By Matthew Kadey, MS, RD
We’ve all been there. You do your best to eat clean every day, only to have a plate full of donuts show up in the office lunchroom. Redolent of sweet goodness, they inspire you to do your best Scooby-Doo impersonation and polish off a trio of them as you send self-control packing.
But don’t beat yourself up too much; even the most devout fitness professional isn’t immune to the occasional sugar binge. You see, our brains are hard-wired to crave sugar because it pumps out dopamine, a feel-all-tingly-inside hormone, when it gets its fix. Eventually, just as morphine or cocaine addicts need extra hits in order to feel an effect, you can begin to need more sugar to feel satisfied. A vicious cycle indeed. Your brain may even shoot out dopamine when you just think about eating something sweet. Try this: Place a slice of chocolate cake and a bowl of broccoli in front of you and see which musters more excitement. We thought so! And food companies have been all too happy to take maximum advantage of this evolutionary hiccup, offering us a seemingly endless supply of sugar grenades that provide mega-shots of sweeteners.
Though the American Heart Association recommends men and women limit their intake of added sugars and empty-calorie sweeteners to 9 teaspoons (about 150 calories) and 6 teaspoons (100 calories) a day, respectively, the latest figures from the U.S. Department of Agriculture suggest the average American is now pounding back about two-and-a-half times this much, potentially without even realizing it. Just one 12-ounce can of regular soda contains about 8 teaspoons of sugar or 130 calories. It doesn’t take a medical Einstein to deduce that any physique-minded person who consumes near this amount risks blowing up his or her fitness gains quicker than you can say “red velvet cupcake.” Not only is excess sugar likely to quell your fat-burning metabolism and be directly converted to the fat that pads your belly, high intakes are also linked to increased risk of diabetes and heart disease, partly because of sugar’s tendency to drive up internal inflammation.
But there’s good news: Seductive sugar cravings are a lot like the weather. As long as you prepare properly, you can outsmart them. Here are a handful of tips to help you slash your intake of the sweet stuff and ixnay those no-holds-barred donut face-stuffing sessions.
Sugar-Busting Tip No. 1: Read the Fine Print
Beyond the obvious, like soda beverages and boxed cereals adorned with cartoon characters, added sweeteners lurk in a dizzying array of supermarket foods, including soups, bread, salad dressings, pasta sauces, BBQ sauces, crackers and cold cuts. By buying and eating these products, you only encourage your need for sweetness as your palate becomes increasingly enslaved to its devilish ways. And while some companies are bidding adieu to the much-maligned high-fructose corn syrup, their items can still contain an alarming amount of sweetness in other forms. Rice syrup, dextrose, malt sugar, fruit-juice concentrate, agave and evaporated cane juice are among the less-chastised euphemisms for sugar that also can leave your six-pack a few cans short. If any of these are among the first few ingredients in a packaged food, try to find better alternatives.
Unfortunately, the Nutrition Facts panel does not distinguish between natural sugars (like fructose in fruit and lactose in milk) and those pumped into the food surreptitiously, so you must be a detective and carefully read ingredient lists to suss out sugars by any given name. So when buying a yogurt, you’ll notice that several grams of sugar may appear in the nutrition rundown, but if you don’t see any sweeteners present in the ingredient list, you can rest assured the only sugar present occurs naturally.
Sugar-Busting Tip No. 2: Play the Clock
Because you thrive off spending a solid amount of time at the gym, the best time to satisfy a sweet craving is after a serious workout. That’s when muscles are itching for glucose to help replace spent stores of glycogen, the main source of energy for high-intensity exercise. Plus, the sudden rise in insulin levels caused by sugar intake can drive recovery nutrients into your muscle cells. You don’t want to go overboard, though, but if you’re going to give in to a gummy-bear temptation, this would be the ideal time to do so. What’s more, satisfying a lion-size sweet tooth after working out may help you put on the brakes when confronted with sugary goodies at other times in the day. You’ll also want to provide your muscles with a regular dose of quick-digesting carbohydrates (30 to 60 grams each hour) when exercising at a constant pace for more than one hour so you can push harder instead of feeling like you’re running through Jell-O.
Sugar-Busting Tip No. 3: Embrace Other Tastes
Sugar is but one of the five main tastes — the others are salty, sour, bitter and umami. These days, anything sour or bitter gets masked with sweeteners to become more appealing to our sweet-crazed palates. But if you gradually increase your intake of pure sour (such as plain yogurt or sour cherries) and uncompromised bitter (more kale, please!) foods, soon you’ll no longer need to spike your morning coffee or bowl of plain oatmeal with the sweet stuff. Besides, the taste of bitter, sour and umami are generally the tastes of health. Foods, like dark leafy greens, plain Greek yogurt and mushrooms, respectively, that fall into these categories are loaded with the vital nutrients to help propel muscle growth and overall health.
Sugar-Busting Tip No. 4: Go au Naturel
The sweetness our ancestors enjoyed came entirely from whole foods. So take a little dietary advice from the caveman and tame your sweet tooth using foods that provide natural sugars — think fruit, dairy and sweeter-tasting vegetables like carrots, sweet potatoes and roasted beets. They’re part of nutrient- and fiber-rich packages that won’t have nearly the same odious effects on your physique and health as sugary processed items. For proof, check out the math: You’d have to eat three whole oranges to ingest roughly the same amount of sugar as found in some flavored yogurts. Dried fruit and 100 percent fruit juices will also do in a pinch, but they are more concentrated sources of sugar calories, so limit your intake, particularly to breakfast or postworkout, when the body is better able to metabolize that sugar and keep it from ending up in fat stores.
Sugar-Busting Tip No. 5: Try the Alternatives
When you want to sweeten the goods, there is no shortage of zero-calorie sugar alternatives on the market to choose from. While options like aspartame and sucralose have a sketchy track record when it comes to health measures, more natural choices such as stevia, chicory and xylitol are a better way to quell cravings minus the hit to your waistline. But tread lightly. Studies suggest that consuming too many artificially sweetened items may result in a paradoxical increase in sugar intake and bodyweight. That’s because they may whet your appetite for sweets, causing you to overindulge in diet-derailing sugar-laden foods like sumo-size muffins. Plus, faux sweeteners may not teach your taste buds to enjoy a diet that is a little less sweet overall. Because the sweetness levels of natural sugar alternatives can vary greatly, follow the manufacturer’s directions when using them in place of sugar in recipes.
Sugar-Busting Tip No. 6: Load Up on Other Nutrients
Spikes and sudden drops in blood-sugar levels caused by spoiling a sweet tooth rotten can lead to further sugar cravings and binges. Also, because sugar tastes great and doesn’t contribute to satiety like protein, fat and fiber do, it can lead to overeating and subsequent fat gain. As you may have noticed, it’s easy to pound back a plate full of sugar-bomb chocolate-chip cookies. A bowl of beans? Not so much. Making sure to include slow-digesting protein, fat and fiber with your meals and snacks will help bolster satiety and prevent any drastic blood-sugar swings, which will ultimately set you up for less sugar lust.
These snacks can help quell your sugar cravings while providing some nutritional perks, as well.
Chocolate Milk: It’s a powerful mix of protein and sugar for postworkout recovery.
Pickled Beets: The ruby vegetable has a higher sugar content than other veggies, and its naturally occurring nitrates may bolster exercise performance.
Dried Figs: They’re chewy and a good source of fat-burning calcium.
Frozen Grapes: To make this sweet treat, spread whole red grapes in a single layer on a baking sheet, freeze until firm and store in an airtight zip-top bag. Though frozen, they will still be easy to bite into, with a creamy consistency.
Dark Chocolate: It provides a hefty dose of disease-thwarting antioxidants. Choose brands with at least 70 percent cocoa for more antioxidants and less sugar.