Sugar shocker: Americans eat about 20 teaspoons of the sweet stuff — every day! (Photo by PM Images/Photodisc/Getty Images)
Sugar can’t catch a break these days. With everyone from from HBO comedian John Oliver to Yahoo’s Global New Anchor Katie Couric bashing sugar’s vice-like grip on the modern diet, more and more people are deciding to ditch it. The problem? It’s really, really difficult. We’re all neurologically wired to favor sweet flavors, and eating sugar sets off signals in your body that make us feel happy — and crave more of it.
Enter JJ Virgin, New York Times bestselling author of The Virgin Diet and of JJ Virgin’s Sugar Impact Diet, out today. She has identified a secret sweet-tooth trigger, and understanding how it works will make cutting back on sugar significantly easier.
The Protein Factor
When you crave sugar, it’s often because you’re not eating enough protein, or your body isn’t properly digesting protein, Virgin told Yahoo Health. Protein halts what she calls the “neuronal reward system— brain chemicals that motivate us to eat more food, even when we’re not hungry.” Protein also balances blood sugar, which decreases the risk of a low-blood-sugar-induced binge. If you’re eating and digesting the right kind of protein—and enough of it—cravings will lessen.
Upping Your Intake
Start by adding more protein to your diet. Virgin suggests reaching for animal proteins such as fish, eggs, and grass-fed beef, raised naturally and devoid of hormones whenever possible. If you’re vegetarian or vegan, Virgin suggests that you take a B12 supplement and add protein powder to smoothies. Women should aim for 75 to 80 grams of protein per day, while men might need anywhere from 100 to 120 grams.
If you feel like you eat enough protein but still desire sugar, your cravings might stem from an inability to digest the protein you’re eating. Sugar can wreak havoc on the digestive system, feeding bad bacteria and making it hard to absorb nutrients from food.
Rehab Your Digestive System
How you eat your food affects the way it digests, so Virgin stresses the importance of paying extra attention to chewing and eating slowly, pausing between each bite. Try to avoid drinking too much while you eat, which can dilute the enzymes that digest your food, or eating too much at one time, which can overwhelm your digestive system. If you’re eating more protein, and doing it mindfully, and you’re still on the hunt for sweets, you might want to speak with your doctor about your stomach acidity. Low stomach acid can prevent protein absorption, and high stomach acid can mimic hunger, prompting— you guessed it— sugar cravings.
To further nurture your digestive system, start adding more healthy fats—think monounsaturated and omega-3 fatty acids—to your diet to help lubricate your digestive tract, making nutrient absorption easier. Virgin suggests swapping sweet treats with foods like avocado and olives. “Healthy fats are satiating, satisfying, and contribute to brain health,” she said. Satisfaction from fats means you’re less likely to reach for dessert after a big meal, and a healthier brain makes you less susceptible to sugar cravings. Exercise caution, though: Trans fats or heavily processed fats can have the opposite effect.
Virgin also suggests adding sour, fermented foods, which she calls “a great source of probiotics to populate healthy gut flora.” Try raw sauerkraut, or the lemonade recipe below (Hey, it’s not just a summertime drink). Equally important are foods such as nuts, high-fiber grains, beans, or berries. All contain dietary fiber, which ”promotes satiety, balances blood sugar, and supports a healthy gut.” Virgin says to aim for 50 grams per day.
To fully shake off the sugar, Virgin suggests tapering your consumption little by little, as outlined in JJ Virgin’s Sugar Impact Diet. Want a sneak peek? Try her recipe for digestion-friendly lemonade, below.
Choose “Lemon-Aid” once or twice a day to ease your hunger pangs and keep hydrated. Here’s how to whip it up:
Juice and zest of one lemon (or lime)
½ thinly sliced lemon
32 ounces water
1 teaspoon glutamine (an amino acid) powder
Stevia, monk fruit, xylitol, or erythritol as needed (use as little as possible)
Combine the juice and zest of one lemon or lime with the water. Add the glutamine powder and sweetener (only if needed). Stir well and gently stir in lemon slices.
Remember when I mentioned that protein can reduce reward (i.e. sugar) seeking behavior? Well, a little glutamine, an amino acid that helps synthesize protein, can also alleviate sugar cravings and support gut healing at the same time.
Recipe excerpted from the book JJ VIRGIN’S SUGAR IMPACT DIET by JJ Virgin. © 2014 by JJ Virgin. Reprinted by permission of Grand Central Publishing. All rights reserved.