Here's why it's so hard to stop eating sweets—and what you can do about it.
While it’s tempting to blame your dessert habit on the simple fact that sweet foods taste delicious, there are far more physiological, mental, and even emotional factors that send us searching for sweetness. Consider the following:
1. YOUR HORMONES LOVE SUGAR.
When you’re hungry, gut hormones like glucagon-like peptide, ghrelin, and insulin basically beg you to acquire energy from food. “These hormones are secreted by your stomach and bowels and send signals to your brain that control your hunger, cravings, and how full you feel after a meal,” says Michael Russo, M.D., a general and bariatric surgeon at Orange Coast Memorial Medical Center.
Sugars like glucose and fructose are like gasoline—they burn up fast to give you a burst of energy. If you eat too much sugar, you become accustomed to these quick hits of energy, and you just want more and more.
Your move: Build your meals and snacks around slower digesting fuel sources like proteins. “If eating sweets is like throwing newspaper on the fire, protein is like a log,” Dr. Russo says. Your hormones will then send signals to your brain to help you feel more satisfied with the amount and type of food you’re eating. This leads to fewer cravings for the quick burning sweets. Try these 6 Muscle-Building Snacks You Can Make With Protein Powder.
2. YOUR BRAIN IS PROGRAMMED TO USE GLUCOSE AS FUEL.
The brain uses glucose for fuel 95 percent of the time. The other 5 percent comes from glutamine, an amino acid, says Craig Koniver, M.D., of Primary Plus Organic Medicine in Charleston, SC. You might crave sugar because your brain is low on glucose, spurring a biological drive to acquire more.
Your move: We can actually "trick" our brains by eating glutamine instead of eating something sweet, says Dr. Koniver, who recommends taking a 500-milligram glutamine supplement capsule. Here’s how he explains it to his patients: “When they feel a sugar craving coming on, I tell them to open the capsule and pour the powder underneath their tongue where it will be taken directly into the blood stream.” As with any supplement, check with your doctor first before taking the plunge.
3. YOU USE SWEETS AS AN EMOTIONAL CRUTCH
It isn’t your imagination — that chocolate bar really is making you forget about your troubles. “Sweets produce a hedonic response in the hypothalamus that activates the dopamine reward system,” says Barry Sears, Ph.D., president of the Inflammation Research Foundation. “The increase in dopamine can address emotional pain.”
Alcohol and drugs activate the same dopamine reward system, which is why some people abuse them, he says. A recent study even showed participants who were randomly assigned to a painful experience and who were then offered a choice of two foods (cheesecake and a non-sweet food) chose the cake more often than participants who did not experience pain.
Your move: Learn how to eat proactively, not reactively, says Dan DeFigio, an ACE-certified personal trainer and director of Basics and Beyond Fitness & Nutrition. DeFigio suggests using planning sheets to organize your eating schedule for the next day or even for the whole week (printable meal planning templates are free and available online). When you have your meals planned out, you’re more likely to stay on target and resist the urge to grab fast, prepackaged foods, many of which contain lots of sugar.
4. CHILDHOOD PATTERNS ARE HARD TO BREAK
If you were rewarded with sweets as a child, or if sweets were withheld as a form of punishment, you may have grown up associating “forbidden sweets” with pleasure, says clinical psychologist Carla Marie Manly, Ph.D. “To further complicate matters, the brain comes to associate sweets with comfort, nurturing, and love,” Manly says. “On a neurobiological level, feel-good neurochemicals are released once the ‘treat’ is obtained and this loop further reinforces the ‘craving, eating, and reward’ cycle.”
Your move: Begin to replace food rewards with healthy, but equally pleasurable ones, such as an after-workout massage. Take notice of when sugar cravings kick in, and then distract and disarm them by doing something else. For example, when a bad mood strikes, lace up your sneakers. In a study from Bowling Green State University, people who jogged at whatever intensity they liked for 15 minutes boosted their mood. And as a bonus, they ended up running harder than they thought they did.