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Tackling sugar cravings

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Without a doubt, sugar is tempting and cravings can be intense. 

Food and drink containing added sugar is everywhere, widely marketed, cheap, and easy to over-consume. With sugar present in around 70% of the food supply, your body and taste buds may have come to expect and desire it.

To reduce intake and dependence, it is important to learn how to identify where added sugar is hiding while addressing your unique relationship with sugar.

According to The Nutrition Source by Harvard, “…cravings actually involve a complex interplay of factors: brain messages, behaviours that become habits over time, and having easy access to food.”

With that in mind, here are some simple ways to kick those cravings.

Identify your triggers
Do you find you eat certain foods when bored, sad, stressed, or seeking comfort? Many of us do. If this is a long-term and repeated behaviour, consider what may be the underlying cause. Ask yourself, “Am I eating this for hunger, or am I tired, stressed, or bored?”

Perhaps your trigger is a ritual, such as regularly snacking on a block of Cadbury’s Dairy Milk while at the computer or watching television. This is where a change in routine can help. For example, if you snack at the computer, try stepping outside for fresh air instead. If you desire something while watching television, try sitting in a different spot with an alternative after-dinner delight, such as sliced fruit or a cup of herbal tea. 

Practising mindful eating can help, and it may be worthwhile working with a professional to get to the root cause and adopt more helpful behaviours.

Include quality protein and fibre at each meal, and eat mostly whole foods
We often crave something sweet when low in energy or hungry. Protein and fibre can leave you feeling satisfied and provide a slow, steady source of energy. This helps to avoid a dramatic dip in energy and desire for a quick and sugary pick me up. 

Think nuts, seeds, legumes, eggs, sustainably sourced fish, and ethically raised meat. 

More broadly, consuming whole food sources of quality protein, healthy fats, and fibre results in greater satisfaction, feelings of fullness, and you are less likely to reach for something sweet. For a snack or when on the go, have on hand whole foods. Think nuts, fruit, veggies sticks and dip, plain yoghurt, or slices of cheese. 

Eat regularly

Without regular meal times (of mostly whole foods), one can get very hungry and blood sugar levels can dip, making it harder to resist reaching for a quick sugary pick-me-up.

Get good quality sleep
When it comes to managing cravings for added sugars, sleep is a non-negotiable. A recent study found a later bedtime and reduced sleep quality results in poorer post-meal blood glucose levels and glycemic control, while also increasing the desire for breakfasts high in sugar and refined sources of carbohydrates. 

When you lack sleep, the desire for sugar and refined carbohydrates increases as they offer a quick energy and mood boost. However, such foods cause blood glucose levels to dramatically rise and then drop and have you reaching for more sweet stuff again. 

Bottom line: be sure to prioritise getting good quality sleep.

Get moving and manage stress
Many desire the sweet stuff as a mood boost. However, moving the body regularly can encourage the feel-good endorphins you’re after plus reduce stress levels. Choose an activity that appeals to you, whether kicking a ball, boot camp, yoga, walking, or something else.
Have a spoon of healthy fats. Or something gross.
Fats can activate reward centres in the brain like sugar – not quite as strong but in similar ways. For an immediate antidote to a craving, enjoy a spoonful of avocado or 100% nut or seed butter (without added sugar or oil). You could also go for a teaspoon of coconut oil, which may sound gross to some, but this can be enough to kill the desire.

Alternatively, Damon found when recovering from the That Sugar Film experiment, using reverse psychology and having a little apple cider vinegar sorted his craving right out!

Other considerations
  • Drink plenty of water – too often we mistake thirst for hunger. 
  • Fruit – to get a sweet fix, opt for berries or an apple. It’s the sweet taste alongside beneficial nutrients.
  • Remove temptation – get the sugary foods and drinks out of the pantry, fridge, desk drawer, or wherever you typically keep them. 
  • Swap it out – find healthful swaps for sugary foods. Check out our Sugar Swap ideas! We’d encourage limiting, even avoiding, intense sweeteners (natural or artificial) as they only keep the desire for intense sweet flavours alive. Learn to appreciate the subtle sweetness and other flavours found in whole foods.
  • Tune in – after consuming a high sugar food or drink, connect with your body and how you feel immediately and in the hours (and even day) after. Do you feel tired, experience brain fog, have tummy troubles, or crave more? Check-in with how you feel when you have whole foods instead. Do you notice a difference? Recognising the signals your body is sending can be a good incentive to keep intake down!
Be mindful of underlying and external factors

While there are many things we can address at an individual level, there is a multitude of underlying and external factors at play that influences food choice, some that can trigger desire and lead to excessive added sugar consumption. 

For some, premenstrual syndrome and nutrient deficiencies can increase the desire for sweet stuff. If this is the case for you, chat with a trusted healthcare professional to address the underlying cause.

Externally, be aware of how frequently you are exposed to sugary temptations. Not only are free sugars added to most packaged food and drink – leading to an increased desire for it and a decrease in sensitivity to sweet tastes (meaning we need more and more to feel satisfied) – we are also frequently bombarded with advertisements from the food industry to tempt us to purchase these readily available and cheap products, designed to get you to over-consume and go back for more. 

Try to look past the alluring ads as you scroll your feed, walk through supermarkets, or drive past billboards. If the craving persists, keep on with any of the ideas above. And remember, if you have a little, for most people it is okay. Do not be hard on yourself – enjoy it for what it is and choose something more nourishing for your next meal.

Try any or all of the above to see what works for you. Feel free to also check out a few recommendations following a symposium at the University of California San Francisco. As time passes, the intense desire will ease.

Beyond cravings

Finally, for some, the relationship between sugar and food is more serious, resembling food addiction or an eating disorder. 

Currently, “food addiction” cannot be diagnosed in a clinical setting. Science in this area continues to grow so this may change. Addictive eating is commonly assessed using the Yale Food Addiction Scale and the jury is out as to whether it is the individual’s behaviour, certain components of food, or both, that can lead to addictive eating. 

Eating disorders are very serious and can be formally diagnosed. If your relationship with food is more than a habit or craving, we encourage you to seek out a healthcare practitioner for support. There are organisations such as Food Addicts, SMART Recovery, and The Butterfly Foundation that can provide help specific to food addiction and eating disorders.

By Angela Johnson (BHSc Nut Med)

 

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