I love sweets! (Much more than I care to acknowledge.) I’ve had a long and torrid love affair with sweets for as long as I can recall. Cakes and pastries are my weakness. Admittedly, I can recall joyfully looking forward to attending special events, not just for the occasion or celebration, but often for the yummy goodies that I knew would accompany them.

Guess what? I’m not alone. Can you believe that more than half of the country has a sweet tooth? What makes sugar so insatiable? How does sugar affect the body?

I went in search of the answers to these pressing questions. Look what I found: The average American eats a whopping 156 pounds of added sugar a year. The American Heart Association recently began warning against too much added sugar in the diet.

Sugar has been proven to provide calories with no nutritional benefit. Who really wants that? Excessive sugar isn’t just empty calories; it’s toxic, and unfortunately, it often hides in the most unlikely places; just take a look at 15 Sneaky Sources of Sugar.

The general theory is that “Americans are fat because they eat too much and exercise too little,” says Richard Johnson, Nephrologist at University of Colorado, Denver.

But they eat too much and exercise too little because they’re addicted to sugar, which not only makes them fatter but, after the initial sugar rush, also saps their energy, beaching them on the couch. 

“The reason you’re watching TV is not because TV is so good,” says Johnson, “but because you have no energy to exercise, because you’re eating too much sugar.”

Why Do We Enjoy Eating Sweets? 
Human beings may seem to naturally gravitate towards sweeter foods, but culture and upbringing also play an important part in our eating preferences and taste buds. Studies of binge eaters have shown that a great deal of what we crave as adults is formed during our childhood. For example, kids who grow up eating candy and sugar are much more likely to turn into adults who eat candy and sugar.

Adults who crave foods besides sweets often report preferring those types of foods as children as well. Amazingly, we seem to make emotional bonds with food, and often find ourselves subconsciously re-creating happy moments with the foods from our childhood.

“Sweet is the first taste humans prefer from birth,” says Christine Gerbstadt, MD, a registered dietician and American Dietetic Association (ADA) spokeswoman.

Carbohydrates stimulate the release of the feel-good brain chemical serotonin. Sugar is a carbohydrate, but carbohydrates come in other forms, too, such as whole grains, fruits and vegetables.

The taste of sugar also releases endorphins that calm and relax us, and offer a natural “high,” according to Susan Moores, MS, a registered dietician and nutrition consultant in St. Paul, Minn.

How Does Artificial Sugar Affect Your Body?

Research studies have linked excess sugar consumption to: dangerous levels of LDL cholesterol, increased plaque deposits in the arteries, and breast and colon cancers. High fructose corn syrup — an ingredient commonly found in many salad dressings, soda, canned fruits, ketchup etc. — has been linked to increased risk of heart disease, stroke and increased risk of dementia and rheumatoid arthritis.

Experts have shown evidence that fructose and glucose in excess can have a toxic effect on the liver, as the metabolism of ethanol — the alcohol contained in alcoholic beverages — has similarities to the metabolic pathways that fructose took. There is evidence that some tumors have insulin receptors that feed on glucose.

Do you find yourself craving sweets at certain times of the day? Do you anticipate dessert after certain meals? You’re not alone! Eating lots of simple carbohydrates — minus the backup of proteins or fats — can quickly satisfy hunger and give the body a short-term energy boost. After the rush wears off, it can quickly leave you wanting and craving more.

Foods rich in fiberfat and protein all have been associated with increased fullness. On the contrary, sugar will give you the calories, but not the feeling that you’ve had enough.

How Can We Curb Sugar Cravings, Once and for All?
Unfortunately, there is no universal answer to this question. What works for one individual may or may not work for another. Thankfully, there are plenty of potential options for those of us who are interested in curbing our sweet tooth — and inevitably improving our nutrition and health. I searched high and low for the most popular and effective ways to curb those sugar cravings. Take a look:

Toss Those Temptations: Clear the cookies, pastries, ice cream and soda out of the pantry and refrigerator. Try replacing them with healthier options, like fruits and nuts.

Eat Regularly: Try eating every three to five hours which can help keep blood sugar stable and help you avoid impulsive eating behavior.

Increase Protein Intake: Sometimes our bodies will exhibit cravings for sweets when what they really need is more protein. Experts recommend protein bars and protein water as good alternatives for people who need quick snacks on the go. Protein powder mixed with chilled water is also well-known for improving weight loss.

Skip the Artificial Sweeteners: Artificial sweeteners, like Saccharin or Aspartame, have not been demonstrated to curb cravings for actual sugar, and may present a higher risk of cancer. Unlike their claims, artificial sweeteners have not demonstrated effectiveness in limiting obesity among users.

Try Truvia, a natural, zero-calorie sweetener that is made from the stevia plant; it’s purified and doesn’t have stevia’s reportedly bitter aftertaste. Truvia can be found in Whole Foods stores or online sites like iherb.comAgave nectar is another tasty replacement for refined sugars.

Eat Aromatic Foods: Strong smells alert the hypothalamus, which is the part of your brain that tells you it’s time to stop munching, according to Dutch researchers. Their studies also suggest that when people eat foods with strong odors (lemony,spicy, peppery, buttery, lemony, garlicky) it reduces their desire for sweets in the hours thereafter.

Get Your ZZZ’s: In studies at Houston’s University of Texas, increasing sleep time helped tame sugar cravings for nine in 10 women within four days. Our brain produces human growth hormone (HGH) while we snooze. HGH is a compound that research has demonstrated to escalate our blood sugar control, helping curb the urge to eat sugary treats.

Increase Your Energy Levels With Exercise: One reason we crave sugar is because we are energy deficient. Although exercise is often the last thing we feel like doing when our energy levels are low, regular exercise potentially increases energy levels naturally.

Additionally, regular exercise can provide appreciable distraction from your cravings. Exercise will also help you to feel good about your body, which may encourage you to be more committed to resisting those sneaky sugar temptations.

Increase Your Intake of Vitamin C: High intake of Vitamin C reduces blood sugar levels and decreases the damaging effects of sugar.

Take a Bite: Can’t fight the urge? Take baby steps. Enjoying a little of what you love can help to avoid feelings of deprivation. For example, try dipping a banana in chocolate sauce and add some almonds with chocolate chips. This may satisfy your craving and, as a bonus, provide healthy nutrients too! Experts, however, do advise staying within a 150-calorie threshold.

Chew or Rinse: The experts recommend chewing a stick of gum, gargling with an antiseptic mouthwash or brushing your teeth — all of which have been proven to reduce food cravings. The aftertaste doesn’t mix well with sweets and will most likely stave your craving.

Go Cold Turkey: Eliminating all simple sugars works best for some people. Days one to three are reported as the most difficult. By the fourth or fifth day, their cravings may begin to stabilize or diminish all together. Others might find they still crave sugar, but eventually train their taste buds to be satisfied with less.