Are We Genetically Programmed to Crave Sugar?

The holidays are here and I’m dreaming of sugar…cookies, cakes, and chocolate. Even sugar plums sound lovely at Christmastime, although I’m not sure I’ve ever seen one outside of “The Nutcracker” ballet.

For the past week or so, I’ve been making cookies and I’m making my preparations for the Christmas day Buche de Noel or yule log cake. For me, the act of baking is therapeutic with a dual benefit: creation and consumption. I love the beauty of the cookies and sharing the food with family and friends, but I also love the sugar. Each day, I seem to eat just one more cookie than the day before, and each night I rationalize with plans for a “Dry January” and maybe a month of the “Whole 30 Diet.”

But maybe this year, I would like to do things differently. Perhaps now is the time to dial back the unbridled excess and ease into the new year. It would be nice to avoid feeling sick on New Year’s Day and to wear my jeans comfortably in early January. There just remains one hurdle… the explosive delight of sugar.

All the cells of the body, and the brain in particular, require glucose (the simplest form of sugar) to function. Our brain’s feedback loops, sensory pleasures and environmental factors (e.g alcohol and poor sleep) all amplify our desire for a sugar rush. But recent research suggests that some of us—much more than others—may also be genetically attuned to crave sweets. There are genes linked to feelings of satiety, and when they are low, the brain does not get the signal that it is time to stop eating and we eat more. For those with this in-born “sweet tooth,” intuitive eating or stopping when full may not be effective and alternative strategies should be introduced to control overeating.

Here are some facts and tips to help manage sugar intake.

Exercise is magic. Go for a walk after dessert and your blood sugar will drop. Moderate exercise is the best tool for counteracting overindulgence.

Avoid artificial sweeteners. Why? Because fake sugar tastes sweet and our brains will stay programmed to desire the sweet stuff.

Practice the 3-bite rule. This is my favorite! Have some dessert or candy but limit yourself to 3 bites. One sweet treat per day is a good strategy.

No sweets on an empty stomach. Sweets are best consumed after a meal of protein and complex carbohydrate. Sugar will be absorbed more slowly into your bloodstream and your blood sugar is less likely to spike AND you will likely eat less. This is the reason dessert is supposed to follow a meal. For this same reason, avoid having sweets late at night.

If none of this works and you find that you have overdone it, be kind to yourself, go for a walk, and resume healthy eating. Remember, it’s how we treat our bodies over the long term that matters.

Karen Kruza is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist specializing in weight and type 2 diabetes management.

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