The BitterSweet Way
It has taken me most of my life to control my sugar cravings. My sugar cravings started extremely early. There is a picture of me at 3 years old sitting on the bed crying my eyes out. My mouth is opened due to some unknown sorrow and there’s candy in my mouth. I’m also holding candy in both of my hands and have a candy necklace around my neck. You’d think the sugar would have appeased me as a toddler, but apparently I wasn’t satisfied. I look like a poster child for not giving your child any candy. As soon as I find the picture I will post it.
Some of my earliest memories are of me hunting down cookies. I remember as a 4 year old climbing like a cirque du soleil arcrobat on the counter when my mom was upstairs looking through all the cupboards for her stash of caffeine coated cookies. Her hiding places were never safe from me. My nickname wasn’t the cookie monster without a reason.
Pint A Day
When I started living on my sugar cravings turned to: Haagen Dazs! I would eat a daily pint of macadamia nut brittle in one sitting. Yes, a pint a day! I would never reach a level where I would experience something as being too sweet. That just didn’t exist for me. The first thing I’d check on a restaurant’s menu? Desserts! My meal would be ruined even before a single dish was served if there was no dessert to my liking. So I think I can claim to know a thing or two about controlling sugar cravings.
Not So Sweet After All
When I tell clients this story after their initial surprise, they wonder if I was overweight. For some reason I never gained weight on my ice-cream and fries diet. But before you write me off as an annoying freak of nature, I had my fair share of scarring symptoms. Throughout my teenage years and most of my twenties I suffered from horrible acne. Despite an active lifestyle, which consisted mostly of dancing, I was always exhausted. The brain fog I suffered from really prevented me from studying and when I worked as an economist. I actually struggled with staying awake during classes and then meetings. I could literally fall asleep and taught myself to look present while my mind would shut down completely.
Sugar Cravings Out Of Control
You might wonder if this was all due to my sugar consumption. I’m convinced it was. As you probably know sugar cravings can take a form that is similar and probably even worse than cocaine addiction. I’m not telling you anything new when I say sugar is bad. But this story is not about cutting out sugar completely, hear me out.
One of my favorite areas of research that can provide us with great insights on the functioning of our physiology is looking on how humans have evolved. When we look at sugar from that perspective our first human encounter with the taste of sweet is breastmilk. Human milk contains a high degree of complex sugars. At first these were thought to be just prebiotics (food for the good bacteria in the gut). Research has found that the benefits go beyond this to also preventing the bad bacteria to sticking to the baby’s intestinal wall. These complex sugars aren’t present in formula (yet). Sweet taste and being attracted to sugar is an innate characteristic of humans. The soothing feeling that comes from something sweet reminds of our mother’s care.
For depleted moms sugar cravings are really bad news. During pregnancy your mineral stores get used up by your baby if your diet isn’t providing enough of these nutrients and sugar will further this process. Minerals are important building blocks of vitamins and also enzymes. These enzymes make sure the necessary chemical reactions in your body speed up. Without sufficient mineral stores your immune system suffers, you experience muscle cramping and energy levels are low, to name a few consequences.
Sugar and Minerals
When you have unrefined sugar these will still contain minerals. Unrefined sugars are the ones that haven’t been processed like honey, maple syrup, dates and stevia. These are my preferred choices when you need to sweeten things up. Mineral stores get depleted by refined sugar.
In order for your blood sugar regulating hormone, insulin to do its work it needs chromium to be effective. When the body is trying to digest the sugar it uses chromium to do so. As these stores get used up, there isn’t enough to make sure insulin can do its work properly. You end up with high blood sugar and a possible diagnosis of being diabetic.
Calcium is another mineral that gets depleted by a high sugar intake and this will end up causing osteoporosis when you’re depleted. This mineral needs to be balanced out by another mineral called phosphorous. Metabolizing sugar will waste phosphorous causing an unbalanced ratio. The surplus of calcium is harmful for your body. Your body then uses up beneficial calcium from your teeth and bones to make up for this unbalanced ratio.
Too much sugar is also detrimental to our magnesium stores. Since magnesium is essential for around 300 processes in the body including energy production, that’s a big problem. Again having to digest the sugar uses up magnesium. But more importantly without magnesium it’s very difficult to regulate blood sugar. With a high blood sugar level the depletion of magnesium becomes worse.
If you’ve been reading my blog a bit, you know I can’t write a post without mentioning the importance of your gut. And when it comes to sugar, a high intake will not only damage your gut lining but also starve the good gut bacteria by overfeeding the bad. Having more good bacteria than bad is linked to better health. Also these good bacteria are tasked with digesting nutrients, making vitamins and hormones, maintaining a healthy gut lining, they fight disease and play a large part in your immune system.
Feeding Bad Bacteria
The bad bacteria thrive on sugar. These bad bacteria are controlling your sugar cravings by signaling your brain to drop everything and get that snack! This is what leaves you feeling powerless. And when your sugar cravings seem are out of control bad bacteria will worsen the loop.
The Reward Trap
At the sight of sugar your brain releases dopamine. This is the chemical that gets released when your brain thinks a reward is coming its way. Dopamine will then take over the areas that are in charge of your attention, motivation and action. You probably recognize how a piece of delicious looking cake can take over all your senses forcing you to have it NOW.
Critical To Survival
At the same time your body knows the cake will make the sugar in your blood rise. In order to prevent this above average spike, your blood sugar drops. This will make you feel a bit queasy, which further strengthens the craving. The problem with this loop is that dopamine makes us believe that having the cake
Haagen Dazs is critical to our survival. Yeah right! It makes us go out in the pouring rain to get some or eat the whole pint when we don’t even enjoy it anymore. It’s not a happiness strategy, but one that ensures us to stuff our face when food was scarce.
We are forced to chase the pleasure of sugar by that promise of reward even if it will harm us. When we’re stressed our brain gets more sensitive causing us to be less able to resist the dopamine rush we get from the (sugary) temptation in front of us. This explains why it seems impossible to keep up with those good intentions when stressed out (by a screaming toddler, baby unwilling to sleep at night, morning rush of getting everyone ready etc.).
The stimulation we get from refined sugar is so extreme that our brain tries to blunt it. This makes the story of sugar cravings even worse. When you eat large amounts of sugar your brain ensures that you have less dopamine receptors to cope with the stress of the rush. So the next time you eat the cookie the effect isn’t as rewarding and you need more to reach the same effect. This explains my ability to finish a whole pint in one sitting and still craving more afterward. The situation seems pretty hopeless at this point.
In Come The bitters
When I say bitter most people make a face of disgust. From an evolutionary standpoint we have a preference for sweet since bitter was often an indication of toxicity. We have made it a point to remove bitter tastes from our food. Modern day vegetables have been stripped of their bitterness by plant breeding and modern agriculture. Even though a lot of bitter foods are extremely healthy, think of brussels sprouts and endive for instance.
Lately, I’ve been studying herbalism and bitters tastes are often used for plant medicines. A theory exists that says our sugar cravings are actually a craving for bitter foods. Most sweet foods have this bitter component. When sugars are refined they’re stripped of their bitterness completely and we don’t find even a bit of satisfaction in our quest for bitterness. This might further explain the lack of satiety we find when we’re suffering from a sugar cravings.
When we look at our taste receptors: bitter and sweet receptors on our tongue have similar pathways when the brain registers these tastes. A lot is still unknown about our taste receptors, but this fact might give some backing to the link between sugar addiction and bitter craving. Think about chocolate, the darker it is the more bitter it becomes. You only need a little piece of really dark chocolate to satisfy that craving compared to a whole bag of M&M’s. That’s why adding bitter tastes is a very great strategy to deal with your sugar addiction.
Control Your Sugar Cravings
Add bitter foods to your life since these will help you curb your sugar cravings. When I say bitter foods, I am talking about daily adding the following foods to your diet:
- Brussels sprouts
- Cacao nibs
- Green Tea
This is a great start, but not an exhaustive list. I love this strategy of adding bitters instead of stopping with sugar cold turkey since it will balance out your cravings instead of relying on willpower.
Bitter For Babies
There’s a good reason why it might be difficult to get your kids to eat (bitter) vegetables. If your little ones are genetically more sensitive to bitter tastes they are more likely to be attracted to high doses of sugar like I was. That’s why steaming vegetables to release some of the bitter tastes and mixing them with sweeter vegetables like carrots and sweet potatoes is a good idea.
Less Or No Sugar
If you’re someone who needs a clean break in order to make a change, I challenge you to see what happens after a month without sugar. Things to watch out for: glowing skin, more energy, sharper mind and a better digestion. I think it’s always powerful to know how your body reacts to these type of eliminations. In my experience it’s a way of life that’s not necessarily sustainable. Especially because of the soothing effect sweet tastes have.
What About Fruit?
A pet peeve of mine is the war on fruit lately. Fruit eaten whole is a great option since it contains fiber that will prevent blood sugar from spiking. We don’t eat six pears in one sitting, but can have a whole glass of pear juice. Even if there’s no added sugar, you still get all the natural fruit sugar without any fiber to slow down the blood sugar spike. Have fruit whole when you need something sweet and avoid all types of fruit juices.
Sugar Cravings Gone?
My sweet tooth hasn’t disappeared and I have made my peace with that a long time ago. The upside is that I can nor want to eat a whole package of Oreos or whole pint of Haagen Dazs. My taste buds have changed. That is something you can control as well by incorporating bitters in your life and avoiding refined sugars. It feels really good to no longer be controlled by my sugar cravings.
My advice would be to experiment without sugar, accept your sweet tooth with unrefined sugar, avoid refined sugar as much as possible and add bitters to your life.