Do YOU always crave something sweet after a meal? Experts reveal why we’re wired to want the white stuff – and the healthiest way to get your sweet ‘fix’
- Dr Jen Nash is a clinical psychologist specializing in eating behavior, and Fiona Hunter is a nutritionist
- They reveal the truth about sweet cravings and how to get them under control
- Some healthy alternatives include banana ‘ice cream’ and plain chocolate
For some of us, no matter how full we are, there’s always that craving for something sweet at the end of the meal.
But what causes that insatiable – and for the millions of us watching our weight – frustrating post-dinner urge? Is it just habit or is there something deeper going on?
Here, Dr Jen Nash, a clinical psychologist specializing in eating behavior, and nutritionist Fiona Hunter – both ambassadors for the wellbeing firm Healthspan – reveal the truth about those sweet cravings and how to get them under control for good.
We have an evolutionary drive to crave high energy food like sugar
WE’RE BORN TO WANT SWEET FOODS
Good news if you’ve been berating yourself about having a sweet tooth –it’s not your fault.
‘We’re all born with a preference for sweet foods,’ explains nutritionist Fiona Hunter.
‘The reason for this that that bitter and sour foods are more likely to be poisonous, so our innate love of sugar is an evolutionary process which is designed to guide us towards foods which are safe and nutritious.’
Not only that, but we have an evolutionary drive to crave high energy food like sugar – it provided much needed energy that we needed for survival when food was scarce, adds clinical psychologist Dr Jen Nash.
‘Our brains are wired to enjoy food, as we need food to live. Fast forward to today and thanks to neuroimaging studies we’re becoming more aware of what is happening within our brains when it comes to sugar.
‘Brain scans show that sugar intake leads to dopamine being released in the brain area that is associated with motivation, novelty and reward. So we can actually feel better when we eat sugar.’
AND YOUR CHILDHOOD MIGHT BE TO BLAME
The type of foods we tend to crave are often shaped in childhood, says Fiona Hunter.
‘They’re generally based on the sort of foods we were given as children as a reward or a treat or to make us feel better when we were upset.
‘So if, for instance, your mum (or whoever was looking after you) gave you something sugary, such as biscuits, sweets or chocolate) to make you feel after falling and hurting yourself, you will learn to associate these sort of foods with feelings of happiness.’
Indeed, says Dr Jen Nash, the first taste we experience, from our caregiver’s milk, is sweet, so sweet tastes are associated being calmed and soothed.
SWEET SWAPS: THE HEALTHIEST WAYS TO GET YOUR SWEET FIX
‘If you are going to have something sweet/sugary, then try to make sure it comes packaged – or you eat it with – some other nutrients too,’ says Fiona Hunter.
This will stop your blood sugar from spiking then crashing and also protect your teeth from a pure sugar bath.
Examples include fresh or dried fruit, a smoothie or cup of hot cocoa (made with skimmed milk) rather than just a bag of sweets which are basically just pure sugar.
‘Fruit yogurts usually contain added sugar (in addition to the natural sugars, that is lactose found in the milk). Therefore, it’s much better to have a plain yogurt and add in some fruit puree or fresh fruit. That way you are getting real fruit and no added sugar.’
Dried fruit such as dates can definitely provide a sweet hit, but go easy with it.
Here, the sugars are concentrated, which means they can be quite high in calories. Three medjool dates contain around 210 calories, for example. The upside is that they’re so sweet they’re likely to hit the spot – plus they contain many more nutrients than sweets or chocolate. Three dates would count as one of your five a day and provide 4g fibre, which is 14 per cent of the recommended daily amount.
Other ‘better’ options include:
WHY YOU GET THOSE SWEET CRAVINGS AFTER A MEAL
There are possible reasons why: taste, habits and emotional needs, says Dr Nash.
‘Our eating is driven by primal needs, and there are five distinct tastes that we can distinguish via our taste buds,’ says Dr Nash. ‘These are sweet, sour, salty, spicy/pungent and bitter.
‘When we have all five of these tastes included in a meal, we are more likely to feel truly satiated, or satisfied, when we’ve finished eating.
‘If you find you’re craving sweet foods after a meal, experiment with including as many of these five tastes within your meal, and the sweet taste in particular.
‘Try, for example, using honey as a dressing or sauce, include a little dried fruit (like raisin or fig) mixed into a side salad, or choose vegetable options that are more on the sweet side of the flavour spectrum – corn, butternut squash or pumpkin for example.’
Millions of us were brought up with dessert, or pudding, as an integral part of the meal. But with our metabolism slowing with age, it can be a prime culprit when it comes to weight gain.
‘Many people crave something sweet because they may be acting out an internal habitual rule, such as ‘a meal isn’t complete without something sweet’,’ says Dr Nash.
‘If desserts were a staple in childhood, then we are likely to follow these outdated rules, habits and traditions without thinking. You can change this link over time by transitioning to less sugary desserts, or by finding other ways to complete a meal e.g. with a hot drink or peppermint tea (good for digestion).
Now that we’re more likely to eat in front of the TV, rather than facing each other at a table, we may be searching for this “inner” need for sweetness to be met
3. EMOTIONAL NEEDS
‘Third, and a bit deeper, there may be an inner need for some ‘sweetness’, which can get met in another way,’ adds Dr Nash.
‘Meal times used to be a key way to connect and bond with family members, leaving us feeling “filled up” with love, care and fun.
‘Now we’re more likely to eat in front of the TV, rather than facing each other at a table, we may be searching for this “inner” need for sweetness to be met.
‘The key is working out how you connect with others, while eating or just before/after?
‘If chats with your loved ones can lead to re-hashing the struggles of the day, try playing the Gratitude Game – take it in turns to share three to 10 things you’re each grateful for, big and little.
‘Cultivating gratitude supports positive mental health and helps us notice and focus on what we have got, rather than continually strive for what we haven’t.
‘If you live alone, plan to call or skype a friend just after eating to get emotionally fed in a similar sort of way.’
4. ARE YOU USING SWEET TREATS AS A REWARD?
‘Many people I work with are great at giving 110 per cent – in work, with the family – but their own cup needs to be filled up in order to keep this up long-term,’ says Dr Nash.
‘As a result, eating can become some much needed ‘me-time’ when other forms of self-care are lacking.
‘Making time to do things that feel nurturing means that sweet food is just one way that ‘me-time’ can be found.’
Finding other ways to reward yourself is key: taking some time off, indulging in the latest page turner, a new piece of make-up or whatever truly feels like a reward, can be used as replacements.
5. …OR BECAUSE YOU CAN’T PROCESS YOUR EMOTIONS?
Many people reach adulthood not having learned the skill of processing emotion, explains Dr Nash.
‘They then overeat when feeling emotional because having associated sweet flavours with comfort from a young age, food is the only way they have to cope with it.
‘The problem with this is that when food is used to distract, these feelings stay within us, unprocessed and undigested.
‘Learning more about eating behaviour can really help with this.’
YES, IT’S TRUE – THE MORE YOU EAT SWEET THINGS, THE MORE YOU WANT
Have you ever noticed when you cut out chocolate that after a while you don’t actually crave it?
‘The problem is that for some people, the more sugar they eat, the more they seem to crave it – it’s as if their taste buds become desensitised to and they want more and more,’ says Fiona Hunter.
‘Sugar stimulates the reward processing centre in the brain in a similar way to some recreational drugs, so it does have addictive qualities,’ adds Dr Jen Nash.
‘Also, heroin addicts show increased cravings for sweet foods when they are first abstinent. This effect, known as ‘cross-addiction’, shows that addiction to one substance makes it easier to become addicted to others that act on the same reward centres in the brain.’
BUT IT’S UNLIKELY YOUR ACTUALLY ADDICTED TO SUGAR
‘Many people believe they have cravings for sugar, but if you asked them whether a couple of sugar lumps would satisfy that craving, the answer is usually no,’ says Fiona Hunter.
‘This suggests it not a true craving for sugar, per se, but something sweet.’
You might find that once you’ve opened a packet of biscuits you can’t help but polish off the lot, but that doesn’t mean you’re addicted to sugar.
‘It’s important to be mindful of our language and distinguish between ‘craving’ and ‘addiction’, explains Dr Nash.
BUYER BEWARE: HOW TO SPOT DANGER IN ‘HEALTHY’ TREATS
‘There are lots of sugar-free sweets sweetened with sugar free sweeteners, but remember that some of them can cause digestive disorders – diarrhoea and bloating – if you eat too many,’ says nutritionist Fiona Hunter
‘Also, sugar seems to be in everything we eat these days, from ready meals to designer coffees. The problem is, it’s not always easy to spot, which perhaps explains why most of us are eating much more than we should.’
Decoding the labels
Sugar is hidden in many processed foods these days so you always need to check labels. The traffic lights on the front of pack are not always very helpful because they give the total sugar, which includes natural sugar in ingredients like milk and fruit. The place to look is the ingredients list on the back of pack.
Remember that sugar is sometimes disguised by using other names. If you see the words fruit juice concentrate, glucose syrup, fructose, molasses, corn syrup, dextrose, maltose, honey, brown rice syrup, grape juice, cane syrup or evaporated cane, then that’s code for sugar!
‘Desiring more chocolate once you’ve started is likely a craving, whereas an addiction is a medical term that is only true when the drive to obtain the substance meets criteria such as it interferes with a person’s ability to carry out work, social or recreational obligations – and their desire to use the substance continues despite persistent or recurring problems caused or worsened by using it.
‘Therefore, unless your sugar seeking is consistently preventing you from performing as expected at work, or you’re stealing (for example) to obtain it, you’re not addicted.’
As a result, she says faced with the official definition of addiction, most people would agree they’re actually experiencing a craving not an addiction.
WHAT TO DO IF YOU THINK YOU REALLY ARE ADDICTED
While the vast majority of us are driven to eat sweet foods due to cravings, there is a small proportion of people who may have an actual sugar addiction, says Dr Nash.
‘What characterises these individuals are thinking styles that tend towards fear, low self-esteem and holding on to built-up resentments, and they are using food to distract and comfort against these unwanted thoughts and emotions.
‘If someone really feels they are addicted to sugar they ought to treat this knowledge with the respect it deserves and abstain completely from any food that may trigger that craving.
‘Help and support is often required, as sugar is in so many foods, including many savoury and processed foods.
‘These individuals may well benefit from a 12 Step Addiction Recovery approach to their behaviour, such as Overeaters Anonymous.’
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