You know the scenario. You step into the supermarket, pick up a basket with good intentions to buy healthy food, but before you know it you’re foraging in the cakes section craving a sugar hit. The semi-good news is it might not be your fault — it could be down to your genes.
An international team scoured the genes of more than 6,500 Danish people taking part in a large health study on heart disease. They found those who harboured one of two particular variants of the FGF21 gene were roughly 20 per cent more likely to enjoy and seek out sugary substances.
“This study gives us insight into the molecular basis of the sweet tooth — that’s probably the heart of it for me: Why do you have a sweet tooth at a biological level?” said Matthew Gillum, co-lead author and a metabolism researcher at the University of Copenhagen’s Novo Nordisk Foundation Center for Basic Metabolic Research.
Although nutrition experts have previously identified other internal factors that control our lust for food, some elements that mediate this process and send signals about sucrose satiety have remained mysterious. But now it really does seem to be mostly in our genes.
Medical experts have been telling us for years that eating excess sugar, especially in late night binges, is bad for us and one of the main keys of weight gain. But modern life sees temptation lying all around us, so what’s the answer?
“Let’s not fool ourselves — when we do get a sugar craving it’s not always so simple to just ignore it with sheer willpower,” says Dean Henry, Functional Medical Health Coach and owner of Clean Living Company in Dubai. “The fact is sugar can be like a drug in the sense it lights up the rewards and craving centres in your brain and you can fall into withdrawal when you start to cut it from your diet.
“The key here is to prevent the craving in the first instance and you probably won’t be too surprised to hear your daily diet is a big factor here. A sugar craving more often than not is due to a lack of nutrients that your body is craving. So well-balanced meals with a healthy mix of proteins, good fats and phytonutrients (vegetables) are a very good place to start.
“To keep things simple, I like to see around the same portion of each of these on a plate, and through the day try and consume six different colours of vegetables and fruits — this has a profound effect on sustaining energy levels.
“Also it’s important to remove any sugary, carbohydrate-heavy snacks from your house. This way it’s far easier to avoid them than driving in the car somewhere to satisfy the craving. Replace these with a high-fat, high-protein option such as nuts, almonds, walnuts, Brazil nuts and hazelnuts.
“My own little favourites are either a few blocks of 85 per cent plus dark chocolate with a small handful of goji berries (the combination is quite satisfying and is a powerful antioxidant), or a spoonful of almond butter. A tasty alternative, especially in the evening, is a cup of hot unsweetened almond milk with maca powder and some bee pollen.”
Sushma Ghag, Dietician at Aster Hospital in Mankhool, Dubai, says a good way of reducing sugar cravings is to reduce the amount you eat through the day that may go unnoticed. “Reduce sugar intake in beverages such as tea and coffee and find healthier supplements like coconut sugar and brown sugar instead,” she advises.
“But try not to be hard on yourself by avoiding sugar completely. Allow occasional indulging. Ensure that you eat meals at regular intervals and never go hungry since skipping meals causes lowered sugar levels and shoots up the cravings. Make regular workouts a part of your daily routine.”
Ghag says there are various healthy alternatives for those who get severe sweet cravings or those who habitually want something sweet after a meal. “Try yoghurt with some freshly cut fruit, granola and shavings of dark chocolate. Dates with nuts work well, as does a fruit smoothie, which can also work as a breakfast or snack option. You could make a popsicle out of fruit, or homemade ice cream with no added sugar. There are lots of options.”
If you need convincing that tackling those sweet binges is important, it’s worth knowing a high-sugar diet has been associated with a slew of health conditions, from diabetes to heart disease.
However, cutting out sugar cold turkey can lead to withdrawal and the multitude of side effects that come with it such as bloating, migraines and fatigue. But experts say by going slow and steady and by making a few modifications to your diet while arming yourself with the knowledge you need, overcoming sugar withdrawal can be easy.
People often say they are addicted to sugar and the addictive model may be useful for researchers as they study food cravings and overeating. But candy is not the same as hard drugs, says Larry Cheskin, Director of the Johns Hopkins Weight Management Center in the US. Eating and overeating are not only a result of physiological cues, he says. We also eat because we’re bored, we’re stressed, we’re celebrating, we’re with friends who are eating or we see it’s time to eat.
Recently, Jennifer Temple, Director of the Nutrition and Health Research Laboratory at the University of Buffalo, tested whether eating sugary treats begets more eating of sugary treats.
Participants chose a favourite item and were directed to eat it every day for a week. Then they returned to the laboratory, where they were given a chance to earn another one. She reports finding that “not everybody, but 40 per cent of people who are already overweight or obese, when they’ve eaten a favourite treat every day will work three times harder for that same treat” than when they hadn’t eaten one every day for a week. Such is the power of habit.
But like smoking or drinking, sugar addiction too can be broken with the right tools, say nutritionists, even if your genes are against you.