We have all been there: you have just started a diet in an attempt to lose weight and feel better, but it seems as soon as you decide to eat less sugar and more vegetables, someone walks by you with a gourmet cupcake or a sugary coffee drink. All at once, your willpower is gone and you give in to the temptation.
If this has happened to you, then you have probably experienced the attitude of: I’ll do better tomorrow! But did you? Probably not. And that is largely because sugar is addicting.
Not figuratively. Literally. Sugar is classified as an addictive substance, and it contributes to thousands of deaths every year. Before we learn how to avoid sugar, let’s be clear about something: there are good sugars and there are bad sugars.
Bad sugars are what your body does not require in order to be healthy. Good sugars are necessary and contribute to a healthy body. These are found in fruits and milk. But remember, you don’t need to eat a ton of natural sugar to be “healthy.” More on that later.
Why do we crave sugar?
For the most part, the intense desire for sugar is caused by all sorts of things happening in your body, and rarely do those things involve a need.
1. You are hungry.
I know, I know. Duh. But I don’t mean you crave sugar because you’re hungry and a cupcake would really hit the spot. I mean your body is hungry and is desperate for you to feed it something! So what does it do? Your stomach alerts your brain that you need something to fuel you and you need it to be processed quickly. That usually means you crave carbs/sugars. After all, when your stomach is growling loudly enough for the people next door to hear, the last thing you feel like doing is preparing a gourmet salad.
2. We are hard-wired to ingest sugar.
Our oldest ancestors survived by eating sugary fruits. This was an ideal snack because it provided energy but also helped to store fat. This was handy when it came time to go on very long hunting excursions for their next meal.
But now-a-days, we aren’t hunting for our food, and we don’t need to stay warm in our caves. Yet we are still holding on to the craving for sugar.
3. You ate too much salt.
This is the culprit for me, personally. When you dine out or eat packaged foods, you’re ingesting a ton of sodium. For me, I crave sugar every time I eat chips and salsa or tacos/burritos. For a long time I thought it was just a quirk that after eating Mexican food I wanted ice cream or cookies, but the truth was that my body was reacting to all the sodium. The saltier the food, the bigger your sweet tooth becomes. This goes back to our ancient drive to find sugar; our ancestors had to have variety in their diet, and now our bodies crave variety in the form of tastes and textures.
And too much sugar is really, really bad.
Sure, if we eat a bowl of ice cream for every meal we are going to gain weight, but too much sugar is actually a lot more dangerous than you may realize. Remember earlier when I mentioned sugar caused thousands of deaths? Well, it’s true.
People whose dietary calories come from 25% sugar have a higher risk of dying from cardiovascular diseases. In 2010, more than 133,000 deaths from diabetes, 45,000 deaths from cardiovascular diseases…were reported in more than 50 countries. All of these diseases were related to sugar intake.
As if death wasn’t a big enough consequence of eating too much sugar, it can also have a really detrimental impact on your waist line. Because the body interprets a lack of sugar as a deficiency, our bodies crave sugar and fat. Often times though, those foods our cravings lead us to eat are filled with empty calories and very little nutrition, leaving us hungry and unfulfilled. This causes even more cravings! Talk about a vicious cycle.
So how can you combat sugar cravings and make healthier choices?
As I’m driving home from work, if I’m not listening to a podcast, I listen to local radio. And it never fails: I always hear an advertisement for some local company promising they know the secret to losing weight, to cutting out sugar, to looking great. And while that may sound awesome, it usually comes with a price tag and a lot of disclaimers. The tips below are free, healthy and don’t require any kind of contract.
Here’s how you can fight your cravings in an instant.
1. Chew gum, especially sugar-free ones!
I know it seems like a lame recommendation, but I’m telling you, this is my go-to! Research has proven that chewing gum can reduce food cravings. I’m no scientist, but to me it makes a lot of sense; a lot of times when you start craving junk food, it’s because you’re bored. Chewing gum is a great way to distract yourself while also feeling like you’re doing something.
2. Take a stroll down the street.
This is a win-win. You’re getting a little exercise, but you’re also avoiding those frustrating cravings. It’s all about a scenery change to get your mind off how bad you want the muffin your favorite coffee shop just posted on Instagram.
3. Grab a green apple or any fruits you like to have a sweet bite.
Fruit is full of healthy sugars (but that doesn’t mean you should eat a ton of fruit. Sugar is still sugar at the end of the day!). Keep a granny smith apple handy at home/school/work and eat that when you feel a sugar craving coming on. You get a little sweetness, but you also get fiber and vitamins that a cookie wouldn’t provide.
You also need to think about cutting your sugar intake in the long run.
1. Compromise by combining sugar with healthy food.
Combining foods can be a great way to slowly acclimate to cutting more and more sugar out of your diet. For instance, if you love chocolate, snack on some dark chocolate covered almonds. You’ll get your sugar fix, but you also added a healthy food. Progress! The end goal is to stop that sugar craving entirely, so finding ways to take baby steps toward that goal is helpful.
2. Substitute your sugar cravings with something healthy (in a sneaky way).
When I crave sugar, I crave the sweet smell and taste. I usually have no idea what the actual sugar content amount is. If I get a scone from the cafe down the street, it doesn’t include nutrition facts. A great way to get that sugary fix without all the sugar is to go for something naturally sweet out of habit. I like to get something sweet almost every day around 2:00. Why? That seems to be when I hit my metaphorical wall. The sugar gets me through the end of the day. But instead, if I went for a naturally sweet tea like apple spice or vanilla almond (calorie free and all-natural), I would get the mental fix that I feel sugar provides, without the guilt and fat!
3. Control your salty servings as well.
When trying to change your long-term eating habits, portion control is key. Figure out what is best for you, but start out with a lean protein, a healthy fat (think: avocados, olive or coconut oil), big serving of vegetables. Notice what’s missing? Carbs. This is because carbs turn into sugar and that’s what we are trying to avoid!
4. Go online and find recipes to make your own healthy snacks.
If you really feel like you have to feel like you’re enjoying a sweet snack, consult Pinterest for healthy recipe options that use natural maple syrup, honey, and other natural sweeteners. This involves pre-planning and effort, but if you make it a habit to keep healthy options on hand, it will never feel overwhelming.
5. Treat yourself every while and then and indulge thoughtfully.
Lastly, as you begin to cut sugar out of your every day life, you will inevitably experience moments of intense weakness in which you have to have something sweet or you will explode. When those times happen, if you really can’t talk yourself out of them, follow Susan Moores, MS, RD and registered dietitian’s advice and indulge. The catch? choose quality, not quantity. Rather than sitting down with a whole case of oreos, pick a decadent treat and savor every single bite.
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