04/29/2011 08:23 am ET Updated Jun 29, 2011

How To Keep Your Sweet Tooth and Your Weight Healthy

Is having a sweet tooth okay, or should you fight it at all costs? The truth is that sweet cravings are tough to resist. In fact, our first craving from birth is sugar, delivered via our mother's milk. It may surprise you to learn that human breast milk has the highest carbohydrate (sugar) content among mammals' milk, delivering large amounts of energy in the form of lactose. As babies, we are drawn to the sugary sweet taste of breast milk; it's the first flavor that we begin to desire, so why wouldn't we crave sugar for life? A sweet tooth, for the purpose of this blog, is defined as wanting something sweet after your regular meal -- not to be confused with real hunger that can create a sweet tooth.

These cravings are not new to the human experience; rather they have been ingrained in us all along. We all know what it is like to long for certain foods depending on our mood, our environment and our own taste preferences. But did you know that human interest in sweets can be traced back as far as 500 B.C. (and probably even further), when people in India boiled sugar cane to extract sucrose for crystallization into candy? If we've been satisfying our sweet cravings for such a long time, why is it that we are so obsessed by them now?

The answer is that modern life requires us to work longer hours, sleep less, stress more, skip meals and cut carbs -- all factors that contribute to our desire for sweet treats. Our constant exposure to convenient foods presents us with a daily battle against overindulgence. The problem really isn't that we have these cravings in the first place -- it's that our inattention to hunger cues causes us to overeat. On top of that, the environment we live in has changed dramatically in a short period of time and now we can have fast food at our fingertips any time of day.

Just think, it's 3 p.m.: You're at work, feeling tired and stressed, and you've skipped breakfast and only had lettuce for lunch. Then you imagine a chocolate-chip cookie. If you are like most people in America, it doesn't take much to make this fantasy cookie munch-down reality. Right outside your office, you have your choice: skip over to a Starbucks, walk over to Walgreens or bounce over to the bakery. Voila! That cookie is yours.

One hundred years ago, you would likely have had to obtain the ingredients, often going to great lengths to get your hands on what we now consider to be basic staples like flour, sugar and spices. Lots of effort for a small reward, right?

Now, there are those folks who believe that sugar is evil, toxic and addictive, and there are those who don't agree. I believe that the over-consumption of sugar, as well as the increased intake of extreme processed and fake sugars, is unhealthy, and that the best bet to quench your desire for sweets is to maintain a healthy diet and lifestyle -- and to address your cravings as they come up. Ask yourself, am I really interested in something sweet, or are am I just in need of some energy? Most sugar cravings are primal cues to eat, signals that the body requires additional energy, rather than symptoms of an addiction.

Today, our world is shaped by instant gratification and if we allow ourselves to give in every time we have a craving, we will inevitably end up gaining weight. We are facing a culture that favors quantity over quality, so we must arm ourselves with the knowledge, awareness and support needed to fight the call to consume, which is coming at us from every direction, each and every day.

Many clients tell me about their untamable desire for sweets. They believe that in order to lose weight, they have to eliminate sweet treats completely. When cravings crop up, they often eat one healthy snack after another in an attempt to fight the desire -- a habit which can add up to 800 calories at a time, when a few sweet treats might only add 150 calories. I say, enjoy a sweet treat now and then and moderate the portion.

Nothing's wrong with having a sweet tooth. Choose your treats wisely and respect your health by choosing quality over quantity, but, most of all, enjoy the whole experience of eating: from choosing your foods to cooking them to finally consuming them! Right now, you may feel guilty about your sugar cravings and pressured to fight the temptation to indulge, but please don't restrict yourself as this will only set you up to binge later on. Instead, allow yourself to have a reasonable amount of a sensible sweet snack.

So celebrate your sweet tooth instead of trying to fight it because, let's face it -- we were born to crave sugar. Practice your portion control and, most importantly, make sure that you eat all of your meals every day so that you don't confuse a sweet tooth with real hunger. Drop the guilt and treat yourself to something sensibly sweet today!

Manuel Villacorta is a registered dietitian in private practice in San Francisco, California. He is a national media spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association and the founder of Eating Free.