If you’re coming out of the holiday season feeling like you need to take a little break from the sweet life but aren’t having the easiest time shaking it, you’re not alone.
Sugar has a very powerful effect on the reward center of our brain. There is a growing body of evidence to suggest that the chemistry underlying sugar addiction is virtually identical to the chemistry underlying drug addiction in that both are driven by dopamine – the neurotransmitter that controls the brain’s pleasure reward circuit.
When we consume sugar it stimulates the release of dopamine and we experience a sensation of pleasure. We get cued by sights, sounds and smells that evoke powerful memories of pleasure and keep us coming back for more. Every time we succumb to addictive foods we reinforce the circuit of desire and reward further, making it harder for us to break the pleasure cycle. In short, the more we eat sugar the more we want to eat sugar, and vice versa. Some of us may have inherited a biochemistry that makes us especially vulnerable to this cycle.
The good news is that there are strategies we can put in place to help lay new tracks and diminish those persistent sugar cravings. Today I’m sharing some of my top tips for hitting the reset button and restoring balance.
1. Enjoy fresh lemon juice in tepid water and on food — I can’t say enough about the benefits of the humble lemon. Beyond acting as a potent antioxidant during cold and flu season (vitamin C) and adrenal gland supporter (important during times of stress), the citric acid in lemon juice also helps cleanse both the palate and invigorate the digestive system. This action alone can be powerfully helpful for moving things along and changing the taste and direction of food choices we make throughout the day — nothing like the sharp taste of lemon to blunt sugar cravings and snap us out of lasagna mode. Hydrating and delicious, you can enjoy a glass of lemon water first thing in the morning (a great way to start the day) and/or before meals — simply squeeze fresh lemon juice into tepid water. A cautionary note, if you start drinking lemon water with any degree of frequency, you may wish to start using a straw to limit the exposure of acid on your teeth (prevent the erosion of tooth enamel). Lemon juice can also help prevent fluctuations in blood sugar levels by reducing a food’s overall glycemic index (the acid in lemon helps slow the conversion of carbohydrates to sugar). Consider adding fresh squeezed lemon to fruits and vegetables and side salads that accompany your meal.
2. Make sure you’re getting enough protein in your diet — protein helps prevent jags in blood sugar levels that can promote cravings. Unlike carbohydrates that are metabolized relatively quickly into sugar in the body, protein requires more work for our bodies to break down and metabolize. This improves our sense of fullness and satisfaction and also assists in keeping our blood sugar levels stable (which can also be very helpful for mood and concentration).
Conversely, when blood sugar levels are fluctuating and start to drop, our brain naturally cues us in to seek the quickest form of energy available to correct the imbalance, a carbohydrate/sugar. This is a normal, adaptive response but the result is that we end up jumping from one sugar to the next. To overcome this response, we need to avail ourselves of sufficient protein throughout the day to prevent the sugar loop (this is also an excellent strategy for avoiding insulin fatigue/type 2 diabetes). Be sure to include a protein source not only with your meals but also your snacks – a strategy that holds true for adults and children alike.
3. focus on natural sugars — the initial stages of reducing sugar can be really difficult, especially when coming off the holidays surrounded by the heavier hitting desserts. When the urge strikes, seek out natural sources of sugar to satisfy desire without fueling cravings. Here are a few of my favorites:
- fresh fruit salad ~ make a large batch, squeeze some fresh lemon juice over the fruit (to delay oxidization, extend life and benefit from the acid) and keep it stored in a covered container in the fridge. I think sometimes we forget just how gorgeous and appealing fruit salad can be;
- frozen fruit: place fresh fruit such as: blueberries, grapes or sliced bananas on a parchment lined baking sheet – freeze until solid and then transfer to a freezer bag and keep stored in the freezer. It takes longer to eat frozen fruit which prolongs the duration and enjoyment of the snack. You can also blend frozen fruit to create a delicious smoothie or ice cream (banana works especially well for this).
- dark chocolate: opt for 75% cocoa or higher (the higher the cocoa content the lower the sugar) – one or two squares when the urge strikes is a great way to meet desire without fanning the flames – dark chocolate is also antioxidant rich. I enjoy making chocolate clusters – a simple combination of melted dark chocolate with nuts/seeds and dried fruit. But my current fave is frozen sliced banana dipped in dark chocolate which I keep stored in the freezer – beyond simple and perfect for satisfying without priming the pump. Coming soon to the blog!
4. Be aware of other sugars that may be sabotaging your efforts – there are obvious sources of sugar that we all recognize in dessert foods and then there are the other pleasure producing foods we don’t always associate with re-enforcing our sugar cravings such as pasta, bread and alcohol. Keep in mind that alcohol is a sugar with powerful altering effects on blood sugar and mood. It can be very difficult to reduce sugar consumption in food while simultaneously consuming it in liquid form – alcohol or other beverages. When you do wish to eat bread and/or pasta, consider whole grain sources (fibre does help slow the conversion of carbohydrates to sugar modestly in addition to its other health benefits) but more critically, include a protein with these carbohydrate sources to help mitigate the rapid conversion to sugar in the body.
5. Create new habits — if you find yourself craving sugar around the same time every day, consider initiating new habits. For instance, the evening (following dinner) is commonly a time when dessert cravings set-in. Establishing new routines such as making a warm pot of flavored herbal tea or going for a walk following dinner can be really helpful for changing the palate, shifting focus and laying tracks for new habits and routines. At first, the herbal tea will seem like a small (and possibly annoying) consolation prize but give it one week of consistent application and you’ll be seeking it out with pleasure and not punishment. You might even find yourself craving peppermint tea!
The information in this post is provided for educational purposes only and is not intended as a substitute for the advice of your physician. Always consult your physician or other health care professional directly before beginning or changing a course of health treatment.