I had the sweet tooth from hell.
As a teenager, I thought nothing of eating cookies for breakfast.
They weren’t just any cookies. They were healthy cookies. They were made of peanut butter, raisins and oatmeal. Along with M&Ms and chocolate chips, of course. So they counted as a health food.
My logic was impeccable. When do you eat peanut butter and oatmeal? At breakfast, of course!
So, cookies for breakfast.
Much later in life, I actually encountered the phenomenon that is healthy breakfast cookies. Google some recipes. They’re not half bad. (Though not half as tasty as my teenage version.)
No one was going to tell me that overdoing it on sweet things would increase my risk for diabetes, heart disease, high cholesterol, and even depression. I didn’t care that it would wreck my skin and teeth. My sweet tooth was out of control.
I’d eat a slice of bread and some salad for dinner, just so I’d have more room for dessert. Again, my teenager logic. If you’re on a diet with a limited number of calories, then you might as well spend them on foods you actually want to eat.
Several decades later, it’s amazing to sit back and watch myself turn down foods because they’re too sweet. The smell of Halloween candy turns my stomach. The syrup in flavored coffees is overpowering. I don’t have to worry about overdoing it on sweet treats—not because I have to deny myself, but because I don’t want to.
How did it happen?
How did my sweet tooth lose its bite?
I wish I could say I met a doctor who opened my eyes, or read a diet book that transformed me. Nope.
It was all thanks to wine tasting.
I spent my twenties working in wineries in Yamhill County, Oregon. It was temporary work: a week here, a few weeks there. Mostly I was dealing with the production side: sorting grapes at harvest time, bottling, and boxing up cases to ship out.
But then an assistant winemaker took me under his wing. He opened a few bottles of wine and showed me what to look for.
My most memorable lesson involved sipping a pinor noir that had been left open for a few days, a week, then a few weeks. As it turned to vinegar, I came to understand that wine is a living thing. You never drink the same glass twice. It evolves based on how long it’s been open, what foods you’re eating with it, even the glass you serve it in.
I was developing a palate. A taste for complexity.
Now I could taste the difference between cheap wines, which were sweet and bright, and expensive wines, which were subtle and challenging. My attitude towards sugar began to shift. It was a pleasing flavor, yes, but it worked as a gustatory distraction. Sweetness covers up a multitude of sins.
From then on, I wanted to be able to taste foods. To be able to distinguish and describe the elements of flavor, rather than just chew and swallow.
My sweet tooth is still there. But it’s no longer the monstrous thing it once was. Rather, it’s back in its place: in the service of pleasure, rather than in charge of my life.
Here are 5 strategies I’ve used to keep my sweet tooth happy.
1. Choose only the best.
Have you ever noticed that the cheapest chocolate comes in great big bars, while the most expensive chocolate is sliver-thin?
There’s a moral in that.
If you spend a bit more on your indulgences, you’ll actually reduce the number of empty calories you consume. You don’t need huge portions when your treats are first-rate.
So buy the tiny truffles, the artisan candies, the wafer-thin slices of chocolate mousse cake. Let those bursts of pleasure explode on the tongue, then fade away into the sweetest of dreams.
2. Always choose the smallest size.
Sometimes you do want that sugar overload. Maybe you’re tired, or maybe the lure of a chocolate milkshake or double caramel macchiato is just too much.
Go ahead and indulge. Just choose the smallest size. That means the kids’ size, if they have it.
Is a treat less of a treat if it’s finished after a few mouthfuls? Not at all.
In fact, the first few bites are always the most pleasurable. Notice what happens next time you eat something sweet. Rate the pleasure of the first bite on a scale of 1 to 10. Then rate the next bite. And the next. And the next, until it’s gone.
You’ll notice that the pleasure of eating something sweet drastically declines after the first few mouthfuls. You eat the rest on autopilot, finishing it just because it’s there and you feel like you deserve it.
So start getting used to saying, “I’d like a small, please.”
3. Set a rule: Homemade only.
First of all, a confession.
My downfall is homemade chocolate chip cookies. But only if they’re right out of the oven. After a day, they don’t taste the same.
So I’ve made myself a rule. I can only eat chocolate chip cookies, cakes, muffins, and the like if I make them myself.
It takes time to bake. It’s not something I do every week. So, when I do bake, I allow myself to indulge. I lick the spatula. I eat the bits that fall off. I don’t feel any guilt.
The best part about homemade goodies is that they’re not packed with preservatives or partially hydrogenated oils. And they disappear so fast that you don’t have them lying on a shelf, tempting you.
For me, this rule is hands-down the best way to control cravings. Instead of denying yourself, you give yourself the choice of satisfying your craving. But you have to be willing to spend the time in the kitchen. You have to wait until it’s done. By then, you may find that the experience of cooking something delicious is so satisfying that you don’t need to eat all that much to feel replete.
4. Go raw.
Thanks to Liana Werner-Gray, author of The Earth Diet, I now know that I can actually eat dessert for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
There’s only one condition:
It must be raw.
Raw desserts aren’t cooked. They’re based on unprocessed plant foods, and they’re packed with nutrition. Instead of chocolate chips, a raw dessert might have cocoa nibs. Maple syrup or dates instead of sugar. Soaked and blended cashews instead of butter.
I love knowing that dessert doesn’t have to mean empty calories. Werner-Gray’s cookie dough balls have a permanent place in my freezer.
5. Don’t forget fruit.
With all the health problems caused by refined sugar, it’s easy to forget that our sweet tooth once had a very important purpose:
To help us select foods at the peak of ripeness.
The sweetest foods for our prehistoric ancestors were honey and fruit. Ripe fruit provided more calories than unripe fruit and was easier to digest. An aversion to bitter tastes helped our ancestors avoid poisonous or unpalatable foods.
So feed your sweet tooth with the food nature intended: fruit.
When you can wind up a meal with a sweet apple or a bowl of berries, then you’ll know your sweet tooth has well and truly found its place.