Last week, we discussed WHY sugar can be such a problem and how to take the 1st step in reducing your intake. It’s so easy to think you are eating “healthy”, when in reality you’re being exposed to much more sugar than you realize.
Once you have a sense of how much sugar you and your family are actually eating plus ALL the reasons you turn to sugar you can begin to shift your reliance on it.
First, I need to say that we are programmed to love sugar. Our primate ancestors evolved to seek out sweet foods for their high-energy content in order to increase their chance of survival when food was scarce. On top of this, the sweet taste gave us the green light for a safe food when we were still figuring out what could be eaten.
When our evolutionary tendencies are coupled with the fact that sugar does in fact produce a hormonal cascade in our brains that leads to addiction, it can be a very difficult food to moderate.
In this post I want to break down the exact steps you can take to get sugar out of your life and successfully manage your cravings for good.
5 Steps To Success
Remember that refined carbohydrates behave like sugar in the body. So when you’re intentionally avoiding added sugars I also strongly suggest that you include refined and processed foods like white bread and pasta, crackers, pretzels, cereal, chips, etc to that list.
Step 1: Eat Regular Balanced Meals
One of the reasons you crave sugar is for an energy boost. When blood sugar levels drop, you get hungry, and your brain tells you that sugar will be the fastest way to boost your levels and bring your energy back up.
The best way to avoid this problem is to eat regular meals throughout the day. Unless you’re implementing intermittent fasting, I’d suggest eating within an hour or two of waking up and then every 4-5 hours after that.
Step 2: Hydrate
Another cause for a sugar craving is dehydration. I know this isn’t totally obvious as your brain will sometimes confuse thirst for hunger. So when what you really need is a big glass of water, your brain will tell you to get a snack; preferably a sweet treat. If you deliberately keep your hydration up throughout the day, this will reduce those signals to get a snack.
Fluid needs vary from person to person and are dependent on things like exercise and weather but most people need between 6-10 cups per day. Anything decaffeinated will count; water, spa water, tea, broth, etc. Get more hydration ideas here.
Step 3: Feed Your Good Bacteria
It always comes back to your gut, right?! Sugar cravings are no exception. When the microbiome is out of balance, the “bad” bacteria will need sugar to keep multiplying. And thus, your cravings go up!
Keep the good bacteria thriving, and by consequence the bad bacteria in check, by feeding your microbiome with high fiber and fermented foods.
- High Fiber Foods: veggies, beans, lentils, fruit, whole grains, nuts, seeds
- Fermented Foods: sauerkraut, pickled fruits & veggies, kimchi, kefir, yogurt, kombucha, natto, miso, etc.
Step 4: Boost Your Minerals
There are many nutrients involved in the production of your feel good hormones. One of the reasons we continue to come back to sugar is because it boosts our dopamine levels and makes us feel good.
You can curb your desire for sugar by including mineral-rich foods in your diet that will naturally work towards boosting those same hormones. My top picks for mineral-rich foods:
- Dark Green Leafy Veggies
- Sea Vegetables (aka seaweed)
Step 5: Avoid Fake Sugars
Here’s the other kicker. When you replace sugar with fake sugar (aspartame, sorbitol, saccharine, sucralose, etc), the cravings continue!! Did you know that?! You think you’re doing yourself a favor by getting the sugar out BUT fake sugars are often even sweeter in taste than real sugar and keep the body craving more.
Not only that but fake sugars trick the body, which only makes things more complicated. The brain tastes sweet and hormonal cascades are initiated with the expectation of glucose arriving in the blood stream. But that glucose never comes. So now you have insulin cruising around with nothing to do and your cells are still “hungry”, so the brain sends out additional signals for more sugar! Ugh! And thus the endless cycle continues.
When you implement the above 5 steps into your daily routine, you will be amazed to see how much easier it is to break the sugar addiction. But I also get that it won’t be easy at first. In my experience, it usually takes a few days and up to a week for the cravings to disappear and for you to feel fully in charge of your food again. So, here are some strategies to help you get through those first few days.
This may seem obvious but distracting yourself can be a huge help when you’re in the middle of an intense craving. The craving will pass, your job is to ride it out. Here are some ideas to help you ride it out.
- First, assess if you’re actually hungry. If you are, and it’s been 4-5 hours since you last ate, then eat something. Choose a snack with protein and fat it in as this will satisfy you the quickest and quiet the sugar craving.
- Drink a large glass of water or mug of tea. Remember, your brain often confuses thirst for hunger. Start with some hydration and see if that does the trick.
- Take a short walk. If hydrating wasn’t enough to quiet the craving, then it’s time to get up and move. Even just a 5-10 minute walk can offer enough distraction to allow the craving to pass. A quick jaunt around the block or even just taking a few flight of stairs.
- Complete a short breathing meditation. If you finished the walk and the craving is still there, close your eyes, quiet your mind, and focus on your breath. Set the timer on your phone for 3-5 minutes and just breathe. Be with the craving, without judgement, and see what comes up. It may help you identify what’s behind the craving and find a strategy to resolve what’s really needed, rather than turning to sugar.
- Substitute. Assuming you’ve completed all the above and the craving still hasn’t resolved itself, now it’s time to allow for a substitute. What else could you eat that could provide a “sweet” fix; a piece of fruit, a bowl of berries, a date, a piece of dark chocolate. Eat it slowly and with intention in order to get the most pleasure from the experience.
2. Perspective & Mindfulness
Experiencing some moments, like I described above, is totally normal and expected; especially in the beginning. It also doesn’t mean you can’t ever give in to having a sweet treat. It’s really just about putting you back in the driver’s seat. Giving you control over your food rather than feeling like your cravings are controlling you.
Changing your self talk can be incredibly powerful when you’re taking back control over your food and nutrition. A very simple mantra you can start using is: “I choose to nourish myself with ….” versus “I can’t have ….”
Which one feels more self-empowering? When you “can’t have” something, guess what, human nature dictates that you want it even more!! Can you relate to that? So, change the self-talk. This is not about what you can’t have rather it’s about making a choice to live a more nourishing life!
The other piece to all of this is living with intention. When you are in charge of what you eat and how you live, you approach your choices with more awareness. This is what is known as mindfulness.
If you choose to eat a sweet treat, then savor it and enjoy it with mindfulness. This keeps you in the driver’s seat. You decide how much. You notice how it makes you feel. Not only will you gain more pleasure and enjoyment from the experience, you’ll do so without guilt, and you’ll be better armed to deal with the next craving that comes up.
Take Home Message
When you take steps to get sugar and processed, refined foods out of your diet not only do you reduce your risk for all chronic disease but you immediately feel better; more energy, better sleep, less brain fog, less pain.
Although small amounts of added sugar here and there are generally not a problem for most people, in others it will trigger cravings that are very hard to manage. Be honest with yourself and if this is true for you, then your best strategy is to go cold turkey. Get all sugar out of your house and start with a clean slate. I promise you will feel so much better within a very short period of time.
Another tip to consider, carbohydrates are not inherently bad and on the contrary many are actually very good for you; think sweet potatoes, butternut squash, fruit, legumes, and whole grains. BUT, the more carbs you eat the more cravings you will likely have for ALL carbs (including sweets). If you’re really struggling to get a hold on your cravings, eating a lower carbohydrate diet can be helpful.