The thought of giving up sugar may seem impossible to you. If you can’t imagine going a day without a soda, cookie or ice cream, but you’re tired of the mood and energy swings you experience when you eat refined sugar, you’re not alone. It is possible to eliminate sugar from your diet with careful planning and mindfulness about what you eat. By eating at regular intervals, you can prevent sugar cravings before they happen.
How can you stop sugar cravings once and for all? Here’s expert advice.
There are many reasons why we go for sweet things.
That appetite may be hardwired. “Sweet is the first taste humans prefer from birth,” says Christine Gerbstadt, MD, RD, a dietitian and American Dietetic Association (ADA) spokeswoman. Carbohydrates stimulate the release of the feel-good brain chemical serotonin. Sugar is a carbohydrate, but carbohydrates come in other forms, too, such as whole grains, fruits, and vegetables.
The taste of sugar also releases endorphins that calm and relax us, and offer a natural “high,” says Susan Moores, MS, RD, a registered dietitian and nutrition consultant in St. Paul, Minn.
Sweets just taste good, too. And that preference gets reinforced by rewarding ourselves with sweet treats, which can make you crave it even more. With all that going for it, why wouldn’t we crave sugar?
The problem comes not when we indulge in a sweet treat now and then, but when we over-consume, something that’s easy to do when sugar is added to many processed foods, including breads, yogurt, juices, and sauces. And Americans do overconsume, averaging about 22 teaspoons of added sugars per day, according to the American Heart Association, which recommends limiting added sugars to about 6 teaspoons per day for women and 9 for men.
If you’re craving sugar, here are some ways to tame those cravings.
• Give in a little. Eat a bit of what you’re craving, maybe a small cookie or a fun-size candy bar, suggests Kerry Neville, MS, RD, a registered dietitian and ADA spokeswoman. Enjoying a little of what you love can help you steer clear of feeling denied. Try to stick to a 150-calorie threshold, Neville says.
• Combine foods. If the idea of stopping at a cookie or a baby candy bar seems impossible, you can still fill yourself up and satisfy a sugar craving, too. “I like combining the craving food with a healthful one,” Neville says. “I love chocolate, for example, so sometimes I’ll dip a banana in chocolate sauce and that gives me what I’m craving, or I mix some almonds with chocolate chips.” As a beneficial bonus, you’ll satisfy a craving and get healthy nutrients from those good-for-you foods.
• Go cold turkey. Cutting out all simple sugars works for some people, although “the initial 48 to 72 hours are tough,” Gerbstadt says. Some people find that going cold turkey helps their cravings diminish after a few days; others find they may still crave sugar but over time are able to train their taste buds to be satisfied with less.
• Grab some gum. If you want to avoid giving in to a sugar craving completely, try chewing a stick of gum, says nutrition advisor Dave Grotto, RD, LDN. “Research has shown that chewing gum can reduce food cravings,” Grotto says.
• Reach for fruit. Keep fruit handy for when sugar cravings hit. You’ll get fiber and nutrients along with some sweetness. And stock up on foods like nuts, seeds, and dried fruits, says certified addiction specialist Judy Chambers, LCSW, CAS. “Have them handy so you reach for them instead of reaching for the old [sugary] something.”
• Get up and go. When a sugar craving hits, walk away. “Take a walk around the block or [do] something to change the scenery,” to take your mind off the food you’re craving, Neville suggests.
• Choose quality over quantity. “If you need a sugar splurge, pick a wonderful, decadent sugary food,” Moores says. But keep it small. For example, choose a perfect dark chocolate truffle instead of a king-sized candy bar, then “savor every bite — slowly,” Moores says. Grotto agrees. “Don’t swear off favorites — you’ll only come back for greater portions. Learn to incorporate small amounts in the diet but concentrate on filling your stomach with less sugary and [healthier] options.”
• Eat regularly. Waiting too long between meals may set you up to choose sugary, fatty foods that cut your hunger, Moores says. Instead, eating every three to five hours can help keep blood sugar stable and help you “avoid irrational eating behavior,” Grotto says. Your best bets? “Choose protein, fiber-rich foods like whole grains and produce,” Moores says.
But won’t eating more often mean overeating? Not if you follow Neville’s advice to break up your meals. For instance, have part of your breakfast — a slice of toast with peanut butter, perhaps — and save some yogurt for a mid-morning snack. “Break up lunch the same way to help avoid a mid-afternoon slump,” Neville says.
By eating at regular intervals, you can prevent sugar cravings before they happen.
- Eat every two to three hours. The key to preventing cravings for sweets is to keep your blood sugar stable throughout the day and keep yourself from getting too hungry.
- Include protein in every meal, of which there should be five to six per day. A scoop of protein powder, handful of almonds or stick of string cheese is all you need.
- Replace white rice, pasta and bread with whole grains such as oats, quinoa, brown rice and barley. Whole grains contain fiber to fill you up and do not cause the dramatic spike in insulin that refined carbohydrates do.
- Substitute fruit for refined sugar when you crave something sweet. If you want a cookie, have an apple and wait 15 minutes. Chances are, the cookie craving will go away.
- Stop using artificial sweeteners. They are much sweeter than sugar, and they get your taste buds accustomed to very sweet foods. If you must add sweetener to your food, try one with a low glycemic index like agave nectar or raw honey. Other sweeteners that contain essential nutrients and have a lower glycemic index than white sugar are molasses, barley malt and sucanat, available in health food stores.
- Drink plenty of water. Aim for 64 ounces per day. Sometimes cravings are a result of thirst. Have a glass of water when you crave sugar, and wait a few minutes to see if the craving goes away.