend. And, by the way, is that whole sleeve of cookies really gone?
How is it that, despite our most valiant efforts, a sugar craving can effortlessly throw a healthy way of life off track? And how do we combat these cravings in an effort to eat better?
Get a handle on the basics.
Hydration, protein intake and movement all play an important role in sugar cravings. In fact, it’s estimated that 75 percent of Americans are chronically dehydrated. “Lack of hydration is a real problem, because our bodies are primarily water,” says Cindi Lockhart, senior program manager for Health and Nutrition at Life Time Fitness.
Adequate hydration is essential for energy, nutrient absorption and improved digestion, maintaining body temperature, detoxification, easing joint pain, optimal mental function, younger appearance and weight control. Furthermore, by the time actual feelings of thirst set in, they’re often mistaken for hunger. “Naturally, as we reach for the nearest cupcake in an inadvertent attempt to resolve physiological thirst, our ‘cravings’ will not be satiated,” says Samantha Bielawski, registered dietician and personal trainer at Life Time Fitness.
Optimizing protein intake can also help stabilize blood sugar spikes and crashes, which cause an energy level roller coaster and an endless cycle of cravings for sugar and carbohydrates throughout the day. “A lot of my clients are shocked to learn their true protein needs and are pleasantly surprised when they are liberated from the urge to eat every two to three hours,” says Bielawski.
Bielawski says movement and exercise can also impact your sweet tooth. “Not only will a walk distract you from the nearby vending machine fare, but you’ll also enjoy the non-sugar-induced serotonin boost. Add some sun exposure – especially during the midday slump, and you’ll feel naturally invigorated.”
Ditch healthy labels.
Recently, there’s been an increase in the amount of healthy labels gracing products in grocery store aisles. Even still, Bielawski says it’s important to choose wisely. “Every nutrition choice either moves you toward health or away from it. In my experience as a dietitian, most foods plastered with flashy labeling and elephant-sized font proclaiming their healthy qualities are anything but.” She says processed foods that are unrecognizable in nature are typically high in carbohydrate and grossly lacking in hunger-busting protein and fat. Processed carbohydrates like these give a temporary high, possibly fueling sugar addiction, but what goes up must come down. Healthier options include a handful of cashews, hard-boiled eggs or Greek yogurt topped with grain-free granola. “The bottom line is man-made food rarely provides nourishment. We should all try to stick with unprocessed, natural foods whenever possible,” says Bielawski.
Arm yourself with adequate sleep.
Research shows when healthy adults are sleep-deprived they tend to crave carbohydrates and can develop disruption to normal blood sugar regulation. “This means your body is even more apt to add that sugary intake directly to your midsection,” says Bielawski.
Retrain your taste buds.
“One of the Life Time Weight Loss Support Groups I am involved in found added sugars in everything from gravy mix to canned mushroom soup, and I am confident that those specific foods don’t taste overtly sweet to the average American,” says Bielawski.
Experts agree that our sweet sensors require much more sugar now than they ever have before to actually promote the sensation of “sweet.” The answer, however, isn’t simply transitioning to chemically fortified sugar free alternatives to enjoy at liberty.
“While an artifically-sweetened dessert is OK as an occasional treat, any dessert food – whatever the sweetener – shouldn’t take up a substantial portion of your diet,” Bielawski notes. “While it may sound extreme,going cold-turkey on sugar can go a long way in turning down those taste buds to their natural subtlety.” Bielawski adds that we might even find ourselves fully satisfied with the silky sweetness of roasted beets or the vivid taste of fresh summer raspberries, no longer needing the taste of a diet soda, which is a very good problem to have.