What can you do about sugar cravings?

I started the Radio Nutrition blog over 8 years ago, hard for me to believe.  These days I look back at some of the earlier posts, because… everything old is can be new again.  Some nutrition topics seem obsolete and get deleted; some are as relevant today as they were in 2010 or 1980.  One old post that got my attention this week was “How do I stop sugar cravings?” from summer of 2010.  That question certainly hasn’t gone away.  Is there a processed food that doesn’t have added sugar?  Despite the heightened public hysteria, some foods seems to have even more sugar (see the recent discussion of ready-to-eat cereals).

When it comes to sugar cravings, few people turn to foods with minimal sweetener, like spaghetti sauce or honey-smoked salmon or canned soup.  Sugar cravings call for the real stuff: ice cream, candy, pastries, cakes and cupcakes, cookies.  All foods with close to zero nutritionally redeeming value.  Plenty of people feel their cravings are out of control, leading guilt, shame and excess weight.

So why does it happen and what can you do about it?  If we had solid, proven answers to those questions, no one would have this problem.  As for the “Why?”, here are some my top 3 explanations:

  1. Habit. You fell into the habit of eating sweets at some time of day or at a specific location, and now the habit has taken on a life of its own.  The time of day or the location (or both) trigger the behavior.  The habit can spiral out of control: a spoonful of ice cream turns morphs into eating the whole pint.
  2. Hunger. Your diet is skewed to eating most of your food later in the day.  Your energy levels early in the day are not optimal, so you reach for quick energy foods, which means sweets.  Like hunger, fatigue from poor sleep can lead to the same inappropriate solution: eating quick energy foods.
  3. Self-medication. This is a more theoretical/controversial explanation, based on the fact that high sugar intake can temporarily boost brain chemicals that are soothing and mood-enhancing.  We’ve probably all experienced situations when stress or anger or some other unhappy state of mind leads to comfort eating (some people use alcohol or drugs instead of food, with even worse consequences).
  4. Artificial Sweeteners. This one is really controversial.  I’m not suggesting there’s proof that excessive reliance on artificially sweetened foods leads to extreme sugar preferences which makes it easier to give in to sugar cravings.  But I’m awfully suspicious.  I just don’t think anyone needs to have their taste buds constantly overstimulated with sweet flavors.  The flavor preference itself becomes a bad habit.  If you think all foods are supposed to be excessively sweet, then how are you going to appreciate a simple fresh peach, let alone broccoli or oatmeal?

I don’t have magical answers for fighting sugar cravings, but I do have some suggestions.  The good news is that my suggestions don’t involve prescription drugs or expensive products.  The bad news is that it’s mostly all up to you, the sugar-craving person, to implement and follow through.  A support system might help — perhaps a fellow sugar-craver who wants to change.  Some people find that just making up their own minds and following through using sheer will power is the best course.  Asking for outside support from friends, family and co-workers might be helpful.  Other people prefer to keep their efforts private.  Whatever you do, it has to work for you.

Here are some ideas for dietary changes that can help you fight back against the sugar-craving gremlin:

#1: Eat a moderate protein/high fiber breakfast: The worst thing you can do to your metabolism is start the day with sugar and not much else.  And it’s easy to do: a can of soda and a cereal bar, sugary cereal with milk and a glass of juice, a large sweetened latte or chai, pastries, sugared coffee and tea… The list goes on.  So many common breakfast foods and drinks are full of sugar.  Worse, they’re mostly low protein and low fiber.   By contrast, a low sugar/moderate protein meal sticks with you longer, cutting hunger and blood sugar ups and downs, so you’re less likely to find yourself fatigued and craving quick energy later on.  Better breakfast foods include: eggs, yoghurt, cheese, nuts or nut butters and even lean meats.  Add some fresh whole fruit and/or vegetables.

#2: Schedule an afternoon snack: it’s perfectly normal to be hungry 3-4 hours after you ate lunch.  Don’t fight it; plan it better.  Here’s the typical approach:

I shouldn’t eat anything until dinner.  But I’m hungry.  Now I’m really hungry and tired.  I give up, I’ll grab a candy bar because it’s quick and there are no other choices.

If you’re typically hunger/tired mid afternoon, be proactive.  Whether you’re at work, in the car or at home, PLAN a snack.  Think of it as a mini-meal.  In England, they call it Tea Time.  Choose foods that include protein and fiber, and are not sugary-sweet.  My favorite suggestion is a tossed salad with some high protein add-in like cheese or nuts, which helps curb hunger and shut down sugar cravings.  Other ideas:

  • raw veggie sticks with hummus or low-fat Ranch dip
  • fruit salad with yoghurt or cottage cheese
  • a small wrap with chopped veggies and a touch of cheese
  • a half sandwich made with cheese/meat/nut butter
  • a handful of unsalted nuts and some fresh fruit or vegetables.
  • a 1/2 cup of tuna or egg salad, or hard boiled egg or smoked salmon
  • cheese cubes and vegetable sticks
  • a piece of crusty artisanal bread with nut butter or thin sliced cheese

A snack shouldn’t just be some junky indulgence – make it count towards health.  None of these ideas are unusual or require complicated preparation.

#3: Identify and ditch the habit of indulging in sweets at specific times or places.  The good news is that if you can identify this type of habit, you can stop it.  If it’s an afternoon thing, substitute good snacks, such as those listed above.  Here are some strategies:

  • Go cold turkey, cutting out sweets after dinner.  Drink hot tea, lemon or cucumber water or iced herb tea or have a piece of fresh fruit.
  • Don’t buy tempting treats; if they not easily available, you can’t eat them.  This one suggestions can make or break your efforts.  Don’t keep stuff at work or at home.
  • Brush your teeth right after dinner
  • Do as the French do: instead of dessert, have a cheese course to end your meal.  Cheese is definitely not sweet, and a thin slice or two might turn off your sweet tooth, since it’s also high protein
  • Make sure your meals are filling and have significant protein.  A big salad or plate of sauteed veggies will fill you up, leaving no room or interest in sweets.  I recommend having at least 3-4 meals per week that are primarily vegetable-based, with added protein, such as a stir fry with meat/fish/tofu, a big salad with chicken or cheese or nuts.
  • If you are in the habit of buying sugary treats at a particular cafe or convenience store, by-pass those locations until you can control your choices and avoid the sweets.
  • If co-workers unhelpfully leave treats out, or workplace vending machines are full of junk food, you may need to be more proactive (or militant) and ask that better food choices are prioritized.  Everyone would benefit.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not against sweet treats, just not in favor of letting them take over your life.  Sometimes we just deserve a treat.  Key word: “sometimes”.   Make it a special occasion: go out for an ice cream cone occasionally; have cake only on a birthday; take a cookie or candy bar for a snack if you’re spending the day hiking or biking.

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