'Tis the season for sweets! Why is it that pies, cakes and cookies seem to taste better in the winter? Maybe it's the onrush of family food traditions, or the fact that sugar seems sweeter when you're sitting in front of a fireplace with cocoa in hand. It's natural to have sugar cravings (we all do), but ultimately the "highs" are short-lived and the aftermath unsatisfying. Here's how to keep these cravings in check.
1. Choose quality over quantity.
On average Americans ingest close to 66 pounds of added sugar per person, per year -- that's 19.5 teaspoons a day! Quitting sugar cold turkey is not the answer, as abrupt restriction can often lead binge eating. The problem is in over consuming; eating sugar in moderation is key. The American Heart Association recommends eating no more than six teaspoons a day for women and nine teaspoons for men
Next time a craving arises, think about what you really want. Is it Grandma's famous Chocolate Jumbo Cookies, or the apple dumplings that only appear on Christmas? Swap processed desserts for homemade ones, as the latter is often more satisfying. It's okay to indulge, just make mindful choices -- and savor them.
2. Opt for complex carbohydrates.
Stressful seasons often make us beeline for the dessert table. The taste of sugar releases endorphins that calm us and give us a natural high, while carbohydrates spark the release of the feel-good brain chemical serotonin. However, eating sugary treats will just make you crave more of the same. Ingesting simple carbohydrates -- like table sugar -- without a dose of protein or healthy fat, will give your body a temporary energy boost, but will quickly leave you hungry and wanting more.
Luckily, carbs come in many different forms. Complex carbohydrates, like vegetables, whole grains, and fruits, are essential for optimal brain function. These alternatives contain naturally occurring sugar, in addition to fiber, water, and micronutrients, which will keep you feeling full longer. The fiber in complex carbohydrates with also aid in digestion and improve your metabolism.
3. Avoid artificial sweeteners.
Eating artificial sugar triggers the brain to produce dopamine, the pleasure neurotransmitter. When dopamine levels plummet, our mood decreases, and we again desire that pleasant feeling. This disturbs the body's ability to associate sweetness with calorie intake, resulting in additional cravings. We end up consuming processed foods with less nutritional value, promoting weight gain and obesity.
Instead, incorporate natural sugar alternatives like maple syrup, raw honey, or coconut sugar instead. Stay away from terms such as "sugarless," "sugar-free," diet," and "low-calorie," as the products likely contain artificial sweeteners. Even words like dextrin, dextrose, maltodextrin, maltose, saccharose, sorghum, and xylose are just fancy words for sugar. As Michael Pollan says, avoid products with ingredients you've never heard of or can't pronounce.
4. Make sleep a priority.
Lack of sleep has been proven to increase junk food cravings. In a study from UC Berkley, participants who were sleep-deprived found high-calorie foods more desirable. The National Sleep Foundation recommends that adults from the ages 18 to 26 should get between 7 to 9 hours of sleep per night.
If you struggle from insommnia, eating certain foods can help induce sleep. Carbohydrates such as pumpkin, sweet potatoes, and bananas, as well as dairy products contain large amounts of tryptophan, an amino acid that relaxes the body and creates sleep-promoting melatonin. Eating these foods encourage a deeper, uninterrupted sleep, and may even help you fall asleep more quickly.
5. Start moving.
Boredom is a large component in developing unhealthy eating habits. When we have nothing to do, we often reach for food to fill the time. In these moments, when we eat, we eat mindlessly without relishing the flavor of each individual bite. Next time you have a hankering for something sweet, take a 10-minute walk and see if the craving decreases. Sometimes a distraction is all it takes for your hunger to subside.
Better yet, spending time outside will give you a healthy dose of vitamin D, boosting energy and regulating your sweet tooth. Vitamin D increases levels of the mood-lifting chemical serotonin, while simultaneously improving your body's absorption of calcium, an important weight-loss nutrient.
Think of these tips at the next family holiday party, New Year's celebration, or on a lazy Sunday afternoon. Whether you apply one or all five, you'll leave this season feeling energized and more in control of your food choices.