Sweet Tooth? You're Still Not a Sugar Addict

To beat a sugar habit, learn how to have your cake and eat it, too.

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Despite all evidence to the contrary, it seems I'm not actually addicted to Nutella. So says Debra Zellner, a psychologist at Montclair State University in New Jersey who once studied drug addiction and has now turned her attention to food cravings and taste. Zellner spoke at a conference in Washington, D.C., called "Understanding Sweetness," presented by the food think tank Oldways and dedicated to the proposition that before we can figure out how to manage our inborn preference for sweetness, we need to understand exactly what we're dealing with.

So, my nonaddiction. Research suggests we do not actually become physiologically reliant on sweet things, Zellner explained. Humans certainly have an inherent preference for the taste of sweet: Newborns, for example, coo and get all smiley when they sample it, and they look decidedly less happy when presented with sour and bitter tastes. And women in particular tend to crave sweets, while men crave savory things. Nevertheless, urges to eat a specific food also have a cultural dimension. Take chocolate, the sweet more Americans say they're "addicted" to than any other. In Spain, the idea that women have a jones for chocolate before their periods is a foreign idea. Here, it's conventional wisdom.

In true physiological addiction, a craving can be satisfied merely by delivering the substance to the body; a crack addict could achieve relief from withdrawal by snorting cocaine, for example. But studies have shown, Zellner says, that chocolate cravers do not feel better simply by swallowing a capsule filled with chocolate. The sensory experience—taste, smell, "mouth feel"—is key to satisfying the craving.

Instead, she said, we condition ourselves to want our favorite thing under certain circumstances. A woman might restrict her eating most of the time, for example, to keep her weight under control. But if she allows herself chocolate in particular situations—when she's particularly stressed out, say, or when experiencing pre-menstrual symptoms—she may develop a craving. The next time she's stressed out or having PMS, she'll cue her body to demand chocolate. (It's the same thing as a former smoker who still yearns for a cigarette with his Saturday-night martini, because that's when he used to smoke.)

If you've already fallen into such a pattern, don't despair. At the Oldways conference, Zellner described three simple ways we can overcome cravings for sweets.