HFG nutritionist Claire Turnbull explains why we crave the sweet stuff and how to retrain our taste buds.
Like most people, I grew up with weakness for sweet food. Before I started wearing my nutritionist hat, I would have opted for flavoured yoghurt over plain, I would choose jam over Marmite and have a drizzle of maple syrup wherever possible.
During the 10 years I have worked in nutrition, I have certainly tamed my sweet tooth. And in the last year or so, I have been on a mini-mission to take it one step further (without becoming obsessive and unbalanced): to move away from sweetened foods as much as possible (with fruit and the odd squeeze of honey being the exception). I have made an effort to remove most of the added sugars and artificially sweetened foods from my diet, with the goal of changing my taste buds and breaking a lifelong habit.
I started to choose low-fat unsweetened yoghurt (resisting the urge to smother it in honey), traded all diet drinks for soda water, sparkling water or spicy tomato juice and based my smoothies on green vegetables rather than adding handfuls of fruit. I resisted putting jam on top of my peanut butter, upped the ratio of unsalted nuts and seeds relative to dried fruit for snacks and I made sure I included protein and healthy fats in all my meals and snacks to keep me feeling full and satisfied. It was a real effort to clean up my palate.
Initially things did taste a little tarter. The green smoothies were certainly not as appealing as fruity ones but I got used to it. The interesting thing I noticed is that when I retried the sweeter things I used to have, they just tasted wrong. I had re-trained my taste buds to love less sweet food and I will never go back. The good news is that you can do it, too.
Why do we crave sugar?
We’ve learnt to love it
We have learnt what we like. Each of us has developed a certain taste for salt, sugar and fat over our lives and that has become what we perceive as ‘normal’. I was reminded of this recently when I was at a friend’s place, where I saw her 18-month-old son sucking on a lemon. A lemon!?
When I asked her about it (she is a paediatric dietitian), she said: “Foods don’t taste the same to kids as they do to us — they haven’t learnt our bad habits!”
There is a reason why we are advised not to add sugar or salt to our kids’ foods (other than their kidneys can’t handle it when they are really little) and that is they don’t need it. When they have sweet and salty food it becomes normal for them — what they learn to find acceptable.
It’s everywhere in our food supply
Sugar is a cheap ingredient which tastes good. It works wonders for the texture of some food products and also acts as a preservative. So much of the food we buy and prepare these days is loaded with sugar which means that we have become used to things tasting sweet and accept that as normal. Whether it is cooking sauces, breakfast cereals or snack bars — sugar can be found everywhere.
We feel like we are addicted to it
Eating sugary food and drink can lead to an increase in dopamine, which is a feel-good hormone released by your brain that can give you a feeling of a hit or high. The dopamine system can lead to feelings of withdrawal when you give up a behaviour — in this case, having lots of sugar.
Some people report cravings, urges, irritability, headaches, poor concentration and stomach cramps when they give up sugar, but these symptoms usually disappear after a month or two. This neuronal response to sugar, along with a number of other factors, has led some to believe that sugar potentially has addictive properties.
While the jury is still out on whether sugar is truly addictive, there are certainly people who feel like they have some kind of addiction to sugary foods and drinks. Some are more sensitive to the effects of sugar than others.
Challenge yourself: 4 steps to beat sugar cravings
1. Plan and enjoy nutrition-packed meals and snacks
It may sound obvious but this is a vital starting point. One reason you may end up opting for sweet food and drink is that they are a quick fix when you are hungry and give you a hit. The hit is short-lived, though, so avoid getting yourself into situations where you grab something your body doesn’t really want or need.
- Plan your meals and snacks in advance and be sure to include low GI, high-fibre, carbohydrate foods such as wholegrain breads and cereals (eg. oats, quinoa, or buckwheat) and pulses (such as lentils, chickpeas, cannelini beans). Avoid refined carbohydrates such as white bread, bagels and high-sugar cereals.
- Include protein with all your meals and snacks to help you feel fuller for longer and stabilise your blood sugar. Also include a little healthy fat to provide your body with the essential fatty acids it needs to work at its best.
- Nuts and seeds are perfect for a healthy snack or sprinkled on your breakfast, salads or stir-fried vegetables. They have protein, healthy fats and a wide variety of vitamins and minerals.
- Pack in the vegetables. Aim for at least three to four big handfuls a day and aim to include different colours.
2. Retrain your taste buds to accept less sweet foods
Getting your taste buds onside can help make nutrition-packed choices a lot easier as you will be naturally drawn to better food options.
- Cut back then cut out sugar in hot drinks and at breakfast, and add less honey to your smoothies.
- Opt for water as your drink of choice. Try limiting all flavoured drinks, including sugar-free versions with sweeteners. They may not have sugar but they may still encourage you to like sweet-tasting things.
- Try low-fat unsweetened yoghurt rather than varieties with added sugar. It may taste odd to start with but you will get used to it. Add a little fresh or frozen fruit for sweetness if needed.
- Enjoy nut butters (without added sugar), avocado or hummus on your bread or crackers rather than jam or honey.
- Get into green juice, tomato juice or water rather than sweetened drinks — diet or otherwise.
- If you are going to have chocolate, opt for a few squares of dark chocolate with a high percentage of cocoa. It is much less sweet but still a treat.
3. Break unhelpful habits
Most people eat sweet foods out of habit, as part of their daily routine or as a way of managing emotions. This is a learnt behaviour but is often confused with a physical craving.
- If you always want something sweet at the end of a meal, break the habit by having something to cleanse your palate. Try peppermint, licorice or ginger teas.
- Be mindful of what you are eating. Are you actually hungry? Bored? Tired? Emotional? It may be you are using food for the wrong reasons and this is the problem which needs addressing. Keep a diary for a few weeks and record why you are reaching for sweet food. Once you have identified patterns in your behaviour and you can see why you are doing what you do, you are in a perfect position to make changes.
- If you are eating sweet foods when you aren’t hungry you need another kind of distraction which doesn’t involve food. Call a friend, write in a journal, read a book or magazine or take a walk. Having a bath might work, listen to an audio book or your favourite song.
- Create a healthy and helpful environment. If you make the decision to cut back on sweet food and drink adapt your home, work and social environments to support your choices.
- Limit the sweet treats you buy and keep anything you tend to pick or snack on hidden. Out of sight and out of mind, at the back of a cupboard in a non-transparent container, for example.
- Pack healthy snacks to take to work so you are less likely to head for a cookie or muffin at morning tea.
4. Make healthy swaps and opt for more real, whole food
With so much highly processed food available it can be easy to forget that there are many ways we can avoid a lot of sugar-laden foods simply by going back to basics.
- Make your own muesli with only a little dried fruit or opt for oats made into porridge or Bircher muesli. Sweeten with a little fresh or dried fruit, cinnamon or vanilla.
- Enjoy unsweetened natural yoghurt with chopped or grated apple or pear with a pinch of cinnamon and a few seeds or muesli sprinkled on top — it’s like eating apple or pear crumble and is great for breakfast or a snack.
- Make your own salad dressings and cooking sauces — most don’t need sugar.
- Swap lemonade for still or sparkling water with sliced fresh lemon or cucumber.
- Swap tomato sauce for diced tomato and onion or make salsa with a little balsamic vinegar.
- Choose raw, unsalted nuts and a piece of fresh fruit or a little dried fruit rather than snack bars.
- Trade sweet biscuits for wholegrain crackers topped with peanut butter, hummus or cottage cheese.
- Add less sugar to baking. Most recipes can have the sugar reduced by one-third to a half without affecting texture. You can also experiment with using stewed fruit and/or low- fat yoghurt as a partial replacement for sugar.
- Blend frozen bananas and berries for a delicious frozen dessert with no added sugar.
- Add greens to your smoothies. A handful of baby spinach in a smoothie made with berries, low-fat milk and yoghurt will disappear without you noticing.
- Instead of fruit juice have a piece of fresh fruit and a glass of water or a low-fat milk.
Do I have to give up fruit?
No. Fruit is a great source of vitamins, minerals and fibre — it is good for you. Two to three servings a day is ideal for most people and it’s a great sweet treat to enjoy. You can overdo it on the fruit front, though, so once you have enjoyed your two to three serves move to having vegetables if you want more fresh food — raw carrots, cherry tomatoes and snow peas all make great snacks. When it comes to fruit it is best to eat it whole rather than as juice, too.
Tips to bring out the natural sweetness in food
- Roasting vegetables and fruit concentrates their sugar and makes them taste sweeter without any added sugar. Try roasting fruit until caramelised and soft. Serve with plain yoghurt.
- Adding salt may sound odd but a tiny pinch can enhance the natural sweetness in many foods, especially fresh fruit. Before you add sugar to a smoothie or dessert, try a little salt and taste it again. The natural sweetness will be more pronounced.
- Mint is a sweet herb that can make anything taste sweeter.
- Stevia is a natural sweetener that is many times sweeter than sugar.If you really can’t live without a sweet taste in your cooking, try a small amount of this.
Useful ‘sweet’ ingredients in baking
- Sweet spices such as cinnamon, cloves and cardamom can make baked dishes taste sweeter.
- A touch of vanilla enhances and adds sweetness.
- Ginger is a naturally warm, sweet flavour that works well with fruit such as apples and pears to enhance sweetness.
- Subtly sweet coconut adds tenderness and sweetness to baked goods.
- Dried fruit is concentrated sweetness which can be really useful, used sparingly, to make cakes and muffins taste sweet.
- Puréed dates are a fantastic sugar, honey or syrup substitute. Place equal quantities of dates and water in a saucepan, gently boil until dates soften then purée.
- Mashed bananas or apple purée are useful fruit-based sweeteners. Replace half to 3/4 of the sugar in recipes with the same weight of fruit.
- Try using sweet vegetables. Pumpkin purée, grated carrot, kumara or beetroot all add their own subtle sweetness.
- Pineapple is a super-sweet fruit that sweetens up whole cakes when added to a mixture.
Useful ‘sweet’ ingredients in savoury dishes
- Tahini is a slightly sweet sesame paste that adds its own unique flavour to sauces without sugar.
- Miso paste has a savoury, umami flavour that adds deep savour to sauces and marinades, eliminating the need for brown sugar.
- Sweet vegetables such as carrot, capsicum, pumpkin and onion add great sweet flavour to savoury dishes. Slowly roasted, their deep, sweet flavour means you won’t need sweet condiments or sauces.
Great sweet treats with no added sugar
- Make a fresh vegetable juice with sweet veges. We like carrot and ginger.
- Try Frooze balls – either buy these chopped dates, nuts and cocoa mix treats or make your own: try our Ginger and coconut balls, Cranberry and chocolate balls, Peanut and cocoa balls and Fig, apricot and almond balls.
- Make One-ingredient banana ice cream.
- Try a Blackadder liquorie tea made with liquorice root, peppermint, fennel seeds and aniseed.
- Enjoy pieces of fresh coconut.
Taste bud facts
- It is suggested you can have anywhere from 2000 to about 10,000 taste buds.
- The average life of a taste bud is about two weeks.
- Smoking, having a cold, some medications, certain nutritional deficiencies and pregnancy can affect your taste.