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Sugar Cravings 101: Taming A Sweet Tooth

February 4, 2020

Got a sweet tooth?  Your kids have trouble finishing meals without that touch of sugar? Your spouse often craves dessert?

These are most likely sugar cravings. But don’t worry, it’s nothing you can’t manage! With a few simple tips, you’ll get your family’s sugar cravings and your own under control in no time.

Sugar in Foods

Although we don’t always think about, most foods we eat daily contain carbohydrates (sugar). There are two types of carbohydrates: simple (glucose, fructose) and complex (fibres). Carbs are everywhere! Does this mean you should stop eating fruit or grain products? Of course not, but it’s important to learn how to make better carb choices.

Glycemic index

Some foods contain similar quantities of carbohydrates but affect your body differently. How? The composition of foods can change the way sugar is absorbed and result (or not) in sugar cravings.

Imagine two track runners: one on a clear path and one running an obstacle course. Normally, the first will have better time since there’s nothing blocking the way. It’s the same for sugar absorption. When digesting a food with few “obstacles”, the body absorbs sugar quickly. If there are lots of “obstacles”, the body will absorb sugar at a slower pace. These obstacles are protein and fibre. So, eating white bread (no obstacles since it contains little or no protein and fibre) will result in the fast absorption of carbs compared to whole-wheat bread (with obstacles since it contains fibre). This is known as the glycemic index (GI). A high GI will cause blood sugar levels to rise quickly, whereas a low GI will cause these levels to rise gradually.

The following table lists examples of common foods and their glycemic index:

Low Glycemic Index

Medium Glycemic Index

High Glycemic Index

Quinoa

Sweet potatoes

Potatoes, fries, chips

Pumpernickel bread

Brown bread

White bread, bagel

Wild rice

Basmati rice, brown rice

White rice, rice cakes, rice crackers

Legumes

Whole wheat pasta

White pasta

Barley

Spelt

Flakes or puffed cereals

Steel cut oats

Rolled oats

Desserts, sugar, honey, brown sugar, maple syrup

Most fruits and vegetables

Couscous

Soft drinks, juice

 

Rollercoasters

The frequent consumption of high GI foods triggers sugar cravings because although blood sugar levels spike quickly, they drop just as fast, and when they fall too low, you can expect an acute sugar craving. This causes a vicious circle to take root since a person will eat high GI foods to overcome the sensation, which leads them right back to square one. For instance, children who eat sweetened cereal, white bread, juice or sugary spreads for breakfast will often experience sugar cravings more intensely during the day.

Hunger

Although sugar cravings are mainly attributable to food choices, another contributing cause is misreading hunger signals. Your body sends a signal when your blood sugar level (glycemia) start to decrease. If you ignore this signal, your glycemia will keep decreasing until it reaches a critical point where the body feels endangered. The need for sugar will become extreme, and the common reaction is to eat high GI foods—which, as you probably guessed, will only bring about more sugar cravings.

Stress

Stress is an unintentional physiological reaction that’s part of human evolution. In the past, the purpose of this reaction was to produce energy surges to fight or flee. In 2020, stress factors are quite different, but they still trigger the same reaction. In periods of stress, the body produces a molecule (cortisol) that can cause sugar cravings. It’s logical, because the body believes it needs an energy rush for combat or flight.

Keeping Cravings in Check

Avoiding sugar cravings is quite simple, but it requires some adjustment. If you’re trying to reduce both your cravings and those of your kids, don’t rush things. Go for a gradual approach to ensure the changes stick.

Tips to get you on track:

  1. Choose low GI foods

    The latest Canadian food guide proposes an eat-well plate with a generally low GI.  Half of the plate is vegetables (rich in fiber), one quarter is protein foods and the other quarter is whole grain foods (also rich in fiber). Start reducing sugar cravings by using this plate as a guideline for family meals and your child’s lunch. Replace refined products with whole grain foods (brown bread, brown rice, brown couscous). As breakfast generally tends to be sugary (white bread, waffles, cereals, juice), try offering your family similar foods with a low GI (brown bread, cereals rich in fibre) to start the day off on the right foot!

  2. Respect signs of hunger

    We sometimes believe, wrongfully, that the longer we wait before a meal, the less we’ll eat. But this is false! Although it’s unwise to eat when you’re not hungry, it’s equally unhealthy to wait too long. If you notice you or a family member is always starved when dinner-time rolls around, you might want to eat a snack in the afternoon when you feel hungry, or slip one in your child’s lunch box. Common hunger signals are stomach growling, feeling empty or weak, and thinking about food without seeing it.

    You should also be cautious not to eat sugar regularly. A sweet tooth is cultivated by habit and not because of a craving or hunger. Try to avoid routinely serving dessert after meals or using sugar as a treat or reward.

  3. Manage stress

    Even if you have relatively healthy diet and listen to your hunger signals, a prolonged, high level of stress can fuel sugar cravings. Try breathing exercises using mobile apps (e.g. Breathe2Relax) or physical exercise, writing, reading and so forth… anything to help manage and relieve your stress rather than eat it. Don’t forget to include your children in these activities since they also experience stress: dance together, play, colour, sing, etc.

Overall, sugar is found in several foods we eat daily and is therefore not necessarily bad. Sugar cravings indicate an imbalanced diet or lifestyle, and deserves a little investigating so you can pinpoint the causes. Most of all, don’t worry if you still have the occasional sugar craving after you’ve made some changes. No one’s perfect and that’s never the goal when it comes to food! 

 

Marjolaine Cadieux, Dt.P, M.Sc
www.lespiedanslesplats.ca
@lespiedsdanslesplats_
marjolainecadieuxnutrition@gmail.com

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