Jan 3, 2003 -- There's no denying that we Americans love our sugary treats. Former President Ronald Reagan had to have jellybeans on his desk at all times. Vending machines in schools, offices, and almost everywhere else feed our desire to eat sweets throughout the day. With sales of sodas, candy, and other sweets soaring, it's clear that, as a nation, we are virtually addicted to sugar in all its glorious forms.
While sugar is not literally addicting, scientists long ago proved that people are born with a preference for sweets. This innate desire does not disappear as we grow older. Some people find it impossible to leave the dinner table without dessert; others can't fathom a day without chocolate. Many women blame hormonal surges for the sweets cravings they get around the same time each month.
The results of this sugar "addiction" are not always so sweet. Sugar and other sweeteners add calories with few other nutrients and have no doubt helped contribute to our near-epidemic of obesity. (Of course, sugar is not alone in promoting obesity -- a lack of exercise and excessive calories from many other sources share the blame.)
Cavities and Calories
Sugar has been blamed for everything from diabetes, tooth decay, obesity, and heart disease to disruptive behavior in the classroom. But sugar by itself will not cause any of these conditions -- except cavities.
"Sweets can definitely increase the risk of [cavities] when the sweetened substances pool around the teeth or sticky sweets adhere to the surface of the tooth," says Atlanta dentist James Sylvan, DDS.
Aside from that, a comprehensive review of scientific research, published in the journal Nutrition Research in 1997, showed that sugar is not a direct cause of heart disease, diabetes, obesity, or hyperactivity. A more recent government report concurs that sugar is not by itself linked to any of those conditions. However, too many calories, in any form, can contribute to obesity, diabetes, and heart disease.
The Blood-Sugar Roller Coaster
Changes in our behavior are often attributed to changes in our blood sugar levels. When you consume a meal made up of simple, refined carbohydrates -- like a doughnut or a soft drink -- the result is a spike in blood sugar. Your body responds to this spike by secreting large amounts of insulin to normalize your blood sugar level.
In response to the insulin, your blood sugar level drops quickly, leaving you with a feeling of sluggishness and irritability.
When your blood sugar gets too low, hunger reappears, and the roller-coaster ride resumes -- that is, if your next meal is also mostly simple carbohydrates. These are the carbohydrates that the latest diet books denounce, not the healthy, fibrous carbohydrates that come from whole fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.
If, instead of eating simple carbs by themselves, you choose these healthy carbohydrates or add some protein or fat to your meal, your blood sugar will rise and fall more normally without the negative side effects.
Craving That Sweet Stuff
When we say we have a sugar addiction, we may mean anything from a mild desire to intense cravings for sweet foods and drinks. Some people go so far as to equate the effects of sugar to a drug, saying it calms them and helps them deal with stress.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food Guide Pyramid recommends we limit added sugars in our diet to 12 teaspoons per day. But the reality is that in 2001, the average American ate and drank the equivalent of 31 teaspoons of sugar daily.
It sounds insane, but sugar finds it way into virtually every kind of processed food, from ketchup to soups and, especially, soft drinks. One 12-ounce can of soda contains approximately 10 teaspoons of sugar. As if that is not bad enough, government data suggest that we consume an average of 41.4 gallons of soda per person annually. That's a lot of sugar -- and extra calories!
Breaking the Habit
Sugars have 4 calories per gram, or 15 calories per teaspoon. So if you want to shave calories, it's a good idea to limit added sugar in your diet. Sounds simple enough, but what about those hard-to-ignore cravings?
Here's the trick: Gradually decreasing the amount of sugar you eat, and how often you eat it, will help you reduce your desire for sugars while lowering your caloric intake. Old habits are hard to break, but making small and gradual changes in your eating style will help you break free from your sugar addiction.
Many people newly diagnosed with diabetes find that after they start eating fewer sweets, foods like fresh fruit taste sweeter and can satisfy their cravings for sweets. Remember, moderation is the key. If you can control the quantity, you will be able to enjoy sweets on occasion.
Here are some tips to help you break the sugar habit:
- Read the label on all processed foods. Check the amount of sugars, and choose products with the least sugar per serving.
- Become familiar with sugar terminology. Recognize that all of these are sweeteners: corn syrup, high fructose corn syrup, sucrose, dextrose, honey, molasses, turbinado, and brown sugar.
- Keep up with your journal, and use the notes section to document your mood, setting, and activity whenever you feel the urge to eat sweets. Review your notes, and look for patterns or triggers that you can alter to help control your sugar intake.
- Select one behavior to change each week. Try satisfying your sweet tooth with a snack-sized candy bar instead of a full-sized one. Next week, trade in a soft drink for seltzer with a splash of fruit juice.
- Satisfy your desire for sweets with the natural sweetness of whole fruits or no-sugar-added juices.
- Buy unsweetened food and beverages, and add small amounts of sweeteners if you need them. Enjoy whole-grain cereal with one teaspoon of sugar instead of presweetened cereals, which contain much more sugar per serving.
- Try using less sugar in your coffee or tea. Gradually decrease the amount you use to let your taste buds adapt.
- Don't substitute artificial sweeteners for sugar; this will do little to alter your desire for sweets. Moderate amounts of artificial sweeteners are not unhealthy, but they won't help you retrain your taste buds.
- Abstinence makes the heart grow fonder -- and it also intensifies cravings. Allow yourself small portions of sweets on occasion. Try to satisfy your cravings with a piece of hard candy or sugarless gum. If you totally deny yourself, it will be hard to think about anything else. On the other hand, if you know you are allowed one small treat per day, you will savor every bite.
- Quench your thirst with flavored waters that are calorie-free. Jazz up plain or sparkling water with fresh mint, a slice of lemon, lime, or orange, or a splash of fruit juice.
If you're a sugar "addict," kicking the habit will do your body good. The American Heart Association's newest recommendations suggest a balanced diet, low in fat, with a reduced sugar intake, along with regular exercise, as the best way to lose weight and keep it off.
Your WebMD Weight Loss Clinic Program eating plan supports these recommendations. It is designed to promote a weight loss of 1-2 pounds per week and to encourage the eating of healthy foods while weaning you from excessive sugar. So stick with the plan, follow our tips, and find out just how sweet better health can be!