Taming the “Sugar Monster” in all of us

There is probably no other food ingredient people feel so passionate about as sugar.  Food manufacturers know this as since the mid-1990’s, over 600 new food products  have been introduced, most of which are candy and sweet snacks.  Even songs have been written about sugar – think of “Brown Sugar” by the Rolling Stones, “Sugar, Sugar” by the Archies or “Sugartime” sung by Johnny Cash, just to name a few.  

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Why is sugar so prevalent and why do we have such a strong preference for it? What is sugar and why is it used so much? Sugar is a simple carbohydrate composed of one unit of glucose and one unit of fructose. Carbohydrates are the primary source of energy for all body functions.  Sugar is mainly used to add sweetness to food, but it also helps to give a nice brown color to bread crusts, enhances the smoothness and flavor of ice cream and can be used as a natural preservative in foods like jams and jelly. 

If you read the ingredient lists on food labels and see any of the following words - high-fructose corn syrup, brown sugar, raw sugar, maltose, dextrose, honey, fruit juice concentrate – they are all simply different forms of sugar.

Our love of sugar

Around the world, we are all born with an innate liking for the taste of sweetness.  This is just biology and has nothing to do with  the increase of added sugars to numerous beverages and foods in recent years.  It is believed that this inborn liking for all things sweet, is related to the acceptance of sweet tasting breast milk when a baby is born.  In essence, there are two main reasons most of us continue to  love sugar even into adulthood:  One, we are hard-wired for the evolutionary driven taste preference of sweet tasting foods and beverages, and two, when we have repeated exposure to highly processed, heavily marketed, and intensely sweet foods, this sets up a lifelong weakness of choosing sugary items.  Also, sugar is a carbohydrate and carbohydrates stimulate the release of serotonin, a feel-good hormone along with endorphins that calm and relax us. 

In addition, sugar may have some pain-reducing properties and let’s not forget, it simply tastes good. 

Sugar’s problem

If we could keep our sugar intake to a small amount each day, there wouldn’t be a problem with it – often easier said than done..   The American Heart Association (AHA) states Americans average about 22 teaspoons of added sugars each day – that’s equal to 352 calories coming from sugar.  The AHA recommends limiting our intake of added sugars to 6 teaspoons for women and 9 teaspoons for men each day. There are natural sugars found in fruits and dairy food, but it’s the sugars added to processed foods (soft drinks, cookies, donuts, etc.) that many people, including children, are eating more of.   Foods with natural sugar will provide numerous healthy vitamins, minerals and fiber, substances processed foods are lacking in. 

It’s estimated that 86% of 2-3-year-old children consume some type of sweetened beverage or dessert each day, whereas 80% of children do not meet recommendations for fruit intake. When we have repeated exposure to sweetened foods, we tend to develop a preference for that taste and will find ourselves craving it throughout the day.  Eating too much sugar will affect you in several ways:  It displaces more healthy food options; it makes it harder to control diabetes; increase the likelihood of dental cavities; adds extra calories leading to weight gain and researchers have found a link between sugar and unhealthy levels of blood fats, increasing the risk of coronary  heart disease.

Taming the sugar monster

Your sugar cravings can be tamed.  It is not necessary to try to totally eliminate all sugar from your diet, but there are ways to reduce the amount and get it (and your taste buds) under control: 

*Choose water over sugar-sweetened beverages.

*If you have a craving for sugar, try chewing a stick of gum. 

*Instead of sugary foods, eat more fruit.  Fruit still provides a sweet taste but it also contains numerous vitamins, minerals, and fiber that sugar doesn’t.

*Eat regular meals each day.  Going too long without eating (more than 5 hours), can set you you up for craving sweets.  Choose protein and fiber-rich foods such as peanut butter, meats, nuts and vegetables to stabilize your blood sugar and your hunger. 

*Ever feel like the “sugar monster” is calling your name?  Get up and move.  Take a walk, do housework, play with the dog, do whatever it takes to resist the temptation.

*If you find yourself automatically adding sugar to breakfast cereal, coffee, tea or other foods, reduce the amount you normally use by half.  In most recipes, you can experiment reducing sugar anywhere from 1/3 to ½ of what the recipe calls for, without affecting the outcome. 

*When you have a strong craving for something sugary, eat a small amount of the food.  Whether it’s a small handful of jelly beans, a small cookie or a fun-size candy bar, you won’t end up feeling totally deprived.

*Avoid artificial sweeteners.  They trick the body into thinking it’s getting something sweet and can actually make you crave sweet foods even more.

Tame your inner “sugar monster” once and for all – one teaspoon at a time.