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How to kick your sugar habit: Essential tips for avoiding the type 2 diabetes epidemic

5 tips to help you with cravings, lurking sugars and warning signs.

5 tips to help you with cravings, lurking sugars and warning signs

(Credit: iStock/Getty Images)

Ice cream, apple pie, crème brûlée; if your mouth is already watering, you can thank your genes. For early humans nutrition was scarce; that's why scientists believe our brains evolved to crave and seek out sweet foods high in survival-friendly calories. Of course this is far less useful now that we can find chocolate bars in every grocery-store checkout lane. Combine that with years of positive social reinforcement (think birthday cake and date-night desserts) and it's no wonder many of us have an unhealthy relationship with sugar. Over time, however, these indulgences can lead to a world of trouble. Not only can bingeing on sugar cause fatigue and weight gain in the short term, but in the long run it can increase your risk of serious diseases like heart disease and type 2 diabetes—which can shorten your lifespan by up to 15 years. What's more, 1 in 3 Canadians has either diabetes or prediabetes, so being sugar savvy is more important than ever. Here are 5 tips to help you navigate the sweet stuff.

1. Don't let your brain trick you

If you crave junk food when you're feeling depressed or stressed, blame it on your brain chemistry.  Research shows that eating simple carbohydrates increases the action of tryptophan in your brain, temporarily boosting your levels of serotonin, a feel-good neurotransmitter. Not surprisingly, studies also show that women tend to crave high-carb, high-fat foods in the days leading up to their periods. Interestingly, adding protein into the mix can prevent you from reaching that carb-induced high, which is why low-protein treats like candy, chocolate and potato chips are often the most enticing.

Tip: Keep in mind that simple sugars and starches break down quickly, typically leading to a mood and energy crash less than 2 hours later.  If you need an immediate carb pick-me-up, snack on slow-release ones like whole grains, oatmeal and sweet potatoes to avoid the rollercoaster.

2. Artificial sweeteners are not your friend

We've all seen them on grocery-store shelves; "diet" and "sugar-free" versions of foods that promise fewer calories thanks to sugar substitutes. Although this may seem like a weight-loss win, in practice artificial sweeteners have in fact been linked to weight gain. A 2014 study from Johns Hopkins University showed that overweight and obese adults who drank diet beverages consumed significantly more calories from food than regular soda drinkers. Meanwhile, recent research from Manitoba suggests that long-term, regular intake of artificial sweeteners is linked to weight gain and even diabetes. Scientists believe that overly sweet substitutes prime your tastebuds to want more, leading to increased overall calorie intake.

Tip: If you're trying to lose weight but must indulge, the evidence says it's probably better to eat real sugar. Remember that portion size is key to maintaining healthy weight—so cut that brownie in half and save the rest for later.

3. Sugar is sugar is sugar

Don't be fooled by health-washed food labels trumpeting ingredients like "organic cane sugar" or "naturally sweetened with honey". Your body doesn't care if added sugar comes from artisanal bees who dine on organic clover or a teaspoon of the granulated stuff—sugar is sugar is sugar. Also, don't forget that refined, starchy foods like white rice, bread and pasta are rapidly broken down into sugar and absorbed from your digestive tract. Though there are some differences between how your body processes simple sugars, the end results of overconsumption are the same: weight gain, high blood pressure and increased inflammation.

Tip: Reach for whole, unprocessed foods like fresh fruit if you're in the mood for a sweet fix. The added fibre will slow insulin release and sugar uptake in your body, and an apple provides healthy vitamins and nutrients that a donut won't.

4. How to cut back

The most effective lifestyle change is one you can sustain in the long run, so it's important to know your sugar-reducing style. If you're an all-or-nothing kind of person, be aware that your brain and body can get habituated to running on sugar—which can result in headaches, grogginess and irritability if you suddenly and drastically reduce your intake. Thankfully withdrawal symptoms typically resolve within a week, though you may still experience cravings for a few weeks afterwards. If your style is slow and steady, set regular goals for yourself to keep yourself accountable. Cutting your sugar intake by 1/5 per week is reasonable.

Tip: Keep your eye on the prize. Canadian guidelines recommend that no more than 10% of your daily calorie intake (and ideally less than 5%) come from added sugar, which works out to 12 teaspoons (or 6 teaspoons) for the average adult. To put it in perspective, one can of pop contains about 40 grams, or 85% of your sugar budget for the day. So watch those labels and do the math.

5. Know when to get tested

The prevalence of diabetes in Canada has doubled since the year 2000, and every 20 minutes a Canadian dies from a diabetes complication like heart attack or stroke—so knowing whether or not you're at risk for becoming a statistic is essential. Talk to your doctor about getting screened if you're:

  • age 40+
  • 10 years before the age at which your relative was diagnosed
  • subject to other cardiovascular risk factors like abnormal cholesterol, smoking, high blood pressure or obesity
  • of African, Asian, Indigenous or Latin descent
  • at moderate or high risk of having pre-diabetes or diabetes according to a validated risk calculator score

Tip: Know your allies when it comes to the battle against sugar. See your primary health-care provider to have your risk factors assessed. Consult a dietitian to tune up your diet. Diabetes Canada is an especially valuable resource for doctors and patients alike—so consider donating or volunteering to support ongoing research and education in your own community.

This is paid content produced on behalf of Diabetes Canada. This is not CBC journalistic content.