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Combating Cravings?

I've been able to give up meat, dairy, even smoking cigarettes, but sugar is the one that I can't seem to shake. What can I do to curb my cravings? Why do some people have a sweet tooth and others don't?

Answer (Published 5/29/2014)

Originally published February 21, 2005. Updated May 29, 2014.

You're not alone. Cravings for sweets are widespread. A study from the Oregon Research Institute published in 2013 found that pleasure centers in the brains of high school students became acutely active in response to the sugar in chocolate milkshakes they consumed. The researchers reported that this response illuminates a food-reward network seen in compulsive eating. They also found that the fat in the shakes didn't approach the effects of the sugar in stimulating the reward network. Lead author Eric Stice told The New York Times that "what is really clear not only from this study but from the broader literature overall is that the more sugar you eat, the more you want to consume it."

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One of the reasons that cravings for sugar are so prevalent may be that sweets are often given to us as treats when we're young, developing our taste for sugar and associating sweets with rewards. In some people, sugar affects mood, which is another factor that may underlie cravings. Eating sweets can also increase levels of the neurotransmitter serotonin, which can help you relax, suggesting that some cravings are stress-related. Researchers at the University of California, San Francisco, have reported that chronic stress might explain why some people crave comfort foods. In studies with rats, the researchers found that chronic stress prompted the animals to engage in pleasure-seeking activities, including eating high-energy foods (in the rats' case, sucrose and lard). The study was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

There are a number of different strategies worth trying to help overcome a strong appetite for sugar:

  • Try to satisfy your cravings with fruits that are low on the glycemic index (berries, cherries, apples, pears), which are healthier than other sources of sugar and give you the added benefit of fiber.
  • Experiment with the Chinese-medicine-inspired strategy of eating more bitter foods (curly endive, radicchio, cooked greens, some olives, etc.) to balance your need for sweets.
  • Consider using the Ayurvedic herb gurmar (Gymnema sylvestre). Known as the "destroyer of sugar" gurmar is reputed to slow both the absorption of sugar into the blood stream and the conversion of sugar into fat. It also may help curb your desire for sweets.
  • Work with a hypnotherapist in an effort to reduce your sugar cravings might be helpful.
  • Practice breathing techniques, progressive relaxation and exercise as a means of addressing and reducing the stress that may underlie your urge to seek refuge in sugary foods.

Andrew Weil, M.D.

Eric Stice et al, "Relative ability of fat and sugar tastes to activate reward, gustatory, and somatosensory regions." American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, December 2013. doi: 10.3945/ajcn.113.069443.

M.F. Dallman et al, "Chronic stress and obesity: a new view of 'comfort food'". Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, September 30, 2003;100(20):11696-701

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