Let’s be real. Malaysians love sugar in everything. In fact, sugar consumption in Malaysia has significantly increased over the past 15 years. With our cultures getting more diverse, we’re seeing a growing trend in new dessert frenzies like bingsu, bubble milk tea, mochi and so on. This is trouble for both our wallets and our tummies. The treats may be sweet, but the consequences aren’t. It’s important to know how to fight the sugar cravings for the good of our health. But first, let’s take a look at why we have sugar cravings and what they might do to our bodies.
Why do we have sweet cravings?
Let’s unpack the reasons behind our love for sugar. These can either be psychological or physiological. Here are some potential factors:
1. Poor diet choices
Poor diets like high-carb and high-fat diets can trigger sugar cravings.
A high-carb diet, as the name suggests, is a diet that contains a larger proportion of high glycemic carbohydrates of more than 60 percent of one’s daily diet. On the other hand, a high-fat diet is where one’s diet consists of more than 35 percent fat intake.
The reason is that white rice, processed foods and butter can create an imbalance of good bacteria in your gut, making you feel hungry and crave sugar.
Stress is another contributing factor to our sugar addiction.
When we are stressed, we tend to reach out for “comfort foods” that are high in fat and sugar like ice cream or cake. This is because our stress hormones (cortisol) signal our bodies to look for ways to dampen the stressful feeling, and sugar-filled foods work to trigger the “happy” hormones known as dopamine.
For this reason, people have conditioned themselves to look for sugar to get that feel-good sensation and cope with the stress in a behaviour we call “stress-eating”.
3. Bad habits
Another possible reason is bad habits.
Some bad habits often get overlooked. These include adding sweeteners to our beverages, chewing gum or candy, or using a tablespoon instead of a teaspoon to add sugar. Before you know it, you would have already exceeded the recommended sugar intake.
4. Hormonal changes
Hormonal changes can also drive our desire for sugar. This often happens in women during their menstrual cycle (periods).
Sugar cravings begin the week prior to their period when progesterone levels drop and oestrogen rises. This can cause blood sugar levels to also decline and signals the body to replenish the sugar in your body.
5. Nutrient deficiencies
Lastly, a lack of nutrients would also lead to an increase in sugar intake.
When the body is not getting enough nutrients like zinc, chromium, iron, calcium, and magnesium, the individual’s mental health is affected. This will cause him or her to experience symptoms of stress, anxiety and depression.
As a result, they may look for quick fixes in sugar for a boost of energy to keep running throughout the day.
Consequences of having too much sugar
Eating too much sugar can contribute to excess calories that turn into weight gain if not burned off. On top of that, weight loss becomes harder with age. If you maintain an inactive lifestyle, it could eventually lead to obesity over time.
Too much sugar can also cause some serious health complications to an individual. Consuming sugar increases insulin levels as well as high blood sugar level, resulting in type 2 diabetes. As a matter of fact, 1 in 5 Malaysians are living with diabetes according to the National Health and Morbidity Survey 2019.
Besides obesity and diabetes, too much sugar can heighten one’s risk for other chronic conditions like hypertension, fatty liver disease and various heart diseases like heart attack and stroke. Several studies have also found a link between high-sugar diets and depression.
Diagnosed with Diabetes
How much sugar is recommended?
Having said that, going cold turkey on sugar isn’t the most effective solution either. It could lead to withdrawal symptoms like lightheadedness, brain fog and fatigue. Besides, sugar isn’t all bad – it is a great source of energy for your muscles and nervous system.
The best way to go about this is to practise moderation by choosing the good sugars and cutting down on the bad.
Which sugars are good for you
Not all sugars are bad for you. Natural sugars can be found in whole, unprocessed foods. For instance, fructose (found in fruits) and lactose (found in milk). These good sugars are rich in important nutrients that provide sustained energy, keeping your body energised for the day.
15 ways to cut down on sugar
It can be challenging to kick off bad habits in our daily routines, but a little goes a long way.
Ready to have a healthy relationship with sugar? Try these 15 simple but effective ways to fight your cravings reduce your sugar intake:
- Clear your pantry
Get ready for some pantry-edition spring cleaning. It’s time to toss out the snacks, candies, artificial sweeteners and additives.
- Try sugar alternatives
There are tons of healthier substitutes for sugar like stevia, molasses, honey and maple syrup. Swap your sugars with these herbal goods that contain zero calories.
- Avoid unhealthy foods
Avoid any unhealthy foods that are high in oil, salt, sugar or fats. These include processed foods which also contain more refined sugar than we know, like canned beverages, protein bars and barbecue sauce.
- Eat some fruits
Did you know that fruits are a great source of natural sugar? Some of the best ones that are packed with vitamins and minerals are strawberries, raspberries, grapefruit, and peaches.
- Practise mindfulness
Mindfulness is an amazing method to dealing with stress and anxiety. Find moments in the day to ground yourself in the present with some breathing exercises or meditation. These can take your attention away from stress as well as sugar.
- Drink more water
Water is a natural resource that lowers one’s blood sugar levels by diluting the sugar in the bloodstream. It is also effective in reducing your cravings for unhealthy foods.
- Pre-plan your meals
Planning your meals ahead of time will not only save you a lot of time and money, but makes you more intentional about what you put on your plate. If you have diabetes, create a diet plan that is well-suited for your dietary requirements.
- Control your portion sizes
Another smart way to break your sugar-eating habits is to practise portion control. Simple ways to do this include using smaller plates or portion-control plates, chewing your food properly, and using hand measurements.
- Read the nutritional labels
Kicking your sugar habit can begin in the supermarket. A nutrition facts label will tell you what the amount of protein, available carbohydrates, total sugars and fat in a particular food product. It also informs you of the recommended serving size so you can ensure a well-balanced meal.
- Swap rice with quinoa
Quinoa is a type of whole grain that is rich in protein, vitamins and minerals. It is a great substitute for rice as it contains fewer calories and carbohydrates. Quinoa may also help you lower blood sugar levels as well as lose weight.
- Use virgin coconut oil
Virgin coconut oil is packed with healthy saturated fats with low GI that helps lower your blood sugar levels. Moreover, it is effective in reducing one’s appetite, burning body fat and fighting against diseases.
- Opt for low glycemic index (GI) foods
The glycemic index (GI) is an effective tool that tells you how quickly food can increase your blood sugar levels. Low GI foods—beans, lentils, legumes and barley—-can help reduce your blood sugar levels, especially those with diabetes.
- Take spirulina
Spirulina is a blue-green algae that may improve insulin sensitivity and lower blood sugar levels naturally, among other health benefits. This secret ingredient can be incorporated into the juices and smoothie bowls.
- Exercise regularly
Regular exercise can curb food cravings. Not only are you burning calories, but exercise is scientifically proven to increase your dopamine levels and blood sugar in the brain. When this happens, you have a lesser tendency to reach out for junk food.
- Sleep well
Clocking in your Zzz’s can do wonders for your physical and mental health. Better quality sleep of 7-8 hours per night helps regulate your cortisol levels and prevent sleep disorders in the long run. Improve your sleep by reducing your screen time and sticking to a night routine.
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When to seek help
It’s okay to give in every once in a while. Don’t be afraid to give yourself a little treat as a reward for your accomplishments. If you’re struggling to keep up with the changes, remember that these things take time so go easy on yourself! Figure out what works for you and work towards a healthier relationship with sugar.
Do you find yourself depending on sugar to relieve symptoms like fatigue, stress, headaches or dehydration? This may indicate that you have a more serious health issue like hypoglycaemia (low blood sugar found in Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes). It could be time to seek professional help at your nearest healthcare facility.
If you are battling sugar addiction, you’re not alone. There are many resources available online to help you overcome them. Perhaps find a friend to lean on and provide practical support in your journey to break the cycle. Just remember to take one step at a time.
If you have diabetes, check out these helpful support groups available in Malaysia:
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- Bhaskaran, S. L. (2014). Facts About Sugar. MyHEALTH. Retrieved from http://www.myhealth.gov.my/en/background/
- Cleveland Clinic. (2014). Fat: What You Need to Know. Retrieved from https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/articles/11208-fat-what-you-need-to-know
- Doheny, K. (2018). Low Carb, High Carb, Bad Carb: How Much is Best?. WebMD. Retrieved from https://www.webmd.com/diet/news/20180907/low-carb-high-carb-bad-carb-how-much-is-best
- Fletcher, J. (2019). What to know about low-carb, high-fat diets. MedicalNewsToday. Retrieved from https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/324957
- Glycemic index and diabetes. (2020). In A.D.A.M. Medical Encyclopedia [Internet]. Johns Creek (GA): Ebix, Inc., A.D.A.M. Retrieved from https://medlineplus.gov/ency/patientinstructions/000941.htm
- Southern, L. (2018). Sugar and the Menstrual Cycle. London Gynaecology Ltd. Retrieved from https://www.london-gynaecology.com/sugarmenstrualcycle/
- The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center. (2020, July 13). Study links stress hormone with higher blood sugar in Type 2 diabetes. ScienceDaily. Retrieved June 14, 2022 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2020/07/200713104404.htm
- World Health Organization. (2015). Guideline: sugars intake for adults and children. Retrieved from https://www.who.int/publications/i/item/9789241549028