"Three?" she said, more surprised than judgmental. I shrugged. I'd always had a sweet tooth, and I'd never given it a second thought. I delighted in digging my spoon into the soft hill of white crystals. A full sugar bowl felt like a kind of abundance. And the taste, from the first soothing sip to the last, was heaven.
It would become an inside joke, her knowledge of my little quirk. But from that day forward, I grew increasingly self-conscious about my three spoonfuls. I began to view my nightly forays into some sweet or another (dark chocolate, creme brulee, Twizzlers) with a more questioning eye.
The nature of my relationship with sugar -- intimate, dependent, and cloaked in mystery (or, some would say, denial) -- is not unusual. "We like intense experiences that feel pleasurable," says Marc David, a nutritional psychologist and founder of the Institute for the Psychology of Eating, in Boulder, Colorado. "Of course, you want to repeat that experience. Your body becomes habituated to that pleasure spike." Even those of us who know the health implications of excessive sugar intake (extra inches around the waistline, chronic illness down the road) struggle to shake the habit.
Luckily, there's hope for me and fellow fans of the sweet stuff, and it all starts with awareness. Sugar has powerful biological and emotional effects on us, and by understanding why we turn to sugar in the first place, we can employ practical strategies for improving our relationship with it. As I've discovered, it's not about eliminating sugar altogether. Rather, by getting more conscious of our habits, modifying intake, and enjoying the sweet treats we do have, we can do a world of good for our mood, energy levels, weight, and overall health.
Physiologically, we're set up to crave sweets. The flavor meant survival for our ancestors, because sweet foods have the most calories, explains John Bagnulo, Ph.D., clinical nutritionist at the Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. To this day, a majority of our taste buds detect sweetness. When they register sugar, they release endorphins. And sugar in our bloodstream eventually tells our bodies to release the feel-good chemical serotonin.
"Sugar makes us mildly euphoric," says Bagnulo. But it also has an immediate calming effect, which explains why we automatically reach for sweets when we are stressed or tired, two feelings that are often accompanied by low serotonin levels, says Beth Reardon, an integrative nutritionist at Duke Medical Center. Sugar can provide instant (though often fleeting) balance and comfort.
Recent studies have also shown spikes of another neurotransmitter, dopamine, when blood sugar levels increase. Dopamine enhances our feeling of satisfaction or satiety after a meal, says Reardon. (No wonder dinner doesn't seem complete without dessert.) Surges of dopamine and serotonin, however, go hand in hand with a rise in insulin. That's where the health problems begin, particularly if we're turning to refined sugars, found in candies, baked goods, and sodas.
To balance insulin levels, the adrenal glands release hormones that increase inflammation in the body. Over time, this inflammation can become chronic, contributing to conditions such as heart disease, diabetes, and certain types of cancer. More immediately, hormonal swings affect our mood. The more sugar we consume, the higher we peak and the harder we crash. We end up feeding a cycle as we seek the instant gratification we get from dopamine and serotonin.
Our instinctive love of sweets can't be explained by pure chemistry, however. Cultural and emotional associations, both happy and sad, affect our habits, too, says Reardon. Pharmacists used to pass out lollipops with medicine; we were soothed by mom's apple pie or chocolate-chip cookies. "These learned associations and happy memories reinforce the physiological effects," she says. "We still go for that."
There's nothing wrong with occasionally turning to sweets for comfort. "It's a problem when it becomes unconscious and chronic," says David. Then we overdo it -- and can even grow dependent. "We often look to [sugar] to give us pleasure, rather than searching for it in other parts of our lives," says Reardon. "Instead of seeking out what we really need, we go for what's within arm's reach, because we know it will make us feel good."
Take emotional stock. Look for the parts of your life that need more "sweetness." If your relationships or career make you unhappy, says David, "it's understandable that you want to eat a lot of sugar." Explore ways to make your job more harmonious, and examine those relationship conflicts instead of avoiding them, so you can find solutions. Interestingly, when levels of oxytocin (the "cuddle chemical") rise, we experience a calming effect similar to that which serotonin provides. What makes oxytocin levels spike? Physical affection, says Reardon. "You get the same benefits from a hug as you do from a doughnut." And hugs contain zero calories or trans fats.
Find satisfying substitutes. Instead of finishing things off with ice cream after dinner, have some berry applesauce. If afternoon has you craving sugar, pack a baggie of dried fruit to get you past the slump.
Say no only once. Avoid purchasing sweets at the grocery store, says Reardon, and then you won't have to police yourself at home.
Get a dose of exercise and sunlight. Animal studies show that exercise elevates dopamine, the same pleasure chemical affected by sugar. Bright sunshine boosts serotonin levels.
Retrain your taste buds. When we eat a lot of sweets, the taste buds get desensitized, says Reardon. Teach them to love other tastes again, starting with the strong flavors of herbs and spices. Ginger and nutmeg can increase satiety, and cinnamon has been shown in research to lift moods. Anything with a strong flavor or temperature (think peppermint or jalapenos) can counter sweet cravings.
Say gobble, gobble. The tryptophan in turkey and some beans can help make serotonin, so it may support your efforts to kick a sugar habit, says Bagnulo. You don't get the same crash that you do with sugar, because the protein and fat in turkey slow down your body's processing of the complex carbohydrates.
Tune in. Learn to appreciate what food tastes and smells like again. Go for quality. The more flavorful a food tastes, the less you need. When you're paying attention to all your senses, David says, you get more pleasure from the experience.
Try acupuncture. Although no studies assert that acupuncture can directly help you cut back on sweets, the relaxing treatment can reduce stress, says David, which may mean we're less likely to turn to dessert for comfort.
Long gone are my three-teaspoon days. Now I'm down to one. I changed two things: the size of my spoon and the quality of my tea. Turns out, I actually enjoy the taste of tea. Next, I'm hoping I can convince my body that one square of dark chocolate and a walk in the neighborhood will work as well as a creme brulee for dessert. And thanks to Reardon, I've got a new motto: Get hugs, not doughnuts.
Text by Janice O'Leary