Do you have a sweet tooth? Blame it on your genes. Humans are hardwired to love sugar. A craving for sweet foods was once a survival advantage. Sugar is a concentrated source of carbohydrates that can be burned for energy or converted into fat and stored for future energy needs when food is unavailable.
Today’s overabundance of enticing sweet foods and drinks, however, makes this natural craving a disadvantage—and a significant contributor to obesity and other health problems.
It’s unreasonable to advise you to never eat sweets. This goes against our most basic instincts and takes some of the fun out of life. However, I do want to emphasize the downside of eating too much sugar and offer a few tips for taming a voracious sweet tooth.
Sugar Increases Appetite and Weight
Excessive calories from any source can cause weight gain, but sugar has a special talent for packing on the pounds. The taste of sugar stimulates the release of dopamine, a neurotransmitter involved in the brain’s pleasure/reward/motivation pathways, which are also triggered by alcohol, nicotine, heroin, and other opioids. Simply put, it motivates us to actively seek more, which is why many researchers believe sugar is potentially addictive.
As sugar is digested and glucose enters the bloodstream, it signals the release of insulin, which moves glucose into the cells where it is converted into energy. Drinking a soda, which contains about 10 teaspoons of sugar, is like mainlining glucose. It rapidly drives up blood glucose, followed by a massive surge of insulin that may drive levels too low (hypoglycemia), leaving you tired, cranky, and ravenously hungry. So you reach for a sweet snack to take off the edge, and the cycle is reinforced.
After energy needs are met, all that extra glucose is stored in the liver and muscles in the form of glycogen—or converted into fatty acids and socked away in fat cells on your hips, belly, and elsewhere.
Fructose and Metabolic Syndrome
But glucose is only half of the story. Most dietary sugars—not only high-fructose corn syrup but also sucrose and “healthy” honey, raw sugar cane juice, fruit sugar, agave, etc.—are composed of varying but roughly equal ratios of glucose and fructose. The human body simply cannot handle the enormous amount of fructose in today’s processed foods and drinks.
Fructose is broken down in the liver, where it is converted into fatty acids, glucose, and lactate. Excessive intake raises levels of triglycerides, LDL cholesterol, and uric acid. It causes weight gain, particularly in the abdominal area—the most harmful fat deposition. It is a leading cause of nonalcoholic fatty liver disease, which goes hand in hand with obesity and can progress to severe liver damage.
Another serious complication of eating too much fructose—and all sugars and starches, for that matter—is insulin resistance. Insulin resistance occurs when the cells become insensitive to insulin’s effects and take up less glucose. The pancreas responds by churning out more and more insulin, resulting in high levels of both insulin and blood glucose.
Insulin resistance is associated with a cluster of conditions, collectively called metabolic syndrome, that include abdominal obesity, high triglycerides, hypertension, low HDL cholesterol, and elevated blood glucose. Metabolic syndrome, which affects one in three adults, obviously increases risk of diabetes and heart disease. But it is also closely linked with dementia, Alzheimer's, and cancer of the digestive and reproductive organs. This alone should be enough to make you rethink your sugar habit.
How to Kick the Habit
The ultimate solution may be to stop eating sweets, but what’s the fun in that? My advice is to cut out the usual culprits and save your indulgences for the good stuff—a couple of squares of dark chocolate, a slice of birthday cake, or an occasional special dessert.
Stop drinking sodas (regular and diet), fruit juice, and sweetened drinks, and learn to like iced tea, sparkling water, and plain old water. Read labels carefully and avoid products with lots of added sugars—just don’t buy them!
Find a natural sweetener you like, such as stevia or xylitol (more on this below), and use it in moderation. Keep some healthy snacks on hand that will satisfy your hunger when cravings do arise, such as nuts and seeds, raw vegetables, hardboiled eggs, and string cheese. A little fruit is fine, too. It’s loaded with nutrients, and the sugars are bound up in fiber, which slows their absorption.
Cutting back on bread, chips, and other starchy foods also reduces carbohydrate cravings.
People joke about stress eating, but it’s a real deal. Unmanaged stress results in chronically elevated levels of cortisol, which revs up appetite, especially for high-sugar and high-fat comfort foods. Medical conditions associated with sugar cravings include eating disorders, diabetes, candida (yeast) overgrowth, hormone imbalances, and seasonal affective disorder (winter blues). Treating these conditions, preferably with natural therapies, helps reduce hunger for sweets.
Micronutrient deficiencies may also play a role—yet another reason to take a good daily multivitamin. Some people claim that supplemental chromium (600–1,000 mcg per day) and l-glutamine (1–3 g every few hours as needed) help curb sugar cravings. Although there’s not much supporting evidence, these nutrients have multiple benefits and are worth a try.
I can’t deny that breaking the sugar habit can be challenging, but the payoff is tremendous—and quick! In a recent study, the sugar intake of obese children and teenagers with metabolic syndrome was reduced from an average of 28 percent of total calories to 10 percent, while overall caloric intake remained constant.
After just nine days, diastolic blood pressure fell by an average of 4.3 percent, LDL cholesterol by 12.5 percent, triglycerides by 46 percent, and fasting insulin by 53 percent. Now, that’s sweet!
Artificial Sweeteners vs. Healthy Sweeteners
Among the many downsides of Splenda, NutraSweet, Equal, Sweet’N Low, and other artificial sweeteners are growing concerns that rather than helping with weight loss, these chemical concoctions (especially diet sodas) increase risk of weight gain, abdominal obesity, and metabolic syndrome.
Their sweet taste lights up the brain’s dopamine pathways, teases your appetite, and makes you vulnerable to overeating. Furthermore, artificial sweeteners alter the gut microbiome, promoting the growth of bacteria that are more efficient at extracting energy from food and turning it into fat.
So, what can you use? As mentioned above, my favorite healthy sweeteners are xylitol and stevia.
Xylitol is a healthy sweetener that looks and tastes like sucrose, so it’s a “comfortable” sugar alternative and can be used in baking and the like. Although xylitol is not calorie-free, it is metabolized much more slowly than regular sugar and has an extremely low glycemic index, so it is safe for people with diabetes.
Stevia, a plant native to South America, has a centuries-long history of use as both a flavoring and a therapeutic agent. As a healthy sweetener, it’s about as good as they come, as it is calorie-free and does not affect blood sugar levels.
Monk fruit is newer to the market. It is a no-calorie healthy sweetener from Asia that my patients and readers rave about.
Erythritol is a sugar alcohol, similar to xylitol, that is calorie-free. (Note: Both xylitol and erythritol crystals are like sugar granules and hold up well for baking.)
Yacon syrup is another healthy sweetener I’ve got my eye on. It’s low on the glycemic index, it contains prebiotics that aid in digestion, and clinical trials suggest it may be a boon for insulin resistance and weight as well. As more information becomes available on these healthy sweeteners, I’ll be sure to share it.
The Bottom Line About Healthy Sweeteners
Whichever healthy sweetener you choose, moderation is key. Research has shown that the mere taste of anything sweet can activate pleasure centers in the brain and create cravings and urges to eat more. As is often the case, too much of most anything is not a good thing.