Are you somebody who can always ”make room” for dessert? Are you unable to pass by a plate full of freshly baked cookies without grabbing one? Does thinking about cookies, cakes, and pastries make your mouth water?
There’s no shame in that. Is there anything more delicious than a well-made tiramisu? (the answer is no).
Unfortunately (for us all), a sweet tooth can be one of the most devastating habits we have for our oral health. Foods that are loaded with sugar can feed harmful bacteria in our mouth, creating acids that feast on our teeth. This leads to the loss of tooth enamel (the protective coat around our teeth), cavities, and potentially, tooth decay.
In this post, we’ll teach you a few quick tips to curb your sweet tooth by reducing the cravings we all get and save those pearly whites 😉
If we are going to lower our sugar intake, it’ll help to first have an understanding of where these cravings come from. Cravings can come from two places: they can be behavioral-based or then can derive from our hormones.
Let’s start with the first: behavioral cravings. In short, these are our habits. These are cravings that are triggered by something in our environment.
For example, seeing a fast food restaurant on our way home from work can trigger us to pull into the drive-thru. Or when being with our family around the holidays leads us to eat and drink more than we normally would. Or when a stressful day at work leads to a large chocolate cake at dinner.
These are all behavioral-based cravings.
Charles Duhig, author of The Power of Habit says that habits form in three phases:
- Cue (a trigger in our environment)
- Habit (the actual eating of the tiramisu)
- Reward (the happiness and satisfaction of the tiramisu)
The more we go through this habit loop” the more ingrained our habits become, and the more intense the craving feels. The interesting part about this is that these cues often go unnoticed. You may have noticed that you crushed an entire box of girl scout cookies (habit) but you didn’t realize that you only do it around the time of your performance review at work (cue).
The more aware we become of our cues, the more we can change our environment to fight against behavioral cravings. On days were your cravings are extra intense, look for what cue could be triggering it.
- Does it only happen around certain people?
- Does it happen when you eat certain foods (for example, every time you have cereal for breakfast, you desire carrot cake for lunch)? There are certain “trigger” foods known to cause cravings. These include foods rich in any combination of sugar, salt, or fat, alcohol, “diet” products (like diet soda), and zero-calorie sweeteners.
- Does it happen when you skip lunch? Missing meals can raise a hunger hormone called ghrelin. This can cause cravings later in the day that most people do not realize.
These are all signs that you have behavior cravings. When you realize what the cue is, you can begin changing the habit associated with that cue.
Now, let’s address the other element of the two-headed craving monster: hormones.
Hormones are our body’s messengers. For example, cortisol is the body’s stress hormone. When we feel stressed or scared, cortisol is released to provide energy to face the challenges at hand. It played a huge part in helping our ancestors fight or run from predators, and provided them with enough energy to search for food.
Our body has all sorts of hormones that send the brain messages. Ghrelin is released to say “Time to eat!” Leptin is a hormone that tells the brain “I’m full.” These, along with many other hormones play different roles that stimulate different chemical reactions in the body. This is important to know because certain lifestyle choices can stimulate or curb these hormones.
Stress at work, lack of sleep, and certain nutritional choices can release certain hormones that tell the brain “Grab that chocolate cake” or “No thanks, I’m full.”
Here is a quick guide on controlling hormones:
Most of your meals should contain food sources that are rich in fiber, protein, and healthy fats. These include leafy greens and beans, lean meats, seeds and nuts, avocados and healthy oils. These types of foods slow the release of certain hormones and leave you feeling fuller for longer. When we feel satiated, our sweet tooth isn’t so sweet 🙂
Try to avoid foods loaded with salt, sugar, and fat lead to the release of hormones that lead to… you guessed it, cravings for more salt, sugar, and fat. In short, the more we give in to our cravings the more cravings we will have.
Stress can cause the motivation and goal centers of the brain to shut down while simultaneously turning on the reward centers of the brain. We can help by incorporating daily activities shown to decrease stress. These include activities like leisurely walking, sleeping, yoga, taking a bath or spending time with friends and family.
When we try to push harder, work more, or bottle it up, stress tends to multiply its effects, making it more and more difficult to fight off those freshly baked cookies.
In a famous experiment, Psychologist Roy Baumeister had students hang out in a room with a few snacks. He told half the group to only eat the freshly baked chocolate chip cookies. He told the other half to have as many radishes as they would like, but not touch any of the cookies.
He then had the groups work on difficult puzzles. The radish eaters gave up on the puzzles in half the time of the cookie eaters. The theory goes that resisting the cookies took away all of their willpower.
So when we resist, fight, and push through stress, we become more likely to give in to our cravings as our willpower evaporates.
The research on sleep in some of the most conclusive in all of healthcare. Sleep impacts our energy, mood, ability to handle stress, focus, willpower, and so much more. Making sleep a priority is one of the most powerful tactics in keeping our hormones in check. To keep our cravings in order, we must prioritize sleep. Period. Aim for 8-10 hours of sleep per night and your hormones will remain balanced, and cravings will subside.
In short, save your teeth by curbing your sweet tooth. And curb your sweet tooth by controlling cravings. We control our cravings through awareness of our environment (our triggers) and the lifestyle choices we make (nutrition, stress management, and sleep).