“I eat way too much sugar and have constant cravings for it that make me feel like I am addicted … do you have any suggestions for cutting back?”
There is still a debate over whether or not sugar is an addictive substance. From the data I’ve seen and people I’ve talked to, I’d guess it probably is.
But whatever the answer, the important question for most of us is how to kill the cravings that have us eating so much sugar in the first place.
Cravings exist in both the body and the mind, and you will have the best luck overcoming them if you address both simultaneously.
The first step is good nutrition. A nourished body is a happy body, and permanently kicking a sugar habit requires healthy food.
Eating balanced, delicious meals is essential for getting real satisfaction from what you eat and leaving cravings behind. For most people this means approximately 50% of your meal being vegetables and the rest split between protein, intact grains and/or legumes (beans or lentils) and a bit of oil or other fat. However, everyone is a little different and you should experiment to find what works best for you.
Healthy eating will not squelch cravings overnight, but it is essential for permanently cutting sugar because it ensures your body has everything it needs. Once your muscles and organs are taken care of, you can address the cravings in your brain.
The first step in breaking a sugar addiction is making the decision to stop eating it completely for at least 4-7 days (the longer the better), and sticking to it. While I usually recommend making dietary changes gradually, sugar has the unique ability to inspire cravings which are refueled every time you give into them.
The only way to break the cycle is to stop feeding the fire.
Once your sugar tolerance has normalized you can reintroduce it in small amounts, so long as you are sure you are eating for pleasure and not from habit.
Quitting sugar cold turkey is not entirely easy, however, even if you know the break is temporary. Cravings can be incredibly intense and make sticking to your resolution very difficult. If you hope to get through it, you must have a strategy for diverting yourself from temptation.
Start by removing all sweets (especially your weakness) from the house. Do a full sweep, no secret stashes can stay. If you do not want to throw things out, try giving them away at work or even sealing them up and putting them somewhere you can’t get to them. Making it impossible to cheat will greatly increase your probability of success. Don’t rely on willpower.
Once you have removed your most likely pitfalls you need a strategy for dealing with cravings. For this it is important to understand clearly why you want to avoid sugar, what you are making the effort for.
If you aren’t sure why limiting sugar is necessary I recommend spending some time educating yourself on the subject. If you’re a visual learner, check out the first part of this video about the potential dangers of sugar and the theories of Dr. Lustig and Gary Taubes.
Being completely convinced you want to change your habits makes following through on your resolution much easier.
The next step is deciding on alternative behaviors to divert yourself from cravings—they will pass eventually so all you need to do is distract yourself for a bit while they are strongest.
What works for you will depend a lot on your own personality and needs. For many people, sugar snacking is triggered by certain environmental cues such as location or time of day. In these situations, diversions should be planned in advance to avoid slipping into habitual behavior.
Planned distractions from habitual eating can include taking different routes between locations (to avoid walking by that bakery), substituting behaviors (there are no cookies at the gym) or choosing different foods or beverages during certain activities (mint tea instead of ice cream?).
Experiment with different alternatives and figure out what works best for you. Foods with oil and protein tend to be satisfying and quench cravings, if hunger is a problem for you. Exercise is the golden ticket for others. For me personally, sugar cravings are best satisfied by fresh fruit, especially those with a lot of fiber like apples and oranges.
Make sure your alternative foods and activities are things you enjoy. If they aren’t you will eventually abandon them for your old habits. Ideally these avoidance behaviors will completely replace your sugar habit and become your new healthstyle.
As you cut sugar out of your diet, also be sure to avoid hidden sugar sources. Stay away from sauces and condiments that are really desserts in disguise, e.g. honey mustard, teriyaki, etc. Added sugar is very common in restaurant sauces (especially mid-range chain restaurants), so you might want to avoid eating out all together for a few days if you can swing it. You should also avoid sugar substitutes.
When you have completed your four day sugar fast (go a week if you can), your cravings should have subsided substantially (the first 2 days are the worst). Continue to keep sugar minimal and actively avoid situations that cue you to eat sweets. Integrate your new behaviors into your healthstyle until the new habits replace the old ones. This process takes 6-8 weeks.
During this time get in the practice of asking yourself why you are eating sugar before you put it into your mouth. Are you eating from habit? Because of circumstance? For a special occasion? Because everyone else is?
The purpose of this exericse is not necessarily to stop yourself from eating, but to understand the reasons behind your behavior. The goal is to find a way to allow sugar into your life as a treat and not a necessity.
As you ween yourself off sugar, your tastes can change dramatically. All my life I had a sweet tooth, but over the past several years my taste for sugar has diminished and most drinks and desserts are now far too sweet for me. Consequently limiting sugar is not something I need to think much about, except during holidays and special occasions. Even then I don’t give it much thought, it happens naturally.
Besides eating whole unprocessed foods, cutting your sugar intake way down is probably the single best thing you can do to improve your health. If sugar is a problem for you, eating less of it should be one of your highest priorities.