Do you have unstoppable, uncontrollable cravings for sugar? Maybe your weakness is cookies, candy, or ice cream? If you feel like a crazy person takes over your body making you unable to resist temptation when faced with treats, you might actually be addicted to sugar. You are not alone; we are all eating more sugar. Consumption of sugar has increased over the last several decades, with the average intake being about six cups a week (1). This intake is startlingly high, not because we binge on cupcakes all day, but because sugar hides in almost all processed foods.
Although a sweet treat every so often isn’t a problem, feeling out of control with sweets could be a signal that something else going on. Overindulging too often, even just a little bit, could be preventing you from reaching your goals. If you think your cravings are a little out of hand, they probably are. Let’s take a look at ways to cure an insatiable sweet tooth.
Sugar Addiction: It’s not your Fault
Let’s take a look why so many people find sweets hard to resist. A 2016 review looked at the research on food addiction as it relates to sugar intake and obesity. Researchers found that eating high sugar foods triggered the same circuits in the brain as drug addicts. This effect was particularly pronounced in those who were obese, meaning their bodies reacted to sugar in the same way addicts react to drugs. This makes it difficult to “quit” coupled with an intense need to seek out sweet foods, the way an addict seeks a drug fix (2).
Sugar triggers the release of the neurotransmitter dopamine, which makes us feel happy and calm. This effect may be more pronounced in some than others, so for them, sugar acts as a soothing mechanism. There’s no doubt a dose of sugar eases the stress of a bad day.
Additionally, sugar (carbohydrates) are a source of energy. After we eat something high in sugar, there’s a spike in energy, followed by a crash. If we crash too low, uncontrollable sugar cravings kick in. Our bodies crave the things that rev energy back up as quickly as possible (often any type of sugar). This explains the mid-afternoon energy slump so many suffer from. If your lunch contains sugar or excess carbs, it’s likely you’re rummaging for chocolate around 3pm. Relying on high sugar foods for energy puts you on a roller-coaster of ups and downs, making you crave more and more sugar.
How to Stop Craving Sugar
In order to break a sugar addiction, you must tackle it from two directions: the physical and the emotional. Here are a few tips for breaking the cycle:
Deal with your Stress
For many of us, sugar fills an emotional need or is a way to cope with stress. In order to break your sugar addiction you need to stop using it as a way to deal with a bad day, a break-up, your kids being crazy, or whatever else has you frazzled. Yes, sugar does release dopamine and make you feel good temporarily, but at what cost? Sugar as stress management damages your weight, immune system, causes inflammation, and only makes the addiction harder to break because it becomes a false crutch.
Instead, try to deal with daily stress in a more productive way. Take a long bath, go for a walk, or call a friend. You will not always be perfect at this, but conscious self-care goes a long way in helping reduce cravings and regain control.
Practice Conscious Eating
Sometimes we eat sugar mindlessly. Are you guilty of walking past the office candy bowl multiple times a day without even realizing it? Mindful eating takes a bit of practice but helps us become more aware of how much we truly consume.
To practice this, you’ll only focus on the meal or snack you’re eating, doing nothing else. You won’t eat while multi-tasking or partaking in other activities, like working, driving, or even watching TV. Also, before you start eating, ask yourself “am I hungry?” If the answer is no, figure out why you want to eat. Maybe it’s stress, fatigue or loneliness. Address those feelings head on instead of eating them away. The next snack or meal you prepare, put it on a nice plate and actually sit down at a table. If you’re a “stand at the counter” type of person who eats directly out of a package, this practice forces a sense of calmness, mindfulness and gratitude.
Don’t Overly Restrict
You might think the best way to beat sweet cravings is to go cold turkey and just stop eating all sugar. This method might work for some people, but several animal studies have shown that restriction only causes binging later on. Rats deprived of sugar tend to have lower dopamine levels and end up with anxiety. When the sugar is brought back they binge it like crazy (3). Although restriction from sugar might work for some, you don’t want to set yourself up for a binge-restrict cycle. Remember, sugar is hiding in tons of foods, at tackling every label at once might be overwhelming. Cutting out all obvious, added and processed sugars, however, is always a good idea. Kick the donuts and ice cream to the curb while working on your next step: food swaps.
Instead of trying to white-knuckle yourself into compliance, try easing out of sugar slowly. First, make a few easy to reduce sugar swaps. At the grocery store, compare similar items and choose the one with the lowest sugar content. Bread, for example, is a place where sugar is frequently hidden. So, take a bit of time and look for a bread without sugar. Pasta sauce is another culprit, but there are many brands that make no-sugar options. Focus on the small changes to cut back on a little at a time. Remember: eating sugar makes you crave more sugar, so slowly reducing the quantity in all your products lessens your dependence.
Focus on Protein and Fat
Protein and fat are way more satiating than carbohydrates and they don’t cause your blood sugar to spike and crash. Bump up your intake of these two macronutrients to see if you’re more satisfied. Start your day with a high-protein, moderate-fat breakfast, like eggs, veggies and avocado. That combo should keep you fuller longer than something like sugary cereal or even oatmeal with raisins. See if your cravings are reduced later in the day by making some simple breakfast swaps.
Get Rid of Temptation
Getting rid of tempting food prevents you from eating it in that moment, period. Instead of keeping sugary snacks around, swap them out for healthier options like nuts. If the food is not there, you can’t overdo it. Save sweet treats for special occasions and eat them only outside of the house.
Finally, there is a bit of hope for sugar addicts everywhere. A 2015 study found that when participants quit eating sugar or artificial sweeteners for two weeks, 87% found they stopped craving sugar completely after just six days, and their normal foods tasted “too sweet” (4). If you can get through just six days of cutting back, you might be on your way to breaking your addiction.
If you crave more science and top notch motivation, 131 Method is a 12-week program designed to help you break unhealthy food habits and discover which foods work best for your individual body.