A strong sweet tooth can be a curse. You constantly crave sweets, and even when you're trying to cut back, it's impossible to resist a cookie, a piece of cake or an ice cream cone. The joy you get from sweet food is simply too great.
But of course an active sweet tooth can completely unravel your healthy diet. You work hard to stay away from unhealthy foods, and then, bam! You kill an entire package of cookies. We've all been there.
Your sweet tooth becomes your enemy, constantly reminding you of the enjoyment that comes from eating something loaded with sugar.
Fortunately, there are ways to desensitize a sweet tooth. But first you need to understand why you crave sugar in the first place.
No, you don't have a tooth in your mouth that needs sweets. It's just an idiom that expresses an especially strong craving for sweet foods. And of course, sugar—or a variation of it—is the source of sweetness in the foods you eat.
The tongue has specific taste buds that detect sweetness, which, along with sourness, saltiness, bitterness and savory, is one of the five basic tastes. When your tongue detects a sweet food, it sends signals to your brain, which interprets the taste.
Sugar is interesting in that it triggers a reaction in the brain similar to cocaine, which is highly addictive. Granted, sugar is not classified as an addictive drug, but the comparison illustrates the powerful effect sugar has on the brain.
"We have a physical pleasure that comes with eating sweet foods, and the brain releases endorphins," explains sports dietician Leslie Bonci. "You don't have the same thing happen with broccoli."
Some people have a stronger sweet tooth than others. You might be able to eat something sweet and go on with your days. For others, eating one sweet thing prompts an indulgence or binge because of the overwhelming satisfaction provided by the sugar.
"Some people are more sensitive than others. We don't always know why that happens," Bonci adds. It might be genetic or perhaps it's because they eat a lot sweet foods and their bodies become accustomed to the taste and the resulting physical reaction.
This causes a number of problems. Sugary foods can make up a large portion of your diet, resulting in generally poor nutrition and, of course, undesired weight gain.
How to Get Rid of Your Sweet Tooth
It is possible to reduce your affinity for sweets. You will probably always enjoy them, because, well, they are admittedly delicious to most people. But you can make sweet food a treat rather than a necessity.
Step 1: Wean Yourself Off Added Sweeteners
If you try to go cold turkey and drop sweet foods all at once, you are setting yourself up for failure.
"If you decide you're not going to eat anything sweet, you normally do that for a day and then it doesn't work any more,"says Bonci. "So I think people have to have a better plan of action in place."
Bonci recommends gradually reducing the amount of sugar in the foods you eat. For example, say you currently load your oatmeal or coffee with sugar. If you stop using sugar, it might taste disgusting. But if you reduce the amount of sugar a little at a time, you could eventually learn to enjoy oatmeal or coffee without the sweetness. You might even be able to eliminate sugar altogether.
"If somebody is used to eating things that are sweet and they dwindle it down, then eat a Peep, it's like, 'Oh my god! What is that on my tongue?'" Bonci says. "It's so over-the-top sweet."
Remember, trendy sweeteners like agave and honey are still sugar. So just because honey has additional health benefits, dousing your food with it doesn't make it better for you or deaden your sweet tooth.
Step 2: Check Food Labels
Be watchful about the types and amounts of sugar added to your food. According to sugarscience.org, 61 different varieties of sugar are found in food, including cane sugar, beet sugar, corn syrup, high fructose corn syrup, dextrose and maltose.
If the food is processed or packaged, immediately be wary of its contents. For example, jars of marinara sauce often have lots of added sugar, yet this is a food that would taste fine on its own without sugar.
Always check the sugar content on the label, then look at the ingredient list. If some type of sugar is high on the list, stay clear of that food if you're trying to reduce your sweet tooth.
"If you're not having that constant sweetness on your tongue overall, you may end up wanting fewer sweet things," Bonci says. "If you're having sweet all the time, then that little switch is always on—like 'what's next what's next.'"
Sports nutrition products are a common source of added sugar that athletes need to be aware of. Ideally, you should consume them around physical activity, not for regular hydration or snacking.
"A sports drink is sweet, a bar is sweet, the gels are sweet," says Bonci. "If people use a lot of them during the day, and that's kind of the taste they want, then they're not going to be inclined to say, 'Let's have Brussels sprouts for dinner.'"
Because our food industry has made us accustomed to sweet foods, we often forget there are other ways to add flavor to food.
Bonci recommends adding spices to boost the flavor profile of your foods. For example, instead of adding sugar to oatmeal, try cinnamon or a little vanilla. You might actually find it more flavorful. If you typically drink soda, fruit juice and other sugary drinks, try water with a slice of lemon, lime, cucumber or even a little ginger.
There are many other ways to add flavor to your food or get a sweet fix. Try eating fruit-based foods like the ones Bonci shows in the video above.
This should get you thinking about how food can satisfy without sweetness. Maybe you like spicy foods or maybe you prefer savory items. It's your job to explore new options.
"Once you have a chance to explore the whole tongue and the taste bud palette, you might find that going without sugar is OK," Bonci says. "You can consume less of it, or you might not want sugar at all, and go toward something savory instead."
Eliminating sweets altogether may not be realistic. True, their nutritional value isn't top notch, but some fantastic sweet foods are OK to enjoy from time to time.
However, sweets should be a treat and not a daily occurrence. Try to limit your sugar indulgences to once or twice a week. Instead of eating four cookies or getting a large ice cream cone, have one cookie and get a single scoop. Learn to enjoy the flavors and the experience rather than trying to eat as much as you can.
Also, think carefully about the type of sweets you are eating. For example, a gummy bear is almost pure sugar, whereas chocolate and ice cream have sugar and some fat, which will satisfy more of your palette and better fill you up. Think quality over quantity.