By Shelby Rowe Moyer
The New Year has become synonymous with self-reflection and growth. It’s a natural time for many of us to evaluate what we want to accomplish during the next 365 days and the steps we can take to get there. Better health and wellness are big themes, and if indulging in holiday sweets has been a trend for you, that might be one area you’re looking to cut back on.
Processed sugar is not great for our health; we all know this. Kaitlin Rohowetz, a certified health coach and founder of A Better Body in Madison, says studies show that excessive sugar consumption can suppress the immune system; can cause chronic inflammation (linked to mental health disorders, body pain, digestive issues, weight gain and more); and also causes extreme fluctuations in your blood sugar, which can also affect your mood.
Conversely, changing your lifestyle so that you consume less processed sugars will likely lead to feeling more balanced overall, she says. Understanding how sugar impacts our body is the easy part. Changing our habits is a lot more challenging.
LET’S TALK ABOUT WHY WE CRAVE SUGAR.
Rohowetz says there are two things at play: Emotional needs and nutritional needs. Whether you’re craving sugar as a self-soothing mechanism or because your body wants an energy source, your brain is sending signals out because your body wants to reclaim balance.
Eating sugar feels good because it releases dopamine, the reward center in your brain. “When you’ve been driving in awful traffic, or your boss has been on you about a stressful deadline, or your kid has been sick or you’re dealing with some other family issue, your body will help you restore balance by craving the foods that make us feel happy and blissful,” she says.
Nutritionally, all foods have energetic qualities, she says. Sugar, for example, is on one end of the spectrum alongside caffeine and dairy. Those foods give us energy, Rohowetz says. On the other end of the spectrum are things like salt and red meat, and those make us feel grounded. Hence why sweet and salty is so tasty — they’re on opposite ends of the spectrum.
“If you’re eating a lot of protein and eggs and salty foods, you’re going to crave sweets, because you’re not getting enough balance,” she says. “You’re going to crave the thing that’s going to give you the quickest energy, but it might not always be the healthiest, and it’s just a temporary solution.”
THERE ARE HEALTHY WAYS TO ACHIEVE BALANCE.
To truly curb your sugar cravings, eat a variety of nutrient-dense foods, Rohowetz says — like poultry, fish, vegetables, beans, grains, fruits and nuts. These foods live in the middle of the nutrition spectrum, so your body will remain in a more even state when you eat them. Drinking enough water and getting enough sleep are also paramount.
“People don’t believe me when I say this, but it will help you naturally crave less sugar,” she says.
If you’re eating well, staying hydrated and getting enough sleep but you’re still craving sweet treats, then the cravings could be emotional. Ask yourself how you’re feeling in that moment, she says. Trying to simply cut out sugar doesn’t work long-term unless you replace it with a different, stress-relieving, healthy habit — like exercise, a mindfulness activity or socializing with people who feel good to be around.
And the goal here isn’t to avoid eating sugar forever. The goal is to eliminate the guilt that can come from overindulging. “My No. 1 thing is if you’re genuinely eating a dessert to enjoy it, and you can do it guilt-free, go ahead and have your dessert,” she says. “But if it’s pretty obvious that you’re not even hungry or you’re not in a good mood, maybe try a couple of other things first. If you’re still having that craving, then having the sweet treat is still an option.”
Rohowetz understands how hard this can be to practice in the long-term. A former chronic dieter herself, Rohowetz says everything changed for her when she shifted her mindset away from weight loss and into a more positive direction. “You kind of have to think of yourself as a healthy person, and then you gradually start to become that.”
Start small, she says — meaning, if you’re a person who eats sweets every day, start by eating them every other day. Build upon small adjustments for lasting change.
HEALTHY SNACKS WITH A TOUCH OF SWEETNESS
Rohowetz recommends mixing your “something sweet” with foods that will help curb hunger and offer more nutrients, like these:
- Sliced apple with almond butter
- Berries and Greek yogurt
- Trail mix with dried fruits and nuts