Chocolate, candy, everything sweet – oh, the temptation. Why do we find it so hard to resist sugar, and why should we even bother?
Controlling your sweet tooth doesn’t have to be a Herculean effort. By understanding why we crave sugar and how our genes might influence our poor attempts at staying away from chocolate, we can learn to control sugar rush but still enjoy an occasional treat.
Human evolution has a sweet tooth
Why do we crave sugar? Because we are biologically wired to.
Naturally occurring sugar is a great source of energy. As hunter-gatherers, early humans needed a lot of energy, so our bodies adapted to seek, store, and use sugar. Sweet taste also served as a signal for our early men and women, saying “this is likely edible and energy-rich”. Mothers’ milk is also sweet, encouraging babies to drink it to grow stronger.
When humans conquered agriculture and began processing food, sugar suddenly became abundant. But we went from being active all day to sitting in the offices all day. Our energy needs dropped dramatically, but our cravings remained the same.
There is a significant difference between processed and naturally occurring sugar. Sugar in fruits and vegetables is used slower, making it a great energy source. Such food is also packed full of fibre, vitamins, and minerals, while processed sugar is empty calorie without any nutritional value.
Sugars also stimulate the excretion of serotonin and endorphins, chemicals which induce pleasant feelings. With all those feelgood hormones surging through our bodies after a delicious dessert, no wonder we find it hard to resist the sugar high!
And so sugar became the Frankenfood of modern time. The key to reigning it in is controlling our body’s natural, evolutionary cravings for sugar. But when you’re eyeing that mouthwatering cake, you have to admit to yourself that it’s easier said than done.
Why is too much sugar a bad thing?
Sugar is not just an enemy of a slim waist. Eating too much of the stuff can have severe health consequences.
- Diabetes: simple carbs such as sugar rapidly increase our blood sugar, forcing our bodies to produce large quantities of insulin. Over time, it can lead to diabetes.
- Heart health: a study found a link between a high-sugar diet and a greater risk of dying from heart disease. The 15-year study showed that people who got 17–21% of their calories from added sugar had a 38% higher risk of dying from cardiovascular disease compared with those who consumed 8% of their calories as added sugar.
- Obesity: there is strong scientific evidence showing that excess dietary sugar is a cause of weight gain, which in turn leads to serious health complications.
- Teeth health: our mothers were adamant that sweets will ruin our teeth, and they were not exaggerating. The bacteria in your mouth love finding sugar on your teeth. They use it to produce acids that damage teeth enamel and can lead to cavities.
Does your DNA want that chocolate?
Your genetic predispositions can make you more likely to go on a chocolate binge. A DNA test can reveal how likely you are to have a sweet tooth and how strongly you perceive sweet taste.
Sweet treats intake
A study including more than 1000 individuals showed that the ADRA2A gene is partially to blame for your sweet tooth. Participants with an unfavourable variant of the gene found it harder to resist sweets and indulged more often than those without. The gene is involved in the transfer of messages to the brain where they are processed and interpreted.
Perception of sweet taste
Do we taste things the same way? No, we don’t! Some people taste sweet less intensely, which means that they need more sugar for the same result as those who taste it more intensely. The reason lies in the SLC2A2 gene. Scientists discovered how this gene contributes to the amount of sugar we consume. The unfavourable variant of the SLC2A2 gene results in lower sensitivity for this particular taste, which means that the carriers sweeten their food more for the same effect.
5 steps to stop sugar cravings effectively
No matter if your genes help you or hinder you, here are a couple of tricks you can try:
- Healthy sweets. When sugar cravings hit, turn your back to chocolate, candy and cakes, and choose fresh fruits. You will get a dose of sugar, but also plenty of fibre and vitamins.
- Break the habit. For some, there is no lunch without a dessert at the end. Of a plateful of cookies with their coffee. Stop doing it just because it’s always been that way!
- Indulge a little. It is better to cut yourself some slack and eat a small quantity instead of being stressed by denying yourself what you crave.
- Mind over matter. Contrarily, some people find it helpful to go cold turkey – avoiding the temptations altogether. When the urge hits, it might help you to change your environment: go for a walk or distract yourself with an engaging activity.
- Use spices. Cinnamon, cardamom and vanilla do not contain sugar, but they add sweetness to food. Sprinkle them over your yogurt, oats, fruits, and other healthy snacks.
If you want personalised recommendations, you can get them with a DNA test. Find out what works best for you and teach your body to enjoy sweet treats in a healthy way.