Nutritionist Claire Turnbull explains why we crave sugar — and how to retrain our taste buds (in just three weeks!).
Like most people, I grew up with a weakness for the sweet stuff. Before I started wearing my nutritionist hat, I would opt for flavoured yoghurt over plain, choose jam over Marmite and have a drizzle of maple syrup whenever possible.
During the 10 years I’ve worked in nutrition, I have certainly tamed my sweet tooth, but in the past year or so, I’ve been on a mission to take it one step further and avoid sweet foods as much as I can. (To avoid becoming obsessive, I’ve also decided that fruit and the odd squeeze of honey are the exceptions to my new sugar-free rules.) My attempts to remove most of the added sugars and artificially sweetened foods from my diet have had a single goal: to retrain my taste buds and break my lifelong sugar habit.
I started to choose low-fat unsweetened yoghurt, ignoring the urge to smother it in honey; swapped diet drinks for soda water, sparkling water or spicy tomato juice; and whizzed my smoothies with green vegies, not handfuls of fruit. I resisted layering jam on top of my peanut butter, and upped the ratio of unsalted nuts and seeds to dried fruit in my snacks. I also made sure I included protein and healthy fats in all my meals and snacks to keep me feeling satisfied. Overall, I made a real effort to clean up my palate — not to mention my plate!
Initially, things did taste a little tarter (the green smoothies were definitely less appealing than the fruity ones), but I got used to it. What’s interesting is that when I tried some of the sweeter things I used to have, they just tasted wrong — I had retrained my taste buds to love food that’s less sweet. I’ll never go back to depending on sugar, and I can show you how to do it, too!
Why do we crave sugar?
We’ve learned to love it
Over the years, we learn to like certain foods and flavours more than others. Unfortunately, most of us develop a taste for sugar, salt and fat, and that becomes the norm. I was reminded of this a few weeks ago when I walked into a friend’s place and found her 18-month-old son sucking on a lemon — a lemon!? When I asked her why (she’s a paediatric dietitian, which is handy when you need a credible answer), she said, “Foods don’t taste the same to kids as they do to us — they haven’t learned our bad habits!”
Health experts advise us not to add sugar or salt to our kids’ food for good reason: Their kidneys can’t handle it when they’re really little, and they just don’t need it. When kids eat sweet and salty foods, they learn to accept them and start to see them as normal.
We can find it everywhere
The problem is, sugar is a cheap ingredient that tastes good. It also works wonders for the texture of some food products and acts as a preservative. As a result, too many of the packaged foods we buy are loaded with sugar, which means we’ve become used to things tasting sweet; we even expect it! You can find sugar in everything from savoury sauces to breakfast cereals and snack bars — it really is everywhere.
We feel like we’re addicted to it
Eating sugary foods and drinks can increase the brain’s levels of dopamine, a feel-good hormone that can give you that feeling of a ‘hit’ or ‘high’. When you try to give up a behaviour that gives you this kind of high (in this case, eating lots of sugar), you can experience symptoms of withdrawal.
Some people experience cravings and feelings of irritability or poor concentration when they give up sugar; others can suffer from headaches or stomach cramps. The good news is that these problems usually disappear after a month or two.
The fact that our nerves respond to sugar has led some experts to believe that it may have addictive properties. Although the jury is still out on whether or not sugar is truly addictive, there are people who feel like they have some sort of addiction to sugary foods and drinks, and some of us seem to be more sensitive to the effects of sugar than others.
Easy ways to curb your sugar cravings
So what’s the answer to managing sugar cravings? Here are some simple steps to get you started:
1. Plan and enjoy nutrition-packed meals and snacks
This might sound obvious, but it’s a crucial starting point! One of the reasons we reach for sweet foods and drinks when we’re hungry is that they’re quick fixes that give us an instant burst of energy. This fix is short lived though, so it’s best to avoid getting yourself into situations that force you into grabbing something your body doesn’t really want or need.
Plan all of your meals and snacks. Always include energy-boosting complex carbohydrates, and choose low-GI foods: Fibre-rich wholegrain breads and cereals (think oats, quinoa and buckwheat), and beans, chickpeas and lentils give you long-lasting energy. Steer clear of refined carbohydrates, such as white bread and sugar-rich cereals.
Include protein in all of your meals and snacks to help you feel satisfied after eating and stabilise your blood-sugar levels. Each meal should also include a little healthy fat to nourish your body with the essential fatty acids it needs to work at its best. Splash a tablespoon of olive oil into a green salad, or spread a quarter of an avocado onto your sandwich.
Sprinkle nuts and seeds into meals such as breakfasts, salads and stir-fried-vegetable dishes. Nuts and seeds provide protein, ‘good’ fats and a wide range of vitamins and minerals, so they’re also perfect snack foods.
Pile your plate with vegetables. Aim to eat at least three or four large handfuls each day, and include a variety of different coloured veg, as each has different valuable nutrients.
2. Retrain your taste buds to accept less-sweet foods
Get your taste buds on your side, and you’ll be naturally drawn to healthier options, making it much easier to choose foods and drinks that are nutritionally rich.
Cut back on sugar and aim to eventually stop using it to sweeten hot drinks. (Add less honey to your smoothies, too.) Start by halving the amount of sugar you’d usually add.
Try low-fat unsweetened yoghurt rather than a variety with added sugar. It may taste slightly sour at first, but you’ll soon get used to it. If you need some sweetness, add a little fresh or frozen fruit. Greek-style yoghurt is thick and creamy, which makes it very satisfying as a between-meal snack.
Spread natural peanut butters, avocado or hoummos on bread or crackers instead of sugary jam or honey.
Make water your drink of choice, and try to limit the amount of flavoured drinks you consume. Sugar-free versions with sweeteners may not contain actual sugar, but they encourage you to favour a sweet taste.
Sprinkle less sugar into your breakfast cereal or porridge, and then try enjoying brekkie without any sugar at all. Your taste buds may need some time to adjust, but in a few weeks, you won’t miss the sugar. Fresh fruit has all the sweetness we need.
3. Develop healthy new habits
Many of us eat sweet foods out of habit or as a way of managing our emotions. This is more of a learned behaviour than anything else, but we often confuse it with a physical craving.
Break the habit of ending your meal with something sweet by cleansing your palate with a refreshing brew, such as peppermint, licorice or ginger tea. You can then brush your teeth (if you’re at home or somewhere it’s practical to do so), which will confirm that you’ve finished eating for the night.
Be mindful of what you’re eating — and why. Are you eating because you’re hungry, bored, tired or emotional? If so, you may be using food for the wrong reasons, and this is the problem you need to address. Keep a food diary for a few weeks to see why you’re reaching for sweet things. Once you’ve identified patterns in your behaviour, you’ll be in the perfect position to make some changes.
If you find you’re eating sweet foods when you aren’t really hungry, you need to do something enjoyable that doesn’t involve food. Call a friend, read a book or magazine, write your feelings in a journal, or take a walk around the block or in the park. You could also try having a bath, painting your nails or listening to an audiobook or your favourite song. Write a list of ideas and keep them close at hand for times when cravings strike.
Create a healthy and helpful environment. If you decide to cut back on the amount of sweet foods and drinks you consume, turn your home and workplace into supportive environments.
Limit the amount of sweet treats you buy, and keep anything you tend to mindlessly pick at or snack on out of sight, either at the back of a cupboard or in an opaque container.
Pack healthy snacks to take to work. You’ll be less likely to grab an oversized cookie or muffin at morning tea for lack of other options.
4. Make healthy swaps and opt for more real wholefoods
We have access to so much highly processed, sugar-laden food that it’s easy to forget how we can avoid many of them: it’s about getting back to basics.
Stir up your own salad dressings and cooking sauces. Most don’t need sugar, and you can boost flavour with herbs and spices.
Replace tomato sauce with diced tomato and onion, or make salsa with a splash of balsamic vinegar.
Mix your own muesli with only a little dried fruit, or opt for oaty porridge or Bircher muesli. Sweeten your bowl with some fresh or dried fruit, cinnamon or vanilla.
Trade sugary lemonade for still or sparkling water with sliced fresh lemon or cucumber.
Swap sweet biscuits for two wholegrain crackers topped with natural peanut butter, hoummos or low-fat cottage cheese.
Tweak your home baking so you’re adding less sugar. You can reduce the sugar in most recipes by one-third to a half without affecting texture. Experiment with substituting stewed fruit or low-fat yoghurt, or both, for some of the sugar in a recipe.
Snack on unsalted raw nuts and a piece of fresh fruit, or a little dried fruit, instead of snack bars.
Swap fruit juice for a piece of fresh fruit and a glass of water or low-fat milk.
Breakfast or snack on unsweetened natural yoghurt with chopped or grated apple or pear, a sprinkling of seeds or muesli and a pinch of cinnamon. It’s like eating apple or pear crumble!
Green your smoothies! A handful of baby spinach in a smoothie made of berries, low-fat milk and yoghurt will blend right in — you won’t even taste it!
Swap cups of sugar-laden tea and coffee for soothing herbal brews, such as peppermint or green tea. If you’re looking for a little sweetness, pour a licorice tea for its deliciously satisfying aftertaste.
Blend frozen bananas and berries to make a delicious dessert that’s free of added sugar.
Where does the sugar in our diet come from?
17% table sugar and jam 15% doft drinks 11% alcohol 9% sweets and chocolate 8% fruit juice 6% cakes, biscuits, pies and pastries 4% desserts, ice cream and breakfast cereals 3% yoghurt and dairy desserts
Do I have to give up fruit?
No, not at all! Fruit is a terrific source of vitamins, minerals and fibre — it’s an all-round good-for-you food that’s also a sweet treat. For most people, two to three serves of fruit a day is ideal, as you can overdo it on the fruit front. Once you’ve enjoyed your daily serves, switch to vegetables — raw carrot, cherry tomatoes and snow peas all make great snacks. Remember: It’s best to eat fruit whole rather than drink it as juice.
Taste bud facts
You have anywhere from 2000 to roughly 10,000 taste buds.
The average lifespan of a taste bud is roughly two weeks.
Studies show that you can retrain your taste buds in about three weeks!
To bring out foods’ natural sweetness, roast your vegies and your fruit! This concentrates the sugar, making food taste sweeter. Roast fruit until it’s soft and caramelised, and serve with low-fat yoghurt.