Sweet nothings

Dr Libby Weaver. Photo: supplied
Dr Libby Weaver. Photo: supplied

With her latest book, What Am I Supposed to Eat?, Dr Libby wants to put people in touch with their nutritional needs. In this extract she discusses how to deal with sweet cravings.

There are countless people who make great food choices for breakfast and lunch and then at three o’clock in the afternoon they feel like someone else has taken over their body!

The desire for, and subsequent consumption of, sweet food at this time of day can take hold without you really knowing why or what to do about it. Too many people reach for sweet food that doesn’t serve their health; in fact, it may contain substances that actually have the potential to take away from their health, yet they feel powerless to live any differently, having "tried" to change their sweet food habits many times.

And if it’s not reaching for sweet food at three o’clock, it’s reaching for sweet food after dinner or late at night. Many people grew up in households where the meal wasn’t complete unless there was a dessert or at least something sweet and it can be particularly difficult to move past these habits.

There is a big difference nutritionally between a couple of squares of dark chocolate and the whole block, or a homemade fruit and nut ball versus a packet of store-bought biscuits: you get my drift.

However, the often-relentless guilt that consuming something that is perceived as "bad" or "unhealthy" is in my opinion just as damaging to your health as the actual poor quality food.

Remember that food is not healthy. Humans are, or aren’t.

Food is nutritious, or it’s not. This shift in language alone can assist people to make better food choices.


When it comes to reducing your reliance on sweet foods, a gradual reduction can work to change taste preferences. The tastebuds on our tongue are a truly unique sensory organ. Tastebuds renew every 10 to 21 days and because of this short renewal time we can train our tastebuds to enjoy food with less sweetness.

By changing the source of the sweet foods from highly refined sugars to sweetness from nature, and hence decreasing the intensity of the sweet flavour, you can lower the threshold level of sweet food you prefer. For example, commercially-made products usually contain large quantities of refined sugars, but when you make real food at home you can control the level of sweetness and choose the source of that sweetness, so that each mouthful provides you with the nutrients you need for great health and vitality, and nothing that takes away from that.

Another way to shift your tastebud profile away from sweetness is, if you have smoothies made entirely of fruit, you can slowly, week by week, start replacing some of the fruit with green leafy vegetables, which are naturally bitter. Eventually, once you have  become used to  vege smoothies with only a small amount of fruit, you will find a fruit-filled smoothie too sweet for your tastebuds.


Some people like to completely overhaul how they eat and feel energised and excited by doing so. For others, though, making small, committed changes over time means you can work towards consuming less processed food and enjoying more real food.

I’m certainly a big believer that it’s what you do every day that impacts on your health, not what you do occasionally. Often our craving for sugar has more to do with an emotional need that isn’t being met. "Something sweet" is often perceived as a symbol of joy and we become conditioned to need something sweet to feel complete or satisfied.



Here are five strategies you can use to reduce your reliance on sweet food.

• Fuel yourself for longer

For far too long people have been afraid to incorporate good fats in their diets, due to the belief that ‘‘fat makes you fat’’. Try adding more fat to your meals, particularly at lunch, in the form of avocado, nuts, organic butter, coconut, tahini, or oily fish, and observe whether your desire for sweet foods mid-afternoon diminishes. Good fats slow down the release of glucose into your bloodstream, meaning you actually stay full for longer.

• Slow down

If you amp yourself up on caffeine, live on adrenaline due to your perception of pressure and urgency, or push your body intensely during cardiovascular exercise, your body will predominantly burn glucose and you will crave sugar to replenish your stores. Slow down! I cannot emphasise enough the importance of activating the rest-and-repair arm of the nervous system (the parasympathetic nervous system), using breath-focused movement, which allows your body to efficiently use body fat as a fuel. Not only will you feel a greater sense of calm, you are also far less likely to experience hunger that results in you eating the entire contents of the pantry.

• Increase your consumption of leafy green vegetables

Leafy greens tend to be bitter, which helps reduce cravings for sugar. If you eat sugar when you’re feeling stressed and depressed, experiment by adding more leafy greens, like silverbeet, kale, spinach and mustard greens to your meals every day.

• A couple of squares of dark chocolate

When I say dark chocolate, I’m talking about 70% cocoa content and upwards! A little goes a long way, and it’s a good source of antioxidants. The more bitter varieties of dark chocolate tend to mean you are satisfied with only one or two squares.

• Explore the emotional connections to sweetness

Often our craving for sugar has more to do with an emotional need that isn’t being met. Identify other non-food-related activities that give you a feeling of sweetness and joy and incorporate more of these into your life. Get up and watch the sunrise every morning for a week, go for a walk in Nature, write a list of all the things you are grateful for, watch your children or grandchildren sleep, or book a getaway with friends — whatever spins your tyres — and notice whether having things to look forward to diminishes your sugar cravings.


The talk

• Dr Libby (PhD) is speaking in Dunedin at the University of Otago’s St David St Lecture Theatre on October 11, 7pm-9pm.



Add a Comment