It’s in the window of that bakery near your office. Hidden in your breakfast cereal. Taunting you in line at the register. Beckoning you from the vending machine. This time of year, it’s even driving down the street in a refrigerated truck that plays “Pop Goes the Weasel” on repeat…
What’s a gal (or gent) to do?
My sweet friend Bonnie asked me to do a post on how to NOT crave dessert after every meal…. even breakfast.
For the minority of you out there lacking a sweet tooth…this is totally a thing.
It’s a tough topic to address. And in keeping with the Healthy Prongs philosophy, the question of “how to tame the tooth” most likely has many answers. Do I have all of them? No I do not.
A (VERY) Abbreviated History of Sweet Stuff:
Our attraction to sweetness was a survival tool in those good ol’ hunter/gatherer days. Evolutionarily speaking, sweetness was a signal for safety: A ripe fruit is sweeter (and more packed with nutrients) than a potentially harmful, unripe one. Poisonous things in nature tend to be bitter, not sweet. Sweet things usually pack a bigger caloric punch, thereby making it a good choice if you don’t know when your next meal will be.
But we’ve come a long way from scavenging. When sugar cane came into the world picture, we moved far… far beyond fruit. It started as a trade novelty, and then somewhere along the line, we figured out how to produce it (or something like it) cheaply, and it became a way of life.
So here we sit, in our sugar laden food system- the affinity for sweetness now much more pronounced, and the sources of satisfying that sugary yearning constantly within arm’s reach.
ME? I’ve engaged in a pretty consistent battle with my sweet tooth over the course of my whole life. I’m uncontrollable around gummy candy, have a severe soft spot for bready pastries, and pretty much have always had a borderline stalker-style relationship with ice cream.
And yes… it has gotten out of hand on several occasions throughout my adult life.
What I’ve come to learn though A LOT of trial and error, a yoga practice, and a couple years of nutrition courses– is how to make friends with my sweet tooth.
Friends, you say? Yeah… friends. Like any friendship or relationship it has its ups and downs. It involves arguments. It’s not perfect. But also like any relationship- it involves a good understanding of communication.
The nickname “sweet tooth” is imagery. It’s a placeholder picture for the less visible chemical messaging system, heavily involving the brain, that rewards us when we eat something sweet (see evolutionary history blurb above).
So how do you make a friend (or at least a frenemy) out of this powerful reward pathway.
I know people who have cut out ALL processed sugar and have recognized a big change in themselves, and how they feel. I don’t doubt or belittle that strategy. But for me, it’s unrealistic
The dawn of the “sugar age” also birthed baked treats and confections. And from where I stand, I just CAN’T say I won’t ever eat them. Nor can I harbor unreasonable guilt about it! They’re delicious! And they can be included as part of a well-rounded food lifestyle.
Awareness is key
Probably the hardest part in building a friendship with your sweet tooth is being fully aware of it. This takes time, and patience, and may cause frustration. If you’ve been over-rewarding your reward system (Believe me, I’ve been there.) it’ll take time to un-condition it.
While you may not stave off every attack of the sugar “gimme gimme’s” in the beginning, what’s important is the honing of your ability to pause. To take a deep breath. Take another one. And ask yourself what’s going on.
Are you bored? Are you plain old hungry? Are you stressed? Are you thirsty?
The answer might not stop you from grabbing that cupcake. But before you take a bite, you might try to acknowledge what exactly propelled you to do so in the first place.
Your motivation might be: “Dude…the smell of fresh-baked cupcakes is billowing out of that bakery…. I want a cupcake.” And if that’s the case- awesome! But if sweet cravings are happening all throughout the day, you may find that many of them are trying to communicate something else.
Cultivating your (sweet) palate.
Just as we may try foods we didn’t like in childhood and find that we really like them as an adult, our relationship with sugar changes as we age.
Kids go bonkers for pixie sticks, and Kool-Aid (Oh Yeaaah!), and those weird Fun Dip things we had when I was little (read- a packet of sugar with an edible sugar “spoon”)- remember? In other words, kids are pretty much happy to eat sugar… straight up… no chaser.
At this moment, the thought of a pixie stick sends chills down my spine. I guess you could say I now have a mature sweet tooth. A discerning sweet tooth. A… classier sweet tooth?
What I’m trying to get at is the fact that as adults, we probably have done a good bit of figuring out what we like and what we don’t like. We have favorites. And we have a better understanding of quality. A homemade gooey chocolate chip cookie is 1000x tastier than a Chips Ahoy out of the bag. No offense to the factory-produced cookie, but it just isn’t anything to write home about, so to speak.
So why settle? Why have generic when you can have spectacular? Maybe that means making something yourself (usually helpful if you can share it with friends or family), or maybe it means holding out until you can get your absolute favorite sweet treat.
99% of the time, it’ll be way more satisfying than settling, and you may enjoy the sense of occasion that comes with it.
Make room for sweets
While I don’t want to cut out all sugar from my life, I agree with the concept of getting rid of all hidden sugar. If I’m going to eat something sweet, I want to do it on purpose. I don’t want the “healthy scale” tipped out of whack due to high fructose corn syrup in my loaf of sliced bread. I don’t want all that sugar in my spaghetti sauce, or in my beverages, etc. etc. etc…
As I mentioned, sugar is everywhere. It’s hiding in some of the most unlikely places. So while reading nutrition labels and ingredient lists can be tedious, it can help cut back on your overall unconscious sugar intake… making a little more wiggle room when it comes to the quality treats you reeeaaally want.
This part of ‘getting rid of processed sugar,’ I’m completely on board with. Let lunch be lunch, and let dessert be dessert.
Find whole-food treats you ACTUALLY enjoy
So, in talking about tipping the healthy scales, and balance and all that- it’s fairly safe to say that not everyday should be cupcake day (unless it’s a really tiny cupcake, and you have the willpower to only have 1 …Bless your heart if this is you).
So what we need is to find some options that aren’t necessarily birthday cake- but that we enjoy in a ‘simple-home-cooked meal,’ ‘finding-joy-in-the-everyday-things’ kind of way.
You may have to experiment to meet your unique preferences. But I come bearing a few suggestions- (including a few breakfast-y ones!).
- If you are a chocolate lover: unsweetened cocoa powder is your buddy. I’ve often mixed it into plain yogurt with my breakfast (and even my oatmeal on occasion). It makes a subtly sweet and chocolaty morning treat.
- A summer suggestion: homemade popsicles. Get an inexpensive popsicle-mold or, heck, some Dixie cups and wooden sticks, and do it! You can make sorbet-like ones with pureed fruit, or creamier treats with yogurt. I’ve been experimenting with my mold all summer… and I’m obsessed. (Look out for some recipes next month!)
- Have a smoothie! As you may have noticed… I like smoothies. So much so, that I created a Smoothie of the Week series that will continue through the end of this month. Some are more desert-y than others (check out the Mint Chocolate Awesome, or the Chocolate Cherry Hell Yes), and some are less so. But all have considerably less sugar than a pint of ice cream (I guarantee you that much at least). I still have the Peanut Butter Banana Bliss for breakfast at least once a week. It gives me enough of a sweet fix, but it fuels my morning, too. (Quality!).
- Find balance. Here’s an example: You’re craving pancakes for breakfast. It’s cool. It’s happened to me like 6 times this month. Embrace the single serving. Joy the Baker (who’s food blog is one of my absolute favorites) has a recipe…. wait for it…. for a SINGLE pancake! (Find the recipe here) I’ve made it. Over, and over, and over again. And it’s amazing. Due to summer’s abundance of fresh berries, I’ve been substituting the toppings she suggests and just including a handful of blueberries in the plain batter instead (and maybe a sprinkle of flax meal for fiber and good fats… like I do).
- Here’s some extra balance: I pretty much always have my pancake with a green smoothie. Something about getting some veggies into my meal plan makes having a pancake much more acceptable. Say what you will, but this meal has grains, fat, protein, fruit and veggies. Talk about balanced!
Maybe you’re resentful of your sweet tooth right now. That’s okay. It takes time to get to really know a person (or a tooth).
The idea of awareness is the ‘big ticket item’ here, in my opinion. Healthy comes from mindfulness. Moderation, at least at the beginning, is the product of mindfulness. It can take time (and patience), and a little bit of compassion for yourself to stop battling the “tooth”. But so far, in my experience, it’s well worth the effort.
But geez… all this talk about cupcakes…
… Guess I better go make more popsicles!