Everyone likes sweets. Good reason! In the paleolithic era, when food was scarce, you would have had to chew over a metre of chunky, fibrous sugar cane to receive the same amount of energy as a Coke.
Besides the fact that most of us don’t chase enough mammoths to need that kind of calorie hit anymore, is there anything wrong with our sweet tooth? Is it addictive? Should we quit? Brush your teeth—the truth may taste bad.
First, “free” sugars—added to sweets, cakes, cookies, and fizzy drinks—are different from the sugar in milk, fruit, and vegetables. Lily Soutter, a dietitian, adds that inherent sugars, like those in whole fruits and vegetables, are released more slowly into the bloodstream.
Milk sugars with protein and fat might keep you satiated longer. Adults should limit “free” sugars to 5% of energy intake, or 30g per day. About seven teaspoons.
The brain’s wiring can be altered by eating sugary and fatty foods.
Free sugars are high in calories and simple to consume, raising our risk of heart disease and type 2 diabetes. Some experts say “hyperpalatable” foods containing a lot of sugar, fat, and salt can make us eat more even when we’re full.
Recent research suggests that sugary and fatty diets can rewire the brain to want more. This year, researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Metabolism Research in Cologne gave one group of volunteers a small pudding with a lot of fat and sugar every day for eight weeks, while a control group got a pudding with the same calories but less fat.
The result? The first group’s dopaminergic system activated more after they ate high-sugar, high-fat sweets. “Our brain activity measurements showed that the brain rewires itself… to prefer rewarding food,” says Prof. Marc Tittgemeyer, who conducted the study.
“Through these brain changes, we will unconsciously always prefer fat and sugar-rich foods.”
Is extra sugar dangerous even if it doesn’t cause fat and calories? Sugar overloads the liver and causes chronic inflammation, which can cause heart disease. To clarify, the acid created by bacteria in your mouth breaks it down, causing tooth decay.
Thus, cut down on free sweets. Soutter advises limiting soft drinks. “Also, read food labels: some foods have a traffic light label on the front of the pack, which accounts for total sugars rather than free sugars, but it can still help when comparing products and making healthier choices.”
If you crave sweets, try fruit. Soutter adds whole fresh fruit has fiber, vitamins, and minerals and can fill us up. “You can drink a glass of fruit juice in seconds, but you won’t eat three oranges.”
Finally, Wes Santos, nutritionist and CEO of Instate Fitness, adds that environmental stressors cause high sugar cravings. “Instead of eating that sweet snack, ask yourself three questions: Am I stressed? Am I thirsty? Am I emotional? After that, choose your fuel.” Spoiler: you don’t need a whole can of Coke if you’re not worried about sabre-tooth tigers.