Sugar & Sweets: How & Why to Break the Habit

Muffins, donuts, chocolate bars, candy… These foods all contain something that is oh-so tantalizing to our taste buds – sugar. For some of us, we hit the wall at 3 pm and reach for a sugary treat, some candy or chocolate, as a quick boost to get us through the next few hours of work. For others, an after-dinner dessert is a tradition that is hard to break. Or perhaps you are the type that craves sugar all day long; a chocolate bar as your morning snack, ice cream as an afternoon pick-me-up, and some candy as an after-dinner treat.
Everyone has their vice; for some of us, these are sweet treats. Unfortunately, letting this vice take hold of us can sabotage us from making progress towards our health and fitness desires. Often these foods – candy, chocolate, muffins, desserts – contain lots of sugar, refined flours, and poor quality oils, so they offer empty calories without much ‘nutrition’ to our diet or benefits to our health.
Downsides to Sugar Consumption
For one, relying on sweets for an energy boost is counter intuitive. Consuming a high amount of sugar (found in foods like candy, desserts, chocolate bars, sodas) can cause spikes and crashes in our blood sugar levels which can actually lead to unstable energy levels throughout the day.

In addition, there has been some concern that sugar is addictive. Sugar activates the opiate receptors in our brain, meaning that our reward centres are affected when we consume it.(1) By consuming sugar, we positively reinforce these neuropathways and hardwire ourselves to crave more of it over time. Hence, we may become dependent on sugar for a mood and energy boost. The downside is that it provides us with empty calories (which could contribute to weight gain) and an energy spike that is short-lived. Consuming too much sugary, processed foods also increases our risk for developing type 2 diabetes.

Are you having too much?
Health Canada currently recommends no more than 5% of your total daily calories come from added sugars (this includes juice, refined sugars and syrups like honey, maple and agave syrup).

Having the occasional baked good at the coffee shop or a slice of pumpkin pie at a holiday dinner is nothing to be concern about (after all, treat yourself sometimes!). But, if you tend to rely on sugary foods for a quick energy fix, or find yourself craving it on a regular basis, you may want to consider breaking the habit to benefit your overall health.

5 Tips to Curb Your Sweets Cravings:

1) Eat regular meals throughout the day
Skipping or delaying meals can you leave you ravenous, resulting in unruly cravings that often have you reaching for things you know you shouldn’t. Keep your cravings at bay and your blood sugar balanced, by eating your meals before you are starving and about 3-4 hours in between.

2) Drink water
Are you truly hungry, or is your body craving water? Thirst and hunger signals are often confused. Remember to aim to drink 1L of fluids for every 50 pounds of body weight per day, and add more if you are active.

Water, milk, and herbal teas all count as fluid intake. Don’t like plain water? Try making your own ‘citrus water’. Add sliced lemons, limes, cucumber, berries and/or grapes to a glass or bottle of cold water and sip away.

3) Eat more protein
This macronutrient is a key player in satiety, and therefore appetite regulation. Aim for 20-30 grams of protein at each meal. Good sources include eggs, chicken, beef, fish, legumes, edamame beans, tempeh, tofu, nuts and seeds.

As a healthier treat or pre-workout snack, try a low sugar protein bar (look for 8 g or less sugar per bar). Many of them taste like chocolate bars but will keep you much more satisfied.

4) Don’t restrict your carbs
Your body needs carbs to function, and if you are active you will need more. Often we think that we need to completely avoid eating bread, potatoes, pasta, and other starchy foods because they will contribute to weight gain. The problem with this restriction is that but our body becomes deprived and this can lead to cravings for sugary foods that can result in binges.

Eat most of your carbs around the times that you are most active, and choose carbs higher in fibre and nutrients like brown rice, sweet potato, squash, quinoa most often. If you want a sweet treat such as a muffin or cookie, then have it after your workout so that those quick carbs (aka sugar) are put to good use to refeed your tired muscles.

5) Add natural sweetness to your meals
This plays into the suggestion above. By using small amounts of natural sugars to add flavour to your meals, your body and taste buds won’t feel so deprived if you are trying to consume less sugary treats. Try fresh fruit slices in your salads, dried fruit to flavour your morning oatmeal, or adding sweeter vegetables like squash or sweet potato to your dishes.

References
​1) https://bjsm.bmj.com/content/52/14/910

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