My almost-kindergartner inherited a lot from me. His blue eyes, his love for pajamas, and his hard-headedness are all legitimate hereditary gifts from good old mom. There’s one more thing that he comes by honestly, but he might not consider it a gift as he gets older: a sweet tooth.
It got real last week when he wanted to have orange juice with his dinner and I told him that he could have some after he ate the carrots on his plate. I had just sat down and didn’t feel like getting up to pour orange juice, and honestly, I didn’t expect him to actually eat them. But he totally called my bluff, and a few minutes later interrupted his brother to point out that he had eaten his carrots and was ready for his orange juice.
I’ll admit I was stunned. Despite my credentials as a health professional, I have never been very successful at getting my children to knowingly eat vegetables. So of course I took all of the credit and congratulated myself for being such a good example. Then I was impressed by how quickly he had responded to the right motivation. But the wellness coach in me couldn’t ignore what had been a strong enough motivator to get him to actually eat a vegetable: the reward of sugary sweet orange juice.
Well, he’s five years old. Of course he wants sweets! We humans are hard-wired to crave sugar; we all have a sweet tooth on some level, and the reward of dessert motivates good behavior at every age. But, that natural craving is playing a larger role in the health of our nation, as we add more sugar to our everyday foods and consume more calories as a result. Sugar is blamed by researchers as a contributor to obesity, type-two diabetes, some cancers, and plenty of regret after an ice cream binge. It’s for that reason and more that kicking the sugar habit is a common health goal.
The thing is, kicking the sugar habit isn’t just about sugar. If it was, then artificial sweeteners would be the perfect antidote to our problems. A sweet craving is not necessarily for sugar, but for sweetness. That means our goal isn’t necessarily to avoid sugar, but to eliminate the craving for sweets. And that, my friends, is tough.
But so are you, and if reducing your sweet tooth is a goal of yours, here is your guide to kicking it for good.
Read the Ingredients, not the Label
Just because the package says it is free of high-fructose corn syrup does not mean it doesn’t contain sugar. There are many names for sugar, and it doesn’t take long to discover that almost every packaged food in the grocery store contains some form of it. Ingredients like syrup, cane juice, dextrin, malt, or anything ending in –ose is a hint that there is added sugar. When you see these ingredients, you’re looking at a food that will make your sweet tooth stronger.
Intentionally Eat Different Foods
Taste buds can and do change, and one way to create that change is to deliberately feed them different things. Notice how often you reach for something sweet, and challenge yourself to choose something else. Give yourself time to acclimate to a different flavor expectation, and start slow. Choose plain yogurt and add your own fruit – with natural sugars and fiber intact – and some chopped nuts. You’ll enjoy some sweetness, but on a gentler scale. Try a tablespoon of peanut butter (no sugar added!), which researchers have found will zap cravings quickly by activating hormones that water down your sweet tooth. If having just one tablespoon of peanut butter is as much torture to you as it is to me, consider this next suggestion.
Stop Skipping Meals
Now we’re talking! Ravenous hunger, when we are most vulnerable to swings in blood sugar and cravings for a quick blast of calories, often occurs when we try to make it to lunch without breakfast or eat a measly lunch and then succumb to afternoon temptations. Stay satisfied and less likely to binge by eating every three to four hours, and make that meal or snack a balanced combination of protein, fat, and carbohydrate. For example, sugar-free peanut butter on simple crackers is a great snack and not overly sweet, making it another baby-step option for reducing the expectations your taste buds might have for sweetness.
Reducing a sweet craving doesn’t mean never eating it again, but it does take intentional effort to create enough room for a different craving. The only way to truly change a habit is to commit to being intentional and deliberate about setting boundaries for yourself and respecting them. Right now I set my kids’ nutrition boundaries, as futile as it may seem at times. I hope my little guy continues to surprise me with what he can do when his eye is on the prize, and that as a culture we can change what we see as the carrot.