Quitting Sugary Snacks: It's Not Just a Matter of Strong Will

Quitting Sugary Snacks: It's Not Just a Matter of Strong Will
Courtesy of Little Debbie

I read a great post on Chicago Now yesterday morning entitled "Indulging in common sense when it comes to healthy eating..."

As one who tries to eat healthily - I was enjoying a bowl of whole grain cereal topped with strawberries, blueberries, and almond milk, sipping a glass of pomegranate kefir while reading Arkie Lad's blog - I always like to get other perspectives on the challenge of eating well.  David's post hit the nail on the head - no need to go cold turkey if you can practice moderation.

For a lot of us, that's exactly the message we need to hear to slowly take control of our diets without creating the added anxiety of sacrificing taste for better nutrition.  It's ok to have that one little Hershey's Kiss after a meal.  Treat yourself.  It won't kill you or throw off your caloric intake.

The only problem with moderation is understanding the limitations of our own will power.

Sometimes, our bodies can't be reasoned with.  Our conscious thoughts become overridden with internal signals that cause us to question our own best wishes and give in to indulgence.  A sweet tooth can become a sweet addiction.

I'm not being overly dramatic here, either.  Sugar, salt, and fat trigger the release of endorphins that tell our brains "this is heaven!"  The more sugar in the food that triggered the dopamine effect, the harder it is to stop eating.

Sugar - specifically glucose - elevates blood sugar, creates a rapid insulin response, and suppresses the hormone Grehlin that tells you "time to stop eating, you're full."  You might be telling yourself "time to stop now", but your brain is saying "don't stop" and your stomach is saying "keep eating, there's plenty of room here."

How can you win this battle of wits against your own mind?

One way that I don't recommend is suffering a heart attack.  There's nothing like nearly dying to remind you that your past indulgences were a bit more than your heart could handle.  But in my particular case, it was probably the only motivator strong enough to ensure that my will power would trump the physiological control of the substances I had been ingesting.

There is a far easier approach.  Take the time to understand how your body processes sugar and how you need to adjust your diet accordingly to prevent heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and obesity.

I did a lot of research during my heart attack recovery.  I devoured the guides the hospital gave me and sought more information from the American Heart Association and the Mayo Clinic.  I read Michael Pollan's In Defense of Food.  I watched Dr. Robert Lustig's lecture, Sugar: The Bitter Truth (one and a half hours!).  I discovered the work of Dr. Mark Hyman and Dr. Stephen Sinatra and began following them.

I discovered my X factor - too much sugar in my diet - and looked for help in defeating my sweet tooth.

The first thing I discovered was high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) is in an inordinate amount of processed foods.  HFCS didn't just become a low-priced substitute for cane sugar in sweet-tasting snacks and soft drinks, it became a pervasive flavor additive in salty snacks and both low-sodium and low-fat prepackaged meals.  It was virtually unavoidable.

While the good folks at the Corn Refiners Association would lead you to believe that your body can't tell the difference between real sugar and HFCS, Dr. Hyman would beg to differ with them, as would I.  Here's an article originally posted on my blog, Heart Of A Cyclist, that explains how your body metabolizes HFCS.  The difference is subtle - slowly splitting a disaccharide versus more rapidly absorbing two monosaccharides - but it is significant.

If I were to summarize my prior post, it comes down to this; HFCS is insidious and fast acting.  You don't know that you're ingesting it and you don't realize that you're eating too much.  All your brain knows is that it tastes great and there's no reason to stop eating.

The great taste is purposeful.  HFCS tastes sweeter than table sugar, as it contains a higher amount of fructose than glucose.  It is also sweeter tasting than fresh, whole fruit.  This explains why artificial fruit flavors make actual whole fruits taste dull in comparison.

Is it possible to continue eating sugar-sweetened snacks in moderation?

For me, and a number of other people I know, the answer is no, not really.  The risk of causing inflammation, plaque build-up, and body fat is not worth indulging in a sweet taste and hoping to control the physiological need to keep eating.  I would just as soon avoid the temptation.

Rather than moderating, I recommend tapering.  For example, one could switch from jello to sweetened yogurts and then to natural yogurts with real fruit.  Change from brownies to granola bars and eventually to just snacking on nuts.  Transition from soda to flavored water to just plain water.  Eat whole fruit, skin and all.  Blend whole fruits into a smoothie instead of drinking fruit juices (natural or not).

It will take time to retrain or "desensitize" your taste buds.  If you are successful in switching to whole fruits and minimally sweetened snacks, your old favorites will soon taste too sweet for your new taste buds.  Imagine passing on birthday cake and opting to nibble from the fruit or vegetable trays instead...

That's my advice.

I lost 35 pounds and kept it off for two years by learning about food and changing my relationship with it.  My lipid profile - good cholesterol, bad cholesterol, and triglycerides - is outstanding.  All it took was understanding what I was up against and developing a realistic plan of attack to defeat my lifelong frenemy.


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Keep riding and be safe!


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