Have you ever noticed how some people seem to be craving free? They can say no to donuts, cookies, cupcakes, ice cream without even thinking about it. Or, they can eat two bites of a brownie and say “I’m done” or “that was too sweet”. Impossible right? I used to think so. I was one of those people who couldn’t say no when sugary sweets were around, and often wanted them even when they weren’t around. I just assumed that it was something I would have to fight my entire life, until I learned a few easy fixes that eliminated my cravings and changed my thinking and my actions around sugar.
The fact is, it’s exhausting to spend your mental energy avoiding sugar and telling yourself “NO” all the time. The more you have to strain your willpower the more likely it will fail you. But if you make sure that the underlying reasons your body and mind craves sugar are taken care of, you are less likely to want it, and more likely to choose a healthier alternative.
Here are the top five reasons people crave sugar, and the best ways to deal with them.
#1. Ingrained habits:
One of the most overlooked reasons for sugar cravings is long term deeply ingrained habits. If you have been used to eating desert after every meal, or having a handful of skittles to break up the monotony of your day, it’s likely that some of your cravings are situational and based on the habit. For example, if you crave sugar at the same time every day at your office, it may be that you have trained your brain to look forward to it, or if you crave sugar after meals, it could be that it has become somewhat of a norm for you.
The best way to combat this is to replace the sugar habit with a new habit. Instead of going for desert after each meal (or sitting around longing for it) brush your teeth, or whip up a nice cup of chamomile tea. Instead of going for that snickers bar in the afternoons at work, take a quick walk or stretch break instead. Turn these new things into habits that replace your old habits and with time, they will become just as automatic.
#2. Extreme calorie restriction
One of the main reasons people, and women in particular, struggle with sugar cravings is this: they are just plain hungry! The fact is, our bodies need a certain amount of fuel each day Put anyone on a miniscule calorie diet long enough, and they will be ravenous for sugar, no matter how much they think they are in control of their eating.
The reason for this is that our bodies need fuel, and sugar is one very efficient fuel source. Put your body in famine mode for long enough, and you will REALLY crave sugar.
Don’t count calories. Don’t “diet” and force your body to eat fewer calories than it needs to function. This doesn’t mean eating should become a free for all… it means learn to listen to your body’s natural hunger and fullness cues. Eat mindfully, at mealtimes, and stop when you are comfortably full, not when the plate is clear or the food is gone. This ability to listen to hunger and fullness can help you self regulate how much food your body needs without forcing it into starvation mode.
#3. Not enough nutrients
Similar to the first problem, not getting enough NUTRIENTS can also lead to increased sugar cravings. The most obvious example of this is someone eating a lot of empty calories: lots of processed food, fried food, empty calories, and not enough nutrient dense whole foods. But there are also some less obvious examples of this, usually with people who are trying their best to eat healthy. This is usually due to someone following a certain list of “good” and “bad” foods without listening to their bodies, and can result in not getting the optimal amount of nutrients. Certain deficiencies: vitamins & minerals, proteins, fats, carbohydrates, even water and salt, can lead to sugar cravings.
If you’re in the first group, start adding in more nutrients to your daily eating. Start with something simple, like a green smoothie, veggies with dinner, and keep going, adding in the good stuff. If you’re in the second group, take some time to re-evaluate your eating patterns, and see if things might be out of balance. Too much or too little meat? Too few carbohydrates? Not enough iron, water, or nutrients?
#4. Too much stress
One of the big factors that is rarely discussed when we talk about the American obesity epidemic is the influence of the American lifestyle. Job stress, financial stress, family stress, even social media stress can contribute to sugar cravings. What does stress have to do with sugar cravings? EVERYTHING! When we are stressed our body goes into “fight or flight” mode, releasing hormones that cause us to crave sugar, to store up energy for the upcoming attack, famine, or cold that is about to come. Sugar also has a very calming effect on our nervous system, and so many people tend to self-medicate with sugar when they are anxious and stressed. Not enough sleep is also a huge stressor on the body, and we are likely to turn to sugar for a quick pick-me-up when the lack of sleep catches up.
So what’s the solution? Well, we can’t just quit our jobs and become a hermit up in a mountain cabin away from the world, can we?… although a vacation there may be nice, it’s just not realistic. Instead? Learning good stress management techniques like meditation, deep breathing, time management, and prioritizing sleep can be a life changing experience.
#5. Desiring the forbidden fruits:
This is the most often overlooked reason for cravings. Have you put sugar completely off limits, told yourself you can’t have it, and that it’s bad for you, just to find yourself craving sugar more than ever? If this is your experience, you’re not alone. One thing that I often see is when people try to go “cold turkey” or become very strict with their sugar intake is that they are more likely to rebel and overindulge/binge on sugar. Why does this happen? For one thing, when you tell yourself “I can’t have sugar” and spend time policing yourself, you’re constantly thinking about the one thing that you need to stay away from: sugar. Having something in your brain constantly is not a good strategy if you’re trying to avoid it. Secondly, moralizing food, or putting food into “good” or “bad” categories, tends to backfire and cause us to restrict ourselves and then binge. We go into a subconscious “feast or famine” mode and believe that since we will never be allowed to have it again, we might as well go all out, and even make ourselves sick thinking that it will be our “last feast.” Then either we feel guilty and continue over eating because we’ve “already blown it anyway” or become super strict, just to binge again the next time we break down.
I’ve worked with many clients who have come to me telling me that they are “addicted to sugar” when in fact the rigid guidelines that they have set up for themselves have set them up for failure. When we work together, I tell them to focus on what to ADD IN to be healthy instead of focusing on what to cut out. Focusing on leafy greens, fruits, grains beans and lean protein leaves very little room in their brain, or their stomach for too many sweets.
The fact is, a cupcake here or there will do less damage than an all out sugar binge OR the mental anguish that you would have to put yourself through to resist entirely. For most people, the “all or nothing mentality” will ultimately lead to cravings, suffering, longing and bingeing. Choose moderation instead. With time, you will find yourself craving it less, wanting it less, and even feeling satisfied with just a few bites.
These five steps have helped me and my many clients become the people who no longer crave or want sugar. Here’s one example from a client who, when we first started working together would randomly grab a handful of chips, or a marshmallow or two just because in the middle of her day:
“I looked at the snack cabinet, which is full of all the carby sugary stuff and realized that I just don’t want any of it”
So the answer is yes, it is possible to get rid of your cravings. I’ve seen it happen time and time again by people applying these principles.