Picture this: You’re on hour seven of a long day of teleworking. Your kids are screaming in the backyard, your dog just knocked over her water bowl (again), and your aunt left you three voicemails in the last 45 minutes.
It’s been a stressful afternoon (er, three months). And the one thing you’re seriously craving right now? A big bowl of chocolate ice cream.
As many of us are working from home these days thanks to the coronavirus pandemic, we have all-day access to the pantry and freezer. And during this time when the future feels uncertain, sugary, calorie-dense treats can provide a momentary sense of relief. In fact, the New York Times recently reported that sales are spiking for big processed food brands like General Mills and Conagra Brands, the makers of classic sweet treats like Cinnamon Toast Crunch and Duncan Hines cake mixes.
Adam Drewnowski, Ph.D., professor of epidemiology and director of the Nutritional Sciences Program at the University of Washington in Seattle, WA, explains that sugary foods cause a short term “activation of the pleasure response in the brain.” The long-term effects of sugar overconsumption, however, aren’t so hot. According to the American Heart Association, the average adult in the U.S. consumes 77 grams of sugar per day (about three times the recommended amount). A whopping 31% of the added sugar in our diets comes from snacks and sweets. When you consume that excess sugar over a period of months and years, it can increase your risk of obesity, cardiovascular disease, blood sugar problems, and early mortality.
So, what’s a stressed-out teleworker/new homeschool teacher/quarantine-fatigued person to do? Read on to learn why you’re craving more sweets now and how you can start to cut back.
What’s the relationship between stress and food cravings?
Studies have shown that sugar consumption leads to the release of endorphins and dopamine, which causes that feeling of a “sugar high” after you finish eating a donut or piece of pie. “In stress, people want to have something that’s calming, relaxing, and soothing,” says Drewnowski.
According to John Apolzan, Ph.D., a nutrition scientist and assistant professor at Pennington Biomedical Research Center in Baton Rouge, LA, there’s also a habitual element to our eating patterns. “Your brain just gets accustomed to seeing sugar during certain situations,” he says, explaining a food craving theory known as the “conditioning model.” Here’s how it works: If you’ve gotten into a routine of having a mid-afternoon sugary snack, such as a cup of flavored yogurt with added sugar, you come to expect it and look forward to it, especially when you’re having a rough day. There’s an unconscious nature to the way you’re eating. “When you feel a certain way, or if you feel depressed, you tend to crave certain food items,” Apolzan says. It could be sugary foods, salty foods, or fatty foods, depending on your preference.
In addition, the foods we reach for when we’re stressed out or anxious tend to be calorically dense. “If you want stress reduction, drinking sugar water like a soda will not do it for you,” Drewnowski says. You don’t necessarily crave orange juice when you’re in a bad mood. Chocolate, however, contains that magic blend of sugar and fat that many people find so tempting. “It’s a combination of calories, fullness, satiety, and pleasure” that makes us feel so good in the moment, Drewnowski explains.
How is my sugar addiction affecting my health?
First of all, it’s important to note that sugar isn’t inherently bad for you. “Sugar is found in fruits and a lot of different foods,” Apolzan says, including milk and even vegetables like sweet potatoes, corn, and squash. “Sugar isn’t in itself an awful food, but it should be consumed in limited quantities.”
When you eat a piece of fruit or a complex carbohydrate like a potato, your body takes in the sugar with a healthy balance of fiber, vitamins, and other necessary nutrients that fill you up and balance out your blood sugar. Fiber consumption has been linked to better insulin sensitivity in people with metabolic syndromes such as heart disease and type 2 diabetes.
On the other hand, when you consume refined sugar (found in many store-bought processed treats), it can have the effect of spiking your blood sugar without providing any helpful nutrients or calories to stop your hunger. “The body’s response to sugar depends on the glycemic index,” Drewnowski explains. “Some foods have a higher glycemic index, which means they stimulate insulin too much.
Interestingly enough, combinations of sugar and fat have a low glycemic index, so insulin is not going up and down – but you’re still getting the extra calories.” So, while a high-fat brownie may not spike your blood sugar, it could still contribute to an excess of calories that day – not great news for people struggling to maintain a healthy weight.
Of course, calories themselves are not inherently a bad thing either. It’s all about your individual needs and health goals. “As long as you’re young and active, you can eat sugar and calories and everything is fine,” Drewnowski says. But if your body is becoming more insulin-resistant (which often happens with age), or if you’re struggling with chronic conditions exacerbated by weight gain, you may want to be more careful with sugary foods.
What about artificial sweeteners?
Artificial sweeteners like aspartame and sucralose are often used to replace real sugar in things like soft drinks and sugar-free packaged foods. They have the same sweet taste, but are typically calorie-free, making them an attractive option for someone looking to limit their calorie intake. Drewnowski explains that the body responds to artificial sweeteners differently from regular sugar. “If you’re about to have cake, and you have the taste and smell of it, the body prepares for this by releasing insulin,” he says. “This is before you’ve digested anything.”
“Artificial sweeteners do not seem to have the same effect in the brain as sugar,” Drewnowski says, meaning they don’t activate your insulin response to the same extent. For this reason, they can be useful in limited quantities at reducing your overall calorie intake. However, the use of artificial sweeteners is a hotly contested topic in health research, and some studies have found that they don’t actually contribute to a lower risk of weight gain or metabolic syndrome. Either way, these processed foods are no replacement for healthy, nutritious, natural meals and snacks.
So how do I quit my sugar habit?
It’s impossible to give up sugar completely – and when it comes in the form of fruits and complex carbohydrates, it provides essential energy for your body. But here’s how to cut back if you think you’ve been going overboard.
Start by changing up your routine. Remember how we often crave sugary foods because we’re used to having them at a certain time? Try to kick that habit. “If there’s a mood or a TV show or a time of day that you consume [sugary foods], that’s when we try to get people to get out of their routines,” Apolzan says. You don’t actually need food during all those times you’re snacking mindlessly. Distracting yourself with different activities (a facial, a jog, a convo with a friend) will help you establish a healthier new eating pattern.
Grab frozen and canned food at the grocery store. Concerned about the fresh food shortages at your local supermarket? “There are things like frozen fruits and vegetables, and even low sodium and low sugar canned [food], that are pretty much as healthy as the fresh options,” Apolzan says. Get creative about buying things with a shelf life that aren’t highly processed, such as canned fruit (no sugar added) and peanut butter.
Cook at home to relieve stress. Instead of an ice cream scooper, pull out a cutting board. There’s no better time than right now to play around in the kitchen, while most people are stuck at home anyway. “Cooking at home can actually be relaxing,” Drewnowski says. Cooking serves multiple purposes: it chills you out, it saves you money, and allows you full control over what you’re consuming (and how much sugar is added).
Make healthier swaps in your desserts. When you’re baking muffins or cookies, you can tweak the ingredient list however you see fit. “Make some healthy swaps when you’re making things from scratch to make it as healthy as possible,” Apolzan suggests. Look for healthier recipes of the foods you tend to crave, with less sugar and more natural ingredients. Maybe swap honey or applesauce for sugar, or avocado for butter. Then, when you do want to reach for that sweet snack during a stressful moment, you can feel better about what you’re noshing on.