Historically, the cold autumn weather would lay to rest the fruits of summer and, along with it, our sweet tooth. Our taste buds would shift from a hankering for ripe apples, pears and plums to the heartier carrots, squash and onions. However, with year-round availability of fruit and sweets – and sinister holiday treats – cravings for sugar intensify rather than wane.
Two-thirds of the tongue’s taste buds recognize sweetness, thereby alerting the brain’s pleasure center, which in turn signals us to eat more sweet foods. This system was beneficial for our ancestors who ate copious amounts of ripe, high-sugar content foods all summer in order to build fat reserves to survive the winter.
Sugar from any source – fruit, soda or Halloween candy – is broken down into three basic sugars: glucose, fructose and galactose. Glucose is the monosaccharide responsible for producing the majority of energy in the body. When enough glucose has been utilized for the body’s needs, the rest is stored as fat.
Unfortunately, we are eating sugar all day and all year from innumerable sources, even as we also are replacing natural sugar with artificial sugar.
Isn’t artificial sugar – such as aspartame, saccharin and sucralose (Splenda) – calorie-free? Yes. And isn’t Stevia a no-calorie natural sweetener? Right.
However, when we eat artificial and calorie-free sweeteners, our taste buds still recognize sweetness, and signal the brain to eat more. But since no calories were consumed, we are not satisfied. Further, no calories from actual sugar means that no glucose is available to the body, and our body craves energy. The body associates sweetness with fruit, honey and other natural forms of sugar, but artificial sweeteners do not contain vitamins and minerals, leaving the body void and searching. Lacking energy and nutrients, we crave – and consume– more sugar!
Sugar cravings relates to more than lack of self-control. In fact, sugar cravings are partially controlled by the gut. When we consume a diet high in simple carbohydrates like sugar, the gut bacteria species that feed off this sugar will flourish. The thriving species will compete with – and overpower – the smaller species. Thus, the food we eat directly affects dominant gut bacteria.
Gut bacteria regulates hormones, immunity and metabolism, and synthesizes key nutrients and neurotransmitters, such as serotonin. Overconsumption of sugar may lead to blood glucose dysregulation, endocrine dysfunction, poor immune health, overweight, depression and anxiety. A sugar craving is a sign that we need to limit our overall sugar intake. It’s a sign that the gut microbiome has an excess of sugar-loving bacteria, causing imbalances that will affect the rest of our body’s systems.
Further, newer research indicates that artificial sweeteners eradicate gut bacteria, and some studies link artificial sweeteners to obesity, by way of altering the gut microbiome.
To test the ancestral theory about my own sugar cravings, recently I gave up sugar, at least until Thanksgiving. Not all sugar – I completely eliminated all forms of added and refined sugars, and especially artificial sweeteners, and I limit fruit, plain yogurt and other foods that naturally contain sugar.
This holiday season, when reaching for another piece of Halloween candy, ask yourself who’s actually craving sugar – you, or your gut? Consider whether a no-calorie sugar substitute will really help you lose weight this holiday season. And perhaps join me in my test – is it possible to resist most sugars until next summer’s fruit ripens.
Abbott, A. (2014). Sugar substitutes linked to obesity: Artificial sweetener seems to change the microbiome. Nature, 513: 290.
Alcock, J., Maley, C. C., & Akitipis, A. (2014). Is eating behavior manipulated by the gastrointestinal microbiota? Evolutionary pressures and potential mechanisms. Bioessays, 36: 940–949. doi: 10.1002/bies.201400071
Gundry, Steven R. (2017). The Plant Paradox: The Hidden Dangers in “Healthy” Foods that Cause Disease and Weight Gain. New York, NY: Harper Wave.