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Not Too Sweet, Please
You come home tired and hungry, and what’s the first thing you want to pop into your mouth? Salad? Fresh fruits or vegetables? For the sake of your health, those would be great choices. But if you’re more likely to reach for the cookies or grab a bowl of ice cream, read on.

Through both cultural and physical experiences, sugar consumption has a powerful emotional and biological effect on the human body, which can develop into an addiction. So if we’re serious about being healthy, it helps to understand why we turn to sugar and what we can do to kick the habit.

The May 2009 issue of body + soul magazine includes an article titled “Tame Your Sweet Tooth” which offers fascinating insights regarding the human love affair with sugar. According to Dr. John Bagnulo, clinical nutritionist at the Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, we’re physiologically set up to desire sugar because a majority of our taste buds detect sweetness. And having sugar in our bloodstream tells our bodies to release the feel-good chemical serotonin. “Sugar makes us mildly euphoric,” says Bagnulo.

In addition, Beth Reardon, an integrative nutritionist at Duke Medical Center, says sugar also has an immediate calming effect, which explains why we automatically reach for sweets when we're stressed or tired (two feelings often accompanied by low serotonin levels). Yet another player in this internal drama is a neurotransmitter called dopamine, which is released with elevated blood sugar levels. Dopamine enhances our feeling of satisfaction or satiety after a meal.

Health Problems

However, surges of dopamine and serotonin go hand in hand with a rise in insulin. And that’s where the health problems begin. We all know about the creeping numbers on the bathroom scale and the extra inches around the waistline that result from an excessive intake of sweets. And we are probably also aware of the risks of contracting chronic and disabling conditions like diabetes and heart disease. Even certain cancers have been linked with high insulin levels.

However, knowing the risks of excessive sugar intake doesn’t make it easy to shake the sugar habit. But don’t despair. Janice O’Leary, the author of Tame Your Sweet Tooth, offers a number of practical suggestions for subduing the sugar monster. Among them:

1. Find substitutes. Fruits (especially dried) have a sweet, satisfying taste.

2. Retrain your taste buds. When you eat lots of sweets, your taste buds get desensitized. Learn to enjoy other tastes, starting with strong herbs and spices.

3. Say no only once. You won’t have to deal with what you didn’t bring home from the grocery store.

4. Get enough exercise and sunlight. Both naturally boost your body’s feel-good chemicals.

5. Take emotional inventory. If you’re eating sugar for emotional reasons, you’ll be happy to know that your body can get the same “chemical” benefits from a hug as from a doughnut!

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By Brenda Forbes Dickerson. Copyright © 2009 by GraceNotes. All rights reserved. Use of this material is subject to usage guidelines.

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