13 ways to tackle sugar addiction: Everything to know about having a sweet tooth

Cute asian child girl holding jelly candies in hand and sharing to other
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What is a sweet tooth? What causes it, and why does it matter? Here Dr Deborah Lee, Dr Fox Online Pharmacy, explores everything there is to know about having a ‘sweet tooth’ and 13 ways to tackle it

What actually is a sweet tooth?

Taste is one of our vital senses.

Our taste receptors  – are specialized groups of cells within the taste buds found in the tongue. When food comes into contact with the surface of the tongue, it creates a chemical reaction within the taste receptor, which sends an electrical signal to the brain.

This is converted into a taste sensation in the cerebral cortex.

2000-4000 taste buds on the tongue

Saying someone has a sweet tooth means they prefer eating sweet and sugary foods.

Humans have between 2000-4000 taste buds on the tongue. They are located in the tongue papillae – small projections on the tongue. There are seven different types of tastes – salty, sugary, bitter, sour, meaty, cold and hot.

Spicy is not a taste – it is actually a pain sensation. Eating too many sweet foods can damage your taste buds causing other foods to not taste as they should.

Spicy is not a taste – it is actually a pain sensation

Couple on date - woman feeds her boyfriend with chocolate in street at winter night
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What causes a sweet tooth?

Whether you develop a sweet tooth depends on your genetic makeup, dietary intake and psychological factors.

  • Laboratory experiments have shown that some mice have specific DNA receptors in the sweet receptors on their tongues, which give them a predilection for sweet foods.
  • Human sugar cravings may also be influenced by any nutritional deficiencies in the diet.
  • We often crave sugary foods when we feel stressed. Sugar has been shown to activate the mesolimbic-cortical pathway – the body’s reward pathway – the same pathway that is activated in drug abuse.
  • Over time, chronic sugar consumption causes the brain to create new neuronal synapses leading to behavioural changes. We become more impulsive with food choices and less able to say no to sugary foods.

Other factors that affect a sweet tooth

Dietary preference for sweet foods is also affected by a variety of other factors.

  • Chronic stress
    • Whatever the stress – relationship issues, separation, divorce, work stress, bereavement or any other – this causes persistent stimulation of the hypothalamopituitary axis (HPA axis). As a result, levels of the stress hormone cortisol rise.
    • Cortisol affects behaviour and eating patterns. Raised cortisol levels are linked to cravings, usually for highly palatable but non-nutritious foods that are high in fat, salt and sugar.
    • Chronic stress is closely linked to obesity. In 2022, 59% of women and 68.8% of men were classified as overweight or obese in the UK.
  • Emotional eating
    • When we feel lonely, anxious, bored or unhappy, it’s common to experience food cravings often for sugary foods and binge eating.
    • However, although you may temporarily feel better while you are doing it, as soon as you stop and glucose levels start to fall, the cravings return with full force leading to another binge eating episode. In one binge, people can sometimes consume over two thousand calories in a session.
  • Low serotonin levels
    • Stress, anxiety and depression are linked to low levels of the happy hormone, serotonin.
    • This is especially common around the time of menopause. Ageing increases the risk of depression; eating sweet foods raises levels of serotonin.
  • Low magnesium, zinc or chromium
    • Studies show levels of these minerals are linked to food cravings. Supplements are sometimes recommended by those trying to lose weight – but should only be taken after consulting your doctor.
  • Insomnia
    • Lack of sleep leads to low levels of the hormone leptin, which is produced during sleep. Leptin helps you feel full and reduces your desire to eat.
    • Instead, sleep deprivation results in raised levels of the hormone ghrelin, which stimulates the appetite and drives cravings for sweet foods.
    • Insomnia is a major problem, thought to be currently affecting 1 in 3 people in the UK.
  • The gut microbiome
    • Evidence suggests a lack of Lactobacilli in the gastrointestinal tract can also cause sugar cravings.
    • This may be because gut lactobacilli produce the neurotransmitter gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA). High levels of GABA make you feel full. Low GABA levels do the opposite and stimulate your appetite.

How can a sweet tooth affect your health?

You may not realise just how harmful a high-sugar diet can be to your health. Here’s a summary of some of the risks –

  • Increased risk of cardiovascular disease
    • In one American study, the risk of cardiovascular disease (heart attacks and strokes) was increased by 30% in those who consumed more than 10-24% of the diet from added sugar.
    • For those who ingested 25% or more of added sugar, the increased CVD risk was 275%! High blood sugars are linked to raised cholesterol and triglyceride levels and cause vessel wall inflammation.
  • Obesity
    • Medical specialists believe that a sweet tooth has a major influence on obesity because eating sweet foods directly rewards brain neurocircuits.
    • A decrease in dopamine D2R receptors has been found in those who are obese – these are the brain receptors that control the production, release and up-take of dopamine. Of note, these are the same receptors that respond to antipsychotic drugs.
    • Obesity severely reduces the quality of life and lowers life expectancy by 3-10 years.
  • Raised blood pressure
    • Eating sugary foods increases systolic (upper reading) and diastolic (lower reading) blood pressure by 6.9 and 5.6 mm Hg, respectively.
    • Raised glucose levels stimulate the sympathetic nervous system (SNS), which then accelerates the heart rate and raises blood pressure. High glucose levels also lead to reduced sensitivity of the arterial baroreceptors that are continually detecting blood pressure.
    • Some specialists now believe sugar may be worse for blood pressure than salt. High blood pressure reduces life expectancy by 5-7 years.
  • Poor dental health
    • Sugary foods act as food for mouth bacteria, which feed on sugar and produce acids which dissolve tooth enamel and cause tooth decay.
    • The effect of sugar on teeth is lifelong. The risk of dental caries is reduced when sugar constitutes less than 10% of the diet. Poor oral health is strongly linked to poor physical health. 

How to deal with a sweet tooth

Yes, you can retrain a sweet tooth. In a 2016 study that ran for five months, the group on the low-sugar diet demonstrated significant changes in their interpretation of the intensity of sweetness in puddings as early as the second month.

The study group were asked to follow a low-sugar diet by switching 40% of their daily calorie intake from simple sugars to protein, fat and complex carbohydrates (long-chain carbs such as lentils, beans, peas and whole grains).

By month 3, the low-sugar group rated low-sugar puddings 40% sweeter than those in the control group.

How much sugar should we consume in our diet?

We all eat and drink too much sugar. We should aim to ensure sugar makes up 5% or less of our diet. The maximum intake of sugar should be  –

  • Adults 30g a day – around seven teaspoons.
  • Children (aged 9-11) – 24 g per day
  • Children (aged 4-6) – 19 g per day
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13 ways to deal with sugar addiction

If you feel you are addicted to sweet, sugary foods, there is no quick-fix solution. However, take a look at the following –

  1. Find motivation to change
    • As you can see from this article, there are so many reasons why a high-sugar diet is bad for you.
  2. Eat a healthy diet
    • You are what you eat. Never was a truer word spoken. Try and establish a healthy eating regime with a balanced, nutritious and interesting diet. One very good option is the Mediterranean Diet (MD) – which means eating lean meat, poultry and fish with plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables, healthy unsaturated fats, whole grains, nuts and seeds.
    • The MD is a low-carb diet – and sugar is added in the form of honey or maple syrup. Artificial sweeteners are not recommended.
  3. Eat regular healthy meals
    • This helps stabilise your blood sugars and helps reduce cravings. Don’t skip meals. Eat foods with a low glycaemic index (GI) index, which releases energy slowly, as this will help keep your blood glucose levels within normal limits. A
    • high GI index means the food releases a quick burst of energy, and you quickly feel hungry again. The GI index varies enormously; for example, the GI index of a pear is 26, whereas the GI index of one slice of chocolate cake is 70.
  4. Read food labels
    • High sugar is 22.5/100g of total sugar. Low sugar is 5/100 g of total sugar. Choose the low-sugar options. Look for green and amber-labelled foods – avoid the red. Get more information – NHS – How to cut down on the sugar in your diet.
  5. Eat more protein
    • Research shows that the protein content of your diet helps you feel fuller for longer. Plus, some amino acids such as tyrosine are needed to make dopamine – part of the brain’s reward system.
  6. Avoid artificial sweeteners
    • These are 180 – 20,000 times sweeter than sugar! This just acclimatises your taste buds to want more and more sweet things. We also know that artificial sweeteners are linked to obesity – they interfere with feeling of satiety, and have a negative effect on the gut microbiome.
  7. Consider a vitamin and mineral supplement
    • Ensure you are not deficient in zinc, magnesium and chromium – or have any other micronutrient deficiencies. If you regularly eat a properly balanced and varied diet, this is not necessary, but if you are suffering from sugar cravings, your diet to date may not have been exemplary and it may help you to get back on course.
  8. Drink plenty of water
    • Being dehydrated impairs the body’s ability to use glycogen for energy, so feeling energy deprived, it craves glucose instead. Drink at least 2 litres of water a day so you don’t let this happen.
    • Avoid sugary, and fizzy drinks, sodas, and sweetened flavoured milks and milkshakes.
  1. Get plenty of exercise
    • In one study, 15 minutes of brisk walking was shown to reduce sugar cravings. This may be because exercise improves mood, and bad moods are linked to emotional eating and sugar cravings.
  2. When you feel a craving, distract yourself
    • This could be going into another room, listening to a podcast, doing something with your hands such as art or knitting, or reading a book. Try and focus on something other than food
  3. Plan healthy snacks
    • Think ahead about low-sugar healthy snacks. For example, a hard-boiled egg, a few spoons of full-fat coconut yoghurt, a handful of unsalted nuts, some olives or a portion of homemade humous with carrot sticks.
  4. Chew sugar-free gum
    • This has been shown to lower cravings, especially for those who crave sweets.
  5. Get enough sleep
    • Sleep deprivation causes sugar cravings. Work on your bedtime routine and ensure you get your full 7 hours a night of good-quality sleep. Don’t raid the fridge at night! This is completely counterproductive!

Final thoughts

Finding out how dangerous a high-sugar diet can be for our health is a sobering experience.

I hadn’t thought I was doing too badly, but now I’ve realised the dangerous truth about sugar addiction and realised the problem of hidden sugars in food and drink, and how serious this is for my health, I will be trying to make the necessary changes.

For more information


This piece was written and provided by Dr Deborah Lee, Dr Fox Online Pharmacy


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