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Could swapping out sugar for fruit reduce your sugar cravings?

Many of us will experience a strong craving for sugary food at some point in our day. And if we’re a bit stressed, sleep-deprived – or simply suffer from a sweet tooth – it can be tough, if not impossible, to ignore. But research shows that cutting back on sugar has major health rewards. Not only does it help our teeth and waistline, it may boost our mood, our memory, our microbiome – and even help us live longer.

Is eating fruit the solution? Although it contains natural sugar, the fibre in fruit mitigates the risks. And new research shows it may actually help to reduce our lust for the sweet stuff. For his Radio 4 podcast, Just One Thing, Dr Michael Moseley asks, can swapping out sugar for fruit really curb those cravings?

How to crack those sugar cravings

Michael Mosley suggests eating fruit instead of sugary treats.

Sugar adds up quickly

According to the NHS, adults should eat no more than 30g of free sugars a day. That doesn’t include fruit but it does include any sugar that is added to your food, as well as fruit juices, honeys and syrups. Unfortunately, on average we eat twice those recommended levels.

Cutting down on sugar, especially sugary drinks, could add years to your life

You might think you’re sticking to the limit, but you’d be surprised how quickly it adds up. A glass of apple juice or a shop-bought smoothie can contain nearly 30g of free sugars – your full day’s allowance. Even pasta sauce can have as much as 7g per portion.

Cutting sugar is a mood booster…

We know that cutting down on free sugars could lift your mood. A 2015 study, involving nearly 70,000 women, found the lower the levels of added sugar in their diet, the lower their chances of depression. Interestingly, in this same study, women with a high intake of naturally occurring sugars such as those found in fruit also had a lower risk of depression, which suggests that a simple swap can deliver a double whammy when it comes to boosting mood.

… And a memory booster

Eating less free sugar could also boost your memory. An Australian study of 4,000 people found that those who drank less than one sugary drink per day had a bigger total brain volume and scored higher on memory tests compared to those who consumed more.

Less sugar could even help you live longer

Cutting down on sugar, especially sugary drinks, could add years to your life. A huge study looked into the long-term effects of sugary drinks by following nearly 120,000 health professionals in the US for over 30 years. They found that the fewer sugary beverages people consumed, the less likely they were to die prematurely – from all causes.

Swapping out sugar helps keep our weight down

If we eat a lot of added sugar at once, this causes a spike in glucose and, in turn, a spike in insulin. “Over time these spikes in insulin can lead to insulin resistance, which changes how our body can react to food intake,” explains Dr Evelyn Medawar from the Max Planck Institute in Germany. “This could also lead to fat deposition in the long run.”

Swapping out your free sugars for some fruit, like a pear or apple, will improve your microbiome

Having a meal which contains sugar AND fibre, as found in fruit, leads to a longer digestion time. “The whole metabolic response to food intake is slowed down and more regulated.”

Give your gut some love

Fruit, particularly the skin, contains lots of vitamins and flavanols, which help feed the good bacteria in your gut. So, swapping out your free sugars for some fruit, like a pear or apple, will improve your microbiome.

“If we only have a lot of added sugar but not a lot of fibre in our diets this can lead to having certain bacteria strains which are maybe not so beneficial for our gut microbiota,” says Dr Medawar. “If we consume one apple with the skin and the fruit flesh, we get all the benefits feeding our gut microbiome because all the fibre is in there.”

Eating more fibre can actually reduce our sugar cravings

By testing sugary diets in mice, researchers found that there was a “precise and distinct pathway from the gut acting upon neurons in the brain of those mice and creating specific preference for sugar,” explains Dr Medawar. The mice who ate sugar… wanted more.

This shows that microbes in our gut might be influencing the food choices we make. It’s exciting, says Dr Medawar, because through our dietary choices we can influence them.

At the Max Planck Institute they ran a research study where participants were given 3g of inulin, a pre-biotic fibre compound. Their food cravings were then measured. They also looked at brain activity to see whether there were changes on the reward network of the brain connected to the gut microbiome. “We could not only see on the behavioural level but also on those brain activity levels that the food cravings were reduced,” says Dr Medawar.

So, there you have it: evidence that eating more fibre can reduce sugar cravings, objectively, in the brain. Swap out that fruit cake for a fruit salad and as well as seeing your mood and memory improve, you might find those cravings for a sweet treat dwindling…