Sugar Habit: Nutrition and Your Sweet Tooth (cont.)

While a high-sugar diet is not recommended, especially for those watching their weight, it's not the sugar itself that leads to weight gain, says Debbie Strong, MBA, LDN, RD, cardiovascular dietitian at the Ochsner Clinic Foundation in New Orleans.

"If the sugary foods and beverages lead to an increase in your total consumption of calories, then yes, weight gain will happen," she says. "But that's true of any food. Eat too much of anything and you're going to gain weight."

"The main problem with sugar is that most sources (like candy, soft drinks, and desserts) don't provide appreciable amounts of other nutrients, such as vitamins and minerals, and are therefore classified as "empty calories," says Susan Dahlheimer, PhD, professor and chair of food and nutrition at Indiana University of Pennsylvania. "Ideally, the consumption of these foods should not replace more nutrient-dense foods, so they should be used in moderation."

But because we are biologically programmed to prefer sweet foods, says Dahlheimer, trying to eliminate them from our diet altogether doesn't work.

So how do we reduce our consumption of "empty calorie" sweets? Dahlheimer and other experts offer these tips:

  • Try satisfying your sweet tooth with fruits, which are good sources of many vitamins and minerals.
  • Choose sweets that provide some nutrients, such as ice cream, frozen yogurt, or desserts that contain some fruits and/or nuts. Though the calories and fat may be higher, the extra nutrients make an important contribution to your diet.
  • Don't completely deprive yourself of foods you really like -- including sweets -- because you're more likely to binge to satisfy the need they fulfill and may end up consuming more calories overall. Instead, set reasonable, flexible goals for including sweets in your diet.
  • Learn to separate physical hunger from emotional hunger. If you eat from emotional hunger (stemming from boredom, stress, or loneliness, for example) you're more likely to overeat low-nutrient foods.
  • Prepare recipes with half, or two-thirds, of the sugar originally called for.
  • When you crave something sweet, try a teaspoon or two of jam or preserves on a slice of whole wheat toast, or dip a few strawberries in some confectioner's sugar.
  • Reduce the sugar you take in at breakfast by using unsweetened cereal and adding your own sweetener. You'll probably add less sugar than would have been added by the manufacturer.

Artificial sweeteners are one obvious way to cut down on the amount of sugar you take in, but they're not always necessary, says Melanie Polk, MMSc, RD, FADA, director of nutrition education for the American Institute for Cancer Research. It's important to remember that sugar only has 16 calories per teaspoon, says Polk: "That's a minuscule amount of calories."

"Making a few 'no big deal' changes in your diet is better than cutting out something -- including sugary foods."

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