How To Stop Craving Sugar: A Dietitian's Top Tips
Hands up who’s ever started the day really well with a balanced breakfast, veggie-packed lunch and healthy snacks until boom – 3pm hits and you can’t stop salivating over chocolate, donuts and all things sugar. We’ve absolutely all been there, and most of us will even fight this struggle on a daily basis. And it’s no wonder why – our brains are basically programmed to become activated and excited by sugar. When we eat sugary foods, we get a spike in dopamine which is the “pleasure and reward” chemical. For this reason, we often crave sugar even more when we experience negative emotions, such as stress, sadness, loneliness or even boredom.
Unfortunately, it’s very easy to become trapped in a sugar cravings cycle. To begin with, the repetitive stimulation of dopamine makes us want sugar even more often. And more often than not, our natural response to overeating is to clean up our act and start restricting and avoiding. We may even skip meals or eat meals and snacks that are low in carbohydrates, which happen to be the brain’s primary energy source. However, this technique is very counterproductive because starving ourselves of carbs causes the body to send out a signal for sugar, which is a type of quick acting carb that will provide us with rapid energy. It’s easy to give in to these signals, causing us to finally reach for a sweet treat causing a huge spike in our blood sugar levels. And then we become guilty, frustrated, and the cycle continues again and again.
So how do we break free? My eight top tips to fight sugar cravings will assist you in controlling blood sugar levels to reduce the intensity of cravings, programming your body to ignore or overcome food cravings, and enjoying your favourite sugary foods mindfully and in moderation without entering the dreaded craving cycle once again.
1. Keep your blood glucose levels stable by incorporating complex carbs at every meal – Despite the hype, carbs are not the enemy. They are our body’s preferred fuel source, and provide energy, B vitamins and fibre to keep us healthy and alert. Including a complex carbohydrate source at each meal will assist with blood sugar control, which research has proven is an integral part of preventing sugar cravings. Carbohydrates with a low glycaemic index are digested and absorbed slowly, assisting us to manage cravings and energy levels more effectively. On the other hand, simple sugars have a high glycaemic index and are quick acting, causing a large surge in our blood glucose followed by a rapid decline or “crash”, which makes us feel restless and sometimes will make us crave even more sugar. Instead of quick fixes, look for low glycaemic index carbs including fruit, starchy veggies (such as potato, sweet potato or corn), legumes, lentils and wholegrain breads and cereals (such as basmati or brown rice, wholegrain or pulse pasta, rolled oats and grainy bread).
2. Balance your meals with protein, fibre and healthy fats – Protein, healthy fats and fibre are slow to digest and will keep us full and satisfied to reduce hunger. Additionally, pairing protein, fibre and healthy fats with your carbohydrate source will lower the glycaemic index of that meal further, and help with the benefits of blood sugar control discussed above. Plus, you’ll get a bonus of extra flavour and nutrients! Add some avocado, eggs, tinned tuna and plenty of fresh veggies to your lunchbox and reap the benefits!
3. Explore the reasons behind your food cravings – Earlier we discussed how eating sugar releases the chemical dopamine, meaning that sugar cravings are often a method for seeking a feel-good response in times of sadness, loneliness or stress. The first step to eating mindfully is exploring the reasons behind eating, which will allow you to distinguish between physical hunger and psychological hunger (what I call “head hunger”). Try keeping a mindful eating journal, with a record of not only the foods you eat, but your thoughts or feelings before and after eating. This will help us work out what triggers your cravings, and take practical suggestions to improve this through other means.
4. Find a distraction – This old trick is no longer just an old wives tale. Research has now shown that engaging your mind is an effective way to distract from food cravings. The key concept here is to actually engage your mind a.k.a. not just watching Netflix when the mind can easily wander. Listen to a podcast, try a wordsearch or crossword, phone a friend, or organise your sock drawer. As an added bonus, exercise is a great distraction by releasing endorphins which make us feel good and consequently switch off our sugar cravings.
5. Delay yourself –. Next time you have a food craving, set yourself a timer for five minutes. Tell yourself that at the end of the five minutes, once you’ve waited, you’ll consider treating yourself by indulging in a sweet treat. And then next time, set your alarm for 10 minutes. Then 15 minutes. Compete with yourself for how long you can go for without reaching for the chocolate biscuits! As a benefit, you’ll be removing the “guilt” from the sugar cravings cycle by allowing yourself to indulge. And at the end of the time period, you might even find that you’re reconsidering the cravings and reaching for a healthier option instead.
6. Remove the temptation – You can’t overeat the ice cream if there’s none left in the freezer! Do a serious cull of your typical food cravings from the house, and put your thinking cap on to find a healthier alternative to enjoy instead. Swap the ice cream for some Greek Yoghurt, or make up some home-made chocolate protein balls that can be easily reached for instead.
7. Eat mindfully –As counterintuitive as it sounds, it’s helpful to enjoy your favourite naught treats in moderation to remove the restriction and temptation cycle. If you’ve distracted yourself, delayed yourself and you still want the sweet treat – then go for it! Give yourself permission to enjoy a food that makes you happy. Grab a portion size that is just right to nourish your soul without overeating, pop your treat on a nice plate or bowl, and enjoy the food slowly and mindfully away from all distractions. You earned it!
8. Hydrate – Dehydration makes it harder for the body to metabolise glucose for energy, meaning that our bodies get hungry for sugar and send off crazy sugar craving signals. Aim for about 2L of fluid per day, possibly more if you’ve exercised or in warm weather. If you find yourself forgetting to hydrate, make sure you carry a glass or bottle of water with you and flavour with lemon slices or fresh fruit as an incentive.