You know that eating too much sugar isn’t good for you. Researchers reported in 2016 that consumption of added sugars is associated with an increased risk of a variety of chronic diseases, including obesity, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD), as well as cognitive decline and even some cancers.
We’re talking about “added sugar,” which is a sugar that food manufacturers add to products to increase flavor or extend shelf life. Natural sugars, such as those present in fruits and vegetables, dairy products, and some grains have not been found to have the same negative effects. Instead, a high intake of these foods has been linked with a lower risk of disease.
Knowing that added sugar is bad for you and being able to avoid it, however, are two different things.
What Causes a “Sweet Tooth?”
If you have a sweet tooth, you are likely struggling with sugar cravings. These occur for a variety of reasons, but the most common are:
- You’re experiencing blood sugar fluctuations: When your blood sugar—the amount of glucose in your blood—drops, your body may be trying to fix this by sending signals urging you to eat sugar.
- You may not be getting enough magnesium: If your body doesn't have enough magnesium, which supports several daily bodily functions, it may crave sugar.
- You may be slightly dehydrated: We often mistake our body’s signal for water as a signal for sugar.
- You are hungry: If you allow yourself to go too long between meals, your body will start to desperately crave fuel. Since sugar is a fast form of energy, the body craves it to fill its urgent need.
- You didn’t eat enough protein, fat, or fiber: If your last meal lacked these important nutrients, it will be unlikely to keep you satisfied for long. If you eat a starchy meal, for example (like spaghetti), without enough of these other three nutrients, that starch will break down quickly and leave you feeling hungry in a short time. Protein, fiber, and healthy fats are the key nutrients that keep you full and satisfied.
- You’re in the habit: Regularly eating sugary foods gets you in the habit of eating them, so that your body begins to expect them and soon, to demand them.
- You consumed a lot of salt: If you consumed a lot of sodium in your last meal or snack, your body may respond by hitting you with a sugar craving.
Your best bet when trying to eliminate sugar cravings is to address these issues. Make sure you’re getting some protein, fiber, and healthy fat in every meal. This will help keep you satisfied while maintaining even blood sugar levels, solving several of the issues above.
It also helps to sip water throughout the day to stay hydrated, make sure you’re getting enough magnesium in your diet, and to eat every four hours or so to avoid getting overly hungry.
Finally, you must address the habit of eating all that sweet stuff. To do that, start replacing those unhealthy sweet items with healthier options like the following.
20 Healthy Alternatives to Sweet Snacks and Treats
One of the best ways to satisfy your sweet tooth without suffering the health consequences often associated with excess sugar intake is to replace your unhealthy snacks and treats with healthy ones that are likely to make your sweet tooth happy. Here are 20 foods that can do just that.
Fruits are naturally sweet because they are made up of natural sugars, but they also contain healthy fiber and antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals. Good options include mangoes, grapes, bananas, apples, cherries, and any other fruit you may enjoy.
2. Dark Chocolate
Chocolate is one of the most popular foods among those with a sweet tooth, but most of it is unhealthy, containing mainly sugar with a little chocolate mixed in.
Dark chocolate, on the other hand, which is defined as chocolate containing 70 percent or more cocoa, is high in healthy antioxidants and has been linked to reduced inflammation and improved heart health. Just be sure to watch your serving size and snack on only a few squares.
3. Dates, Figs, Prunes, and Raisins
All of these dried fruits are extremely nutritious and naturally sweet.
Dates are also packed with a lot of fiber and a little bit of protein. They are a good source of potassium and copper and contain healthy antioxidants.
Figs are also a great source of fiber with a small amount of protein, plus they contain prebiotics, which helps support the pre-existing good bacteria in the gut, improving digestive wellness. They’re also a good source of calcium.
Prunes contain mostly insoluble fiber and are known for their ability to relieve constipation. They are also a good source of vitamin K.
Raisins have a little bit of fiber, are a good source of iron, and are an exceptionally good source of antioxidants. They also contain phytochemicals that could promote healthy teeth and gums. Like most dried fruits, though, they are high in calories, so keep your serving size low.
4. Sugar-Free Gum
Sugar-free gums are typically made with xylitol, which gives them a sweet taste but doesn’t affect your blood sugar levels. Chewing on a piece of sugar-free gum can satisfy your sweet tooth while giving your mouth something to do. Some of these gums are also good for oral health.
5. Glass of Milk
Milk has natural sugars and can curb your sweet cravings just as well, if not better than a sweet snack. It also has protein, which makes it more satisfying, as well as vitamins and minerals important to health.
6. Cup of Low-Sugar Yogurt
Though many of today’s ready-made yogurts are packed with sugar, you can find some plain varieties that are much healthier and will still satisfy your sweet tooth, particularly if you mix in some of your favorite berries.
7. Sweet Bell Peppers
You may not think of peppers as sweet, but they do contain enough natural sugar to satisfy your sweet tooth, plus they are chock-full of healthy antioxidants and nutrients. Try slicing a few up and serve them with hummus, or simply enjoy them raw, perhaps with some ranch dressing.
8. Whole Grain Snack Bars
Be careful when shopping for snack bars, as many of them are full of sugar and other unhealthy ingredients. There are some, however, that are made with whole grains and dried fruit rather than table sugar. Read the ingredient list to find a good one.
9. Cherry Tomatoes
It’s easy to forget how tasty these are if you haven’t had them in a while. The perfect combination of acid and sweet, they will get rid of your cravings while providing a good dose of healthy vitamin A and lycopene.
10. Sweet Potato
Though you may usually have this for dinner, consider turning it into a snack or dessert by topping it with a little butter and cinnamon or real cream.
Eat a handful of mixed nuts and your sugar cravings will disappear. Though not “sweet,” they are tasty and come with healthy fats that keep you satisfied. They’re also rich in other health-promoting nutrients like fiber, protein, vitamin E, and selenium (if you’ve got some Brazil nuts in the mix).
A smoothie can be a sweet and healthy alternative to shakes and ice cream. When your sweet tooth strikes, blend some whole fruit and plain yogurt for a smooth and savory treat.
13. Hard-Boiled Egg
An egg isn’t sweet, but it is satisfying. High in protein, it can help curb your cravings and get you through until your next meal. Eggs are also considered a low-calorie snack and contain several vitamins and minerals, making them a well-balanced, nutritious food.
These are full of healthy fats that crush cravings and keep you satisfied. If you’re craving something sweet, try stirring up an avocado until it’s creamy and smooth, then adding some whole-wheat crackers.
15. Herbal Tea
There are many herbal teas available now that have a hint of sweetness about them. Good options include licorice, fennel, ginger, rooibos, chamomile, cinnamon, and dandelion root.
16. Peanut Butter
High in protein and silky smooth, peanut butter is a healthy alternative to any of your sweet snacks. It will keep you satisfied and tastes great with a few slices of banana. Other nut butter can be equally tasty, including almond and cashew butter. Just check the ingredient list for added sugars. Organic options are likely to be lower in these.
17. Low-Sugar Popsicles
You can find these in the store or make them yourself. When making at home, choose lower-acidity fruits like watermelon, strawberry, and mango, then add some plain yogurt for texture. Blend, place in the containers and freeze.
18. Baked Pears or Apples
If you’re tired of straight fruit, try baking them for about 30 minutes. Add a little cinnamon on top for that extra flavor.
19. Chia Pudding
Chia seeds are packed with fiber and provide some protein as well. Chia pudding makes a nutritious and sweet snack. If you can’t find any near you, make your own by whisking together one cup of milk with a swirl of honey and two tablespoons of chia seeds. Chill overnight, then mix with different fruit and nut toppings.
20. Ants on a Log
You may have loved this snack as a child. As an adult, you can sweeten it a bit by adding in a few mini chocolate chips (dark chocolate, of course). Simply cut up your celery, fill it in with peanut or another nut butter, then sprinkle on a few chips. Yum!
Remember, indulging in the occasional sweet treat usually isn’t a problem, but if you find yourself reaching for the sugar-laden snacks more often than not, it’s time to change it up. Sugar is incredibly addicting, so it definitely takes willpower to change what is likely a fairly ingrained dietary habit. Making small lifestyle changes and nutritious substitutions whenever possible can make a huge impact on your overall health.
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Rippe, J., & Angelopoulos, T. (2016). Relationship between added sugars consumption and chronic disease risk factors: Current understanding. Nutrients, 8(11), 697. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu8110697