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Sugar and Cravings

An article in Environmental Nutrition (July 2008, vol. 31, No. 7) confirms that although sugar and sugary foods taste good and it can be hard to stop eating them, “you cannot get physiologically addicted to sweet foods.” Their studies conclude that “a craving for sweets…is the result of conditioning based on cultural, social, and individual cues.” More evidence that food is not physiologically addictive. That doesn’t mean you don’t feel as if you’re addicted. What you suffer from, however, is not an addiction, but a dependence.

There have been controversies for decades about whether or not sugar is addictive. A study described in the article explains its negative conclusions this way: When people are addicted to a substance, getting that substance eliminates or reduces the craving (think heroin addicts getting high on a fix or alcoholics who feel great from a drink). However, when people craving chocolate were given a pill containing all its physical properties, it did not reduce cravings. Only the actual sensory perception of chocolate—
eating it, not merely taking in its chemical components—did that.

Here’s the skinny on sugar. Back in primitive times, sugar was greatly prized, generally as honey, because it was full of highly concentrated calories and was an indicator that foods were safe to eat (as opposed to bitter foods which were often poisonous or otherwise dangerous). Sugar helped our species survive. Even today, we have an innate desire for it. Infants are born with a yen for it because, contrary to the belief that it makes kids hyper, it actually generates production of serotonin which relaxes us. Studies also show that sugar can act as a pain reliever in infants. So we’re programmed from the get go to love things that are sweet.

So, what to do? The article says (and I agree) that we need to retrain our brains and bodies to make peace with sugar. Don’t eat sugary treats at the same time every day which creates a time- or place-specific craving. Don’t save sweets for special occasions or rigidly deprive yourself of them, because you’ll only overindulge when you do have them. Researchers conclude that “you have to find a happy medium, which means having some sweets in your life, but controlling their intake.” And, you learn to do this how? By only eating sweets when you have a craving for them. By eating small amounts at a time. By savoring them slowly with absolutely no distractions. By letting them sit on your tongue so your taste buds can do their job. By staying conscious and stopping eating when you recognize you are satisfied. By making sugar friend, not foe.

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