Early humans sought out super ripe fruit— a practice still seen in orangutans, says Richard Johnson, MD, author of The Sugar Fix (Rodale, 2008)—in order to raise blood fructose levels, which helped store fat to survive long winters. Genetic makeup can up the ante: A gene for low receptors to dopamine slows down the brain’s reward center, making cravings for sugar (which stimulates dopamine’s release) more likely.

Even if you don’t feel like an addict, chances are good that you are eating much more sugar than you think. “The problem is not with the naturally occurring sugars you find in whole foods,” says Jacob Teitelbaum, MD, author of Beat Sugar Addiction Now! (Fair Winds, 2010); it’s the 150 pounds of added sugar (or its cheaper counterpart, high fructose corn syrup) the average American adult gets every year from processed foods and drinks—more than triple the intake 100 years ago, say Harvard researchers.

Sugar hides in healthy-seeming energy drinks and bars, bottled teas and juices, flavored yogurts, cereals, pasta sauces, and breads. All this excess sugar fuels not only obesity, but also cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and even attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, according to Teitelbaum.

The good news

You don’t have to give up all sweets. You can make significant health gains by reducing dietary sugar by just one-third, says Johnson. First, figure out where sugar lurks in the foods you commonly eat. Consider what triggers your urge to eat sweets: Is it stress, fatigue, low blood sugar, boredom, a blue mood? Then, follow these simple strategies to curb cravings.

  1. Graze on high-protein meals.
    People who get irritable when they’re hungry often reach for sugar to “pump them up,” explains Teitelbaum. This quick fix taxes the adrenal glands, which work overtime to maintain blood sugar levels. To break the up-and-down cycle, eat small, high-protein meals throughout the day. Start with a breakfast of scrambled eggs or tofu. Eat a salmon-topped salad for lunch, and end the day with lean meat and a side of quinoa. Snack on moderate amounts of nuts, cheeses, and hard-boiled eggs, as well as one or two pieces of whole fresh fruit daily.
     
  2. Drink cold water and rub your ears.
    Instead of reaching for energy drinks or coffee concoctions when you’re tired, try sipping ice water. Then, use your thumb and forefinger to rub up and down the outer ear for ten seconds. Get up, go outside for fresh air, and stretch for a few minutes. These tactics naturally turn on the sympathetic nervous system, or the body’s get-up-and-go response, says Teitelbaum.
     
  3. Choose whole fruit.
    Besides offering blood sugar–balancing fiber that fruit juices lack, whole fruits contain vitamins and antioxidants like quercetin and resveratrol that counter fructose’s fat-storing effect, Johnson says. To get more of these nutrients, choose ripe, but not too ripe, fruit such as kiwi, apples, and blueberries.
     
  4. Use sugar replacements.
    Try a naturally sweet infusion of licorice tea to start your morning. The herb slows the breakdown of the stress hormone cortisol, so more of it is available to stabilize blood sugar during the day, Teitelbaum says. Or, add a tiny bit of the liquid or powder form of the herb stevia to your morning coffee or tea; it’s 200 to 300 times sweeter than table sugar without any negatives.
     
  5. Take good bacteria.
    In your digestive system, yeast feeds on sugar. Excess sugar intake over time causes yeast overgrowth that can develop into a condition known as candidiasis, or yeast syndrome, which exhibits symptoms such as nasal congestion, rashes and food allergies. For relief, Teitelbaum suggests taking 5 billion to 10 billion CFUs of probiotics twice a day for five months. The “good bugs” successfully compete with the yeast for space on the gut lining. Or eat your probiotics in plain Greek yogurt sweetened with berries and stevia.
     
  6. Snack on edamame.
    When hormones dip during perimenopause, some women experience mood swings and try to bounce back by eating sugar. “Sugar initially stimulates production of serotonin, the antidepressant molecule,” Teitelbaum says. “But once you eat excess amounts of sugar, that effect reverses.” He recommends eating a handful of steamed edamame each day to raise estrogen levels and reduce sugar cravings.
     
  7. Indulge in dark chocolate.
    If you must have sugar, make it a special occasion. Put one square of antioxidant-rich dark chocolate on the tip of your tongue, relax, and focus all your attention on relishing the complex flavor as it melts. When you tune in to how your body feels, your intuition helps you sense your true appetite, rather than eating just for eating’s sake.