Lately my blog topics originate at my local rec center. Last week, sugar cravings came up in a conversation next to the circuit weight machines. The woman in question was trying to control her cravings by giving up sugar for Lent. Which of course got me thinking. I’ve written about sugar cravings in the past, and all of that advice is still relevant. But it’s a big problem for plenty of people, and a good topic to revisit periodically.
When it comes to sugar cravings, people fall into 2 camps:
- Sugar isn’t an issue. Take it or leave it.
- Sugar cravings are a daily event, indulged in a variety of ways, which create endless guilt and anxiety.
If you’re in Group 2, and you feel like sugar cravings are running your life, what can you do about it? Unfortunately there are no universally effective, tried-and-true solutions. No magic pills or foods. But I do have some thoughts on strategies you can try. Hopefully something works for you.
Why do we have sugar cravings?
The hunger that drives sugar cravings usually starts with under-eating early in the day. You might eat nothing, or just have coffee or tea, or just a latté with sweetener and low fat milk. Or just a pastry. None of that is a breakfast that’s going to hold you over until midday, let alone mid afternoon. Your metabolism needs energy. Your brain needs energy and your brain knows what quick energy tastes like: sweet. If you habitually under-eat from morning into the afternoon, you’ll be hungry and fatigued by mid-afternoon, set up for sugar cravings.
Fatigue that causes sugar cravings could be from sleep deprivation or an unusual amount of exercise. Or it could be fatigue associated with late-afternoon hunger and lack of energy (see above). Whatever the cause, if you need to rest or sleep, those choices should take precedence over eating sweets.
This cause should be the easiest one to recognize, but if you’ve developed the habit of eating sweets at certain times of day, this behavior may be the hardest to control. Sweet flavors are very powerful motivators. You have something sweet at the same time every day — 4 p.m., 10 p.m. — regardless of how you’re feeling or what’s going on. It’s just what you do. Mid-afternoon (when you might also be hungry/fatigued) or later in the evening (dessert) are the most likely times for this behavior.
Sweet foods can alter brain metabolism, raising levels of mood-boosting molecules, if only temporarily. If you’re anxious, depressed, angry or just bored you might have learned that cookies or ice cream helps you feel better. This can be a powerful driver of sugar cravings for some people. Sugar cravings driven by self-medication might only be occasional, such as after a particularly stressful day or unusual stressful situation. Or they might have become a daily habit, to raise your mood after a long day, when you’re also tired and hungry and generally unhappy. Ice cream, cookies, cake or candy make you feel better, so you go for those.
To make the whole sugar craving situation even more complicated, any or all of these causes can interact with each other to put your sugar cravings on overdrive. Hunger in late afternoon can lead to fatigue (especially mental fatigue), and if you’ve created a habit of eating sweets at that time as a Pick-Me-Up, then you’ve created a powerful habit, leaving you feeling out of control.
What Can You Do?
If someone invented a sugar-craving control pill, they’d be billionaires. Until then, we’re left with self-control/self-awareness, common sense and a few tricks.
- Kill the sugar craving with sour. I find that sour flavors stifle sugar cravings. Perhaps this would work for you to. You could take this idea to an extreme and eat a pickle instead of candy. Or you could eat a half grapefruit or a salad with a vinegar dressing (which could be just vinegar, without the oil). And by “salad” I don’t necessarily mean tossed greens. It could be sliced cucumbers or tomatoes or both, or sweet peppers and radishes, or shredded cabbage and carrots. Whatever combinations you use, it’s the vinegar that does the trick.
- Prevent hunger. This one is easily solved by eating more earlier in the day. Have a modest-sized breakfast with a high protein food, some healthy fat and whole grains and/or vegetables. And no added sugars. Lunch foods should follow a similar pattern. Eating earlier in the day helps prevent hunger and the fatigue that comes with it.
- Identify your habitual sugar cravings. Then develop an alternative plan. If you typically reward yourself with sweets at around 4 p.m., schedule some other food or beverage. This would be a good time for that sour-vinegary vegetable salad. Or some soothing herbal tea and a piece of fresh fruit. Or some slices of really delicious cheese or nuts. These ideas can work in the evening as well. Tea and fresh fruit are a much better choice for nightly dessert than ice cream or cake or pie. Not that I’m against those, but they should be reserved for special occasions. The problem is breaking the habit. You can create new habits; just don’t make it harder by keeping tempting treats around. It helps enormously to eliminate sweets from home, and stock up on the better alternatives.
Here’s a “solution” that isn’t: substituting artificially sweetened foods for your guilt-inducing sugar-craving foods. Just NO! This just promotes your craving for sweet flavors. You need to transition away from thinking everything needs to taste super-sugary. Artificial sweeteners make the problem worse. Add in the possibility that artificial sweeteners mess with your metabolism and your gut microbes, I never recommend them.
The Ideal Afternoon Snack
The ideal snack should include some high protein food and/or a low-to-no sugar food like vegetables, fresh fruit or whole grain. Some examples:
- cheese and apple or pear slices
- nut butter and whole grain pita or celery sticks
- a flavorful savory yogurt dip (like tzatziki) with fresh vegetables like sweet peppers or sugar snap peas.
- nuts of your choice, perhaps along with oranges or berries or melon
- pieces of smoked salmon or canned tuna or cooked chicken wrapped in lettuce leaves
- a dried fruit/nut mix
Add some plain water, unsweetened iced tea, unsweetened hot coffee or tea, club soda or other non-caloric beverage.
Which brings up another important point: stay hydrated! Sometimes your sugar craving habit gets complicated by dehydration. You think you’re fatigued, but in fact you’re dehydrated. It’s an especially important issue for older women.
Self-Medicating with Sugar
This behavior is part habit, part psychological, part metabolic. It may be hard to control, but it’s NOT IMPOSSIBLE! You may experience this on an occasional basis, or you may be a frequent binge eater. Binge eating is officially recognized as an eating disorder, and it can be successfully treated by knowledgeable and experienced therapists who can help you identify triggers and help you develop coping mechanisms.
In my opinion, part of that treatment also involves clearing binge foods out of your home or workspace, and setting up new habits, as I’ve described above. I realize there are therapists who think you should be able to resist tempting treats, but it’s my view that you should make the process easier and make yourself healthier by creating better habits. It’s easier to resist counter-productive behaviors if you’re generally healthier.