We can’t make this point strongly enough: you’re supposed to enjoy a chocolate-chip biscuit or a bowl of ice cream. We now know how you’re hard-wired to want sweet foods, so if you swoon for them, you’re only following nature’s operating manual. And because food is a key part of socialising, we’re especially prone when dining out or celebrating special occasions.
But if an out-of-control sweet tooth threatens your health or leads to weight gain that causes emotional pain, it’s likely that you’re overeating sweet foods for reasons other than pleasure. Two of the most common are stress relief and emotional comfort.
When you’re drowning in stress, sugar can seem like the friend who understands. But the relief it offers is temporary and there’s a price to pay: you can begin to associate sweet foods with comfort. Gradually, you may turn automatically to that immediate, sweet shot of relief and away from healthier stress-management strategies.
Just as sugary foods can momentarily relieve stress, they can also soothe emotions you may want to suppress or ignore. But when you eat to fill yourself up emotionally, not even the most delectable dessert or starchy comfort food can satisfy emotional hunger.
People who eat in response to emotions may often snack when they’re not physically hungry, experience intense cravings for a particular food and feel unsatisfied even after they finish a hearty meal. They may also eat during or after a stressful experience or to numb their feelings. In a culture that pushes instant gratification, reaching for food is one of the fastest ways to cope with emotions that can be hard to express or even acknowledge.
The jury’s still out on whether it’s possible to be physically addicted to sugar. However, there’s no doubt that it can certainly feel that way. While not exactly scientific, the quiz on page 34 can help you gauge the intensity of your emotional ties to sugary or starchy foods. If your results suggest a powerful bond, don’t panic! It’s entirely possible to break those connections, and this plan can help you begin.
To lose your sugar belly for good, you’ll need to identify the types of sugar you’re drawn to and how much of them you consume
Track your sugar intake
Quick – what did you eat yesterday? Did you pop in for a mega-sugary coffee drink before work? Did you grab a smoothie after you went to the gym? Perhaps you downed a fizzy drink and a handful of sweets from your colleague’s desk to get you through the afternoon. Did you nibble on pretzels while you watched TV? Maybe you made healthy choices all day but blew it with an entire tub of ice cream or a “Nutella nightcap” (that’s the jar and a spoon, by the way) before bed?
We’re just guessing here, of course. But to lose your sugar belly for good, you’ll need to identify the types of sugar you’re drawn to and how much you consume. Record what you eat for breakfast, lunch and dinner and for snacks each day – just for two days.
You may not be a fan of tracking what you eat. Or maybe you just want to stop stuffing about and get on with the eating bit. But what you’ll discover over this 48-hour period could be revolutionary. Jot down every bite, sip and nibble. You can simply note what you eat, but if you want more information, add the serving size of each food.
What’s key is to track your mood and your hunger level before and after you eat. Both pieces of information are going to tell you a lot about your emotional and physiological connection to sugar. You’ll be able to spot patterns that will increase your awareness of what you eat, when you eat and why you choose the foods you do. That’s the first step to healthy change. You don’t have to write pages and pages. Just a few words will do. See the sample entry on page 32 to get an idea. And we’ve made the hunger assessment easy; just jot down the appropriate number. Before you eat, rank your hunger level on a scale of 1 to 5.
Hang on to those logs. You’ll be looking at them closely over the next three days. As you do, a picture of your sugar habits will emerge in stark relief. No matter what you discover, the news is good. Once you’re aware of your high-sugar preferences – which is not always the case if you eat without thinking – you can swap them for healthier alternatives that are lower in sugar but just as pleasing to your “sweet buds”.
For example, you might be shocked to find that although you’re not a sweet eater, you pack away a ton of foods that act like sugar in your body. Or that your standard café breakfast – scrambled eggs on toast with tomato sauce – is full of Secret Sugar. Every tablespoon of tomato sauce contains a teaspoon of added sugar. If you’re a woman and use five tablespoons on your breakfast – not hard to do if you don’t stay aware of portion sizes – you’re consuming practically all of your recommended daily intake of added sugar in tomato sauce alone.