Breaking the habit: sweets

Sugar, sweets and artificial sweeteners have recently been the topic of conversation among both my friends and the media. One friend asked how I handled my craving for sweets while another friend expressed concern about her daily Diet Coke. A blog I follow just did a post about Stevia (a sugar substitute). Food Matters is promoting their new documentary by highlighting the fact that Americans eat 22 teaspoons of sugar every day and both the Huffington Post and MSNBC ran articles in February about the possibility that diet sodas increase the chance of stroke.

My response to all of the above is bound to unpopular: it's time to retrain your taste buds to only enjoy naturally occurring levels of sugar (think: strawberry at season's peak). Once your palate has changed artificial sweeteners and sugar/corn syrup based foods will not taste good, instead they will almost burn. Have that happen in your mouth a handful of times and you will no longer crave those foods. 

Don't believe me? What if I told you that in college, when my roommate and I ran out of tea bags, I would happily drink hot water and Sweet'N Low? In the ten years following college I drank at least one Diet Coke can everyday and couldn't recognize the taste of corn syrup. And until two years ago I was a major fan of sugary breakfast cereal. Today, I neither crave nor like any those foods.

It started in 2009 when I began the slow and steady work of phasing all artificial sweeteners out of my diet. I started with breakfast cereal (it was hard giving up my Honey Bunches of Oats) and worked my way through Quaker Oats granola bars, Vitamin Water, M&Ms and flavored yogurts (think Yoplait). Only one habit remained: my daily Splenda** packet served with my morning cup of coffee. In January I decided it was time to give it up too. 

The first six weeks of coffee without sweetener were bad. One of the best parts of my sleepy eyed, slow moving, morning ritual had suddenly become one of the worst parts. I tweeted about it to my close friends and I grumped about it to Oliver*** whenever he would listen. I declared I'd quit drinking coffee altogether. "Who needs it?!" But still, I brought my travel mug into the office with me everyday and day by day I drank a little more and a little more. Until now, now I think I ALMOST like coffee without sweetener (just don't ask me to give up the half and half). 

My heart healthy perspective on sweets is simple: abide by the same "real food" rules used for other foods. Eat foods made from ingredients you can picture growing in nature. If it came from a plant eat it - if it was made in a plant don't. Treat treats as treats. Don't eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn't recognize as food. Abide by those rules for long enough and I think most sweet tooths will naturally sort themselves out. And you might even be surprised by what unexpected* real foods start to taste like real treats!

* Now that I dislike foods like flavored yogurts and chocolate chip granola bars I've been surprised to discover to how much I love juicy in-season watermelon, carrot juice with ginger, and strawberries with cream. 
**There is currently a television commercial that shows a woman sprinkling a packet of Splenda over a bowl of strawberries. I find this commercial ABSURD. If strawberries are not sweet enough then they are either terribly out of season or it's time to reevaluate your palate. 
*** Oliver, we met three years ago today. You inspire me. I love you more then ever. Thanks for everything you do.