Sugar?Can?t Live With It Or Without It…But Here’s How You Can Try

Like it or not, we are a nation with a collective sweet tooth. Sweeteners?natural or artificial’saturate our food supply, appearing in everything from beverages, cereals and yogurts to processed meats, condiments and even spice blends. Now, the growing epidemic of obesity is shining a spotlight on sugar as a possible contributor to America’s weight problem.

But a love of sweets doesn’t mean sugary foods have to dominate your diet. Here, EN offers advice on how to manage a sweet tooth without giving up what you love.

Sugar: Why We Love It. Back when primitive man hunted for food, sugar?usually in the form of honey?was a highly prized commodity. It provided a much-needed source of concentrated calories to supplement low-calorie plant foods. Moreover, a sweet taste tipped man off to safe and edible foods, while bitter-tasting foods often signaled dangerous or poisonous substances.

So important is sweetness to survival that we are genetically programmed to like it. Unlike other tastes, which are learned, newborn infants are born with a liking for all things sweet. And yet researchers speculate it’s more than just the taste they savor. Despite the misconception that sugar makes kids “hyper,” its effect on serotonin levels in the brain actually produces a calming effect. And apparently, a spoonful of sugar does more than make the medicine go down; studies show it acts as
a pain-reliever in infants.

Scientists recently identified a specific sweet taste receptor unique to humans and even a gene for sweets. But this doesn’t mean you can totally blame your genes for an overactive sweet tooth.

“Although humans do have an innate preference for sweetness,” says Gary Beauchamp, Ph.D., Director of the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia, “how much we eat and the intensity of sweetness we like varies depending on our age, ethnic background and life experiences.” Beauchamp presented his information at a conference on Understanding Sweetness this spring in Washington, D.C., hosted by Oldways Preservation Trust, a food and nutrition issues think tank based in Boston.

For example, children like sweets of higher intensity than adults do, witness their attraction to candy. And growing up with certain ethnic foods influences our taste buds. Still, genes do matter. Not all species are hardwired to like sweets nor do they all experience sweet tastes the same. Cats, for example, lack the sweet taste receptor and can’t taste it at all.

Too Much of a Good Thing. While sugars were a boon for our ancestors, in today’s world they are more hindrance than help. Consider that sugars added to foods have increased tremendously over the years, so that Americans now eat more than 23 teaspoons of added sugar every day, mostly in the form of sugary beverages like soft drinks. That adds up to more than 400 calories a day.

Empty calories and weight gain aren’t the only things to worry about. Overconsuming sugary drinks may also increase the risk of cardiovascular disease. That’s what a recently published study from the University of California suggests after comparing blood triglyceride levels in volunteers who drank several sweetened beverages.

In the study, eight men were given three meals, each accompanied by one of the following: (1) a drink sweetened with high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS), the main sweetener in soft drinks and juices, (2) a drink sweetened with sucrose (table sugar), which is 50% fructose, (3) a drink sweetened with 100% fructose or (4) a drink sweetened with 100% glucose, the building block of all sugars. When researchers measured the men’s blood lipids, they found significantly elevated triglyceride levels after they drank all three drinks containing fructose?compared to the glucose drink. High triglyceride levels are associated with higher rates of heart disease.

“For this reason, people who are already at a higher risk for cardiovascular disease, such as someone who is overweight, may want to think twice about drinking anything sweetened with fructose, such as high-fructose corn syrup,” says Karen Teff, a researcher at the University of Pennsylvania and collaborator on the fructose/glucose research.

Are You a Sugar Addict? If you?re one of those people who finds sweets irresistible, you?ll need to learn how to deal with that. First, realize it’s not like quitting smoking or overcoming a drug addiction.

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“You cannot get physiologically addicted to sweet foods like chocolate,” says Debra Zellner, Ph.D., of Montclair University in New Jersey, “it’s just not possible.” Intense cravings, says Zellner, are powerful motivators, but they?re not physiologically based.

“With a true craving, if you give the object of what that person is craving, it goes away,” notes Zellner. But she describes a study with people who “craved” chocolate and were then given a pill containing all the chemical components of chocolate. It didn’t make the cravings go away. Apparently, the chocolate cravers needed that oral sensory perception of chocolate to satisfy their cravings.

Instead of being addicting, says Zellner, a craving for sweets like chocolate is the result of conditioning based on cultural, social and individual cues.

Curbing Your Sweet Tooth. So what should you do to combat cravings? “Don’t eat sweets at a set time or place,” says Zellner. “It will create a time- or place-specific craving for that food.”

Another tactic Zellner recommends is to avoid giving sweets a favored status, such as a food to be eaten only on special occasions or birthdays, or to console yourself when you?ve had a bad day. Associating these foods with certain events or moods can not only intensify the desire for them, but lead to overindulgence.

“On the other hand, considering these foods taboo and restricting them from your diet doesn’t work either,” says Zellner. “You have to find a happy medium.”

The Bottom Line. The key to managing sugary foods, like most things, is to not overdo it. Monitoring when and why you eat sweets can help control your cravings and let you gradually decrease your intake. And then you just may enjoy the sweets you do eat that much more.

?Diane Welland, M.S., R.D.

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