Guest contribution from Dr. Thara Vayali
The 4 o’clock drop that requires a fully loaded latte. That extra piece of cake at the party. That late night bowl (or two) of ice cream. We’ve all been there. We all know what it’s like to feel an irresistible urge to have just one more. In the right moment, that sweet temptation can override any well-seasoned health plan.
The concept of temptation implies restraint, and assumes bad behaviour. This set up may be the origin of our society’s disordered relationship with sugar. Our well-laid dietary plans can backfire when we aim to control our desires and admonish our opposing actions. We can have a more balanced, fulfilling relationship if we are honest with our cravings and use mindfulness to interact with our sugar-laden food.
There is absolutely nothing unhealthy about reaching for sweet food to fulfill a sugar craving when it hits, but when those cravings are daily (or for some, constant) there is the potential to lose our capacity to regulate intake.
Usually, this loss occurs because we aren’t paying attention to why the craving is there in the first place. When we ignore the source signals, the craving grows and with it, our intake regulation goes out the window.
What are the source signals?
There are many reasons we can over-consume sugar.
- It tastes sweet, which hearkens back to times of childhood and pleasure. Generally, when we taste sweets we feel safe. When we feel unsafe or scared, we reach for sugar.
- It is easier to get energy from sugar than from other food sources.- When we miss meals or snacks or get “hangry”, our bodies will make us search out quick energy sources. When we are hungry, refined sugar beats a balanced meal any day.
- Consuming sugar to soothe stressful situations can be habitual. Emotional tension or chronic stress can cause a release of cortisol. Sugar can soothe this cortisol surge more easily than dealing with our stressor. When cortisol rises with stress, so does our appetite for easily accessible carbohydrates.
- It fills our brain’s reward centre faster than working toward and achieving a goal. Dopamine is the most plentiful neurotransmitter in the reward center when we feel accomplished and proud. Sugar can fill that reward centre without needing to achieve anything. When we aren’t feeling sincerely satisfied with our daily doings, sugar’s chemical structure is able to fill that neurotransmitter requirement. On the flip side, we often associate sugar as a reward for our arduous accomplishments. If this is the case, consider that there may be something you value more than sweet food,that can be your hard-earned”prize”.
- Sugar is added into most fast foods, finger foods and social foods, and we may not realize the amount consumed, until we feel the crash after the sugar floods our system.
All these beg the question: What does “overdoing it” look like?
The World Health Organization’s recommendation for maximum daily refined (or added) sugar intake is approximately 5-10% of our daily calories. That equals to 6 – 10 teaspoons or 24 – 40 grams.
One large pumpkin spice latte has approximately 48 grams of sugar of which 31 grams are refined sugar from the flavour syrups alone. The rest (17g) are naturally occurring sugars from the milk. Add in some whipped cream and you have an extra 12 grams. That’s your entire added sugar quota for the day.
Unfortunately, nutrition labels do not separate added sugars from naturally occurring sugars, which further confuses our personal sugar assessments. Mindfulness might be more helpful than micro-managing and controlling our recommended intake.
A sugar recommendation does not mean we have a sugar requirement, it just means that to engage in common food customs and maintain social engagements, we will likely consume some refined sugar in the day. So, it is best to keep it below the recommendations.
On average, Canadians consume 50-60g of added sugar per day. For more information, check out these infographics of our annual total sugar intake from Statistics Canada, through MacLean’s, and Global News, and a fantastic Canadian Documentary, Sugar Coated that discusses the health impact of sugar and the influence of industry lobbying.
But for now, let’s get back to mindfulness.
When it comes to health behaviours, the most common dialogue around refined sugar and health is about self-control or ways to cut sugar out completely.
What we want to be aware of is the difference between self-control (will power) and self-regulation (mindfulness).
Using self-“control” in the context of cravings is akin to ignoring a message that our body is trying to tell us. Will power doesn’t break craving cycles, it merely silences them for a short time. Silencing a craving can build resentment and strengthen the urge to break free from the restriction.
Being mindful about our sugar intake is a more active role in breaking a cycle. Using mindfulness can be a more effective way of regulating sugar intake. Mindful sugar consumption starts with pausing, noticing, asking and choosing. It’s not a quick fix, but it makes long term behaviour change more realistic.
What could mindful sugar consumption look like?
Pause: Next time you choose to consume something that’s sweet, check in with your body by taking three deep breaths.
1st Breath – Do nothing, simply inhale and exhale.
2nd Breath – Look at what you are about to eat/drink.
3rd Breath – Look around the room at your surroundings for context.
Notice: Take in the sounds, smells and sights. Notice if your body is tense, if you are salivating, if your stomach has a knot, or is growling.
Ask: Which of these is true for me right now:
- Am I feeling unsafe/scared?
- Have I eaten enough today?
- Am I feeling emotional tension or chronic stress?
- Have I done anything today that serves my sense of pride?
- How many “fast food” items have I consumed today?
Choose: Given my answers:
- Do I want to eat/drink this right now?
- Do I want all of it, or just some of it?
- What can I do to prevent this situation from happening tomorrow?
Through this process you are regulating your relationship with sugar, rather than controlling it.
If you use this mindful process regularly, over time you will build better communication between your body, mind and the way you nourish yourself. Mindfully breaking the sugar habit is learning to listen and respond to your needs. Your body will thank you for it.