Bad news if you have sweet tooth: According to UCLA researchers, eating lots of sugar, high fructose corn syrup and other sweeteners can shrink and age your brain to the point where it hampers focus, concentration and learning, and triples your risk of major memory lapses. Of course, cutting back can be a brutal task—specially if you’re one of the eight in 10 women who crave sweet stuff daily. Here, the latest word on how to tame your sweet tooth and rid your diet of these IQ-robbers.
Watch for label tricks
Step one is to start scanning ingredients lists so you can weed out foods that are packed with sweeteners—but manufacturers aren’t always straight-forward about how they name these troublemakers. “If you see words like corn syrup, cane juice, dextrin, malt, or anything ending in -ose, that’s a tip-off that the product contains sweeteners,” says Michael Wald, M.D., director of nutritional services at New York’s Integrated Medicine of Mount Kisco.
FYI: Don’t be conned by the word “natural.” The FDA doesn’t regulate the use of this word, so foods labelled “natural” (even “100% natural”) can still be processed and loaded with sweeteners. “Whatever the flashy front label claims, you’re smart to take a peek at the ingredients list before putting any processed food into your cart,” says Dr. Wald.
Processed foods labeled low-fat and nonfat contain up to twice as much high fructose corn syrup (HFCS)—a cheap, man-made form of sugar—compared to full-fat brands. “When manufacturers take out fat, they have to add something to pump up the flavor and texture and HFCS is their first pick,” explains Richard J. Johnson, M.D., author of The Sugar Fix. Opt for full-fat yogurts, granola bars and more, and you’ll cut your daily HFCS intake as much as 35 percent, say to researchers at Denver’s University of Colorado.
Skip liquid sugar
If you drink two sugary sodas daily, just weaning yourself off will cut 1.5 pounds of sugar out of your weekly diet, say USDA researchers. Note: Sports drinks are not the answer. “They sound healthy, but they contain just as much, and often more sugar than sodas do,” says Dr. Wald. “They’re a reasonable option for endurance athletes, but for the rest of us they’re just hyped-up junk food.”
This natural, zero-calorie sweetener is made from the stevia plant—yet it’s purified, so it doesn’t have stevia’s bitter aftertaste. And unlike most artificial sweeteners, Truvia doesn’t trigger cravings for sweets, because it doesn’t sabotage your blood sugar control. Look for Truvia in whole foods stores and well-stocked grocery stores, plus online at sites like iherb.com. Toss packets in your purse so you’ll have them handy for coffee, tea or other on-the-go fare.
Enjoy a meatier lunch
If your sweet tooth always seems to flare between lunch and dinner, join the club: Tufts University research suggests that up to 41 percent of women have trouble walking past candy bowls during those dreaded hours.
The solution: Never skip lunch—and make sure protein is a star ingredient. According to Yale researchers, when women add three ounces of meat, poultry or fish to their lunch, they eat 31 percent fewer sugar calories the rest of the afternoon, without even trying. Protein helps stabilize insulin production, preventing the wild ups and downs in blood sugar that trigger impossible-to-ignore cravings, their studies show.
Use a vanilla-scented lotion
In a surprising British study, regularly inhaling the sweet scent of vanilla calmed the brain’s appetite control center, nixing cravings (and cutting sugar intake in half) for 92 percent of subjects. Not into smelling like a teen? Skip the vanilla-scented lotions at the drug store. Instead, mix 25 drops of 100-percent pure essential oil into eight ounces of any unscented or lightly-scented body lotion and massage into your neck, arms and hands whenever you feel your cravings flare.
Sip gymnema leaf tea
Worried that if you eat one cookie, you’ll plow through the whole bag? Gymnema leaf tea can shore up your willpower. According to Indian researchers, sipping six ounces of this Ayurvedic brew makes sweets taste much less sweet—and that makes it easier to stop after a modest serving. Gymnema’s phytonutrients bond to your tongue’s taste receptors, so that sugars can’t latch onto them and stimulate your appetite, says Linda Page, Ph.D., author of Healthy Healing. You’ll find gymnema leaf tea in health food stores and online at sites like teahaven.com. If you don’t like the flavor—it tastes vaguely like spinach—mix it with black, oolong or rooibos tea.
Take a hike
Even a 20-minute stroll can cut sugar cravings for up to two hours -- and a 40 minute workout can tamp them down for eight hours straight. The reason: Exercise fires up your brain’s production of opioids—willpower-boosting compounds that make it a breeze to say "no" to sweets.
Snack on plain peanut butter
Nibbling one tablespoon of this creamy spread can shut down a sugar craving in as little as five minutes, say University of Chicago researchers. Peanut butter’s plant fats fire up your body’s production of cholecystokinin and glucagon—hormones that tamp down your brain’s yen for treats. Not a peanut butter fan? Sipping eight ounces of coffee can also do the trick, say researchers at Nashville’s Vanderbilt University.
Eat aromatic foods
Strong smells wake up the hypothalamus—the part of your brain that tells you it’s time to stop munching, say Dutch researchers. And their studies suggest that when people eat foods with strong odors (spicy, meaty, peppery, buttery, lemony, oniony...anything other than bland) they nosh 42 percent fewer sweets in the next three hours.
Get 20 more minutes of Zzzs
We know. And we know you know. Sleep is everything. It doesn’t matter if you crawl into bed a little sooner, sleep in a little later or catch an afternoon nap—regularly getting 20 extra minutes of slumber could be the ticket to killing your most stubborn cravings. In studies at Houston’s University of Texas, just upping their Zzz’s tamed sugar cravings for nine in 10 women within four days. Turns out your brain produces a surge of human growth hormone (HGH) whenever you snooze—and this compound ramps up your blood sugar control and curbs the urge to eat sugary treats, the study authors say.
A version of this story originally appeared on iVillage.