In honor of my latest book launch, I’m sharing some key ways to reduce sugar cravings. (You can pick up a copy of Sugar Shock HERE.) Before we get in to how to reduce sugar cravings, let’s talk about the reasons to reduce added sugars. Americans consume about 110 pounds of added sugar every year and when you break that down, it equates to about 22 teaspoons per person per day. Contrast that with health recommendations, which are a maximum of 6 teaspoons per day for women and children and 9 teaspoons per day for men and you can see that most people are in a big sugar surplus!
A sugar-laden diet is a factor in many conditions, from heart disease and type 2 diabetes to depression. On its own, sugar can weaken your immune system. And diet-related diseases, like heart disease and type 2 diabetes, also short-circuit your immune system, which is why viruses, like COVID 19, can more easily advance and cause more serious illness in people with these underlying issues.
If all of this sounds scary, don’t worry. You can begin to dial down your sweet tooth, reduce sugar cravings, and manage your added sugar intake now. Here’s what you need to know about sugar cravings and how to reduce them.
Why do you get sugar cravings?
There isn’t one single reason why you get sugar cravings, but here are some theories. For starters, sugar has some addictive properties. It acts on the same pathways in your brain that addictive substances (like nicotine) act upon so when you eat a sugary food, your brain sends you a message that it’s an especially rewarding substance. Because of how you’re wired, you then want to eat more of these types of foods. However, over time, you may need even more of them to get the same effect.
Even if you aren’t eating dessert, you may be taking in a lot of added sugars through packaged foods, where 80%-90% of added sugars in the diet lurk. That means that you might be triggering this reward system with all sorts of foods, including bread, salad dressing, plant-based milks, and more.
In part, cravings are also related to your habits. Habit science points out that creating a habit is based on three things: a cue; a response; and a reward. Here’s how this applies to sugar cravings: Perhaps your mom baked brownies when you were growing up and you have good memories of her brownie baking, smelling the brownies (the cue), and eating them with your family (the response). Now, every time you see or smell brownies (the cue), you’re reminded of these good feelings (the reward). Your brain has linked brownies with these positive feelings so in essence, there are physiological and psychological elements to cravings. In order to reduce sugar cravings, you have to work on both of these factors.
You may also be eating sugary foods in response to an emotional situation. In this case, when you feel the emotion--let’s say stress or boredom--you eat something sweet to quickly lift your mood. Remember, sugar has that effect. This is a poorly formed habit that doesn’t really address your emotional state. In the moment, you might get some relief, but it doesn’t last and isn’t helpful on a long-term basis.
Cut back on added sugars
To address the physiological part of sugar cravings, you’ll want to cut back on added sugars in your diet. You can start by looking at the top sources of added sugars in the diet. Nearly 70% of the added sugars in our diet come from these sources:
Sweetened drinks, including soda, sports, drinks, and coffee and tea (with their sugary additions)
Desserts and sweet snacks (think: cupcakes, donuts, and ice cream)
Sweeteners, like ordinary table sugar, but also maple syrup, honey, agave, and anything else you might be adding to sweeten your food at home.
Swap less sweetened foods for sugary foods
If you’re having anything from these categories on a regular basis, there’s a good chance you’re in a sugar surplus. Here are some ideas for reducing your sugar intake from these sources:
Reserve soda for special times, like a birthday party or ball game, rather than drinking it daily.
Try adding vanilla extract and/or cinnamon to coffee instead of sugar. No-added-sugar vanilla almond milk, coconut milk, or another unsweetened plant-based milk can also heighten sweetness without sugar.
Get clear on sports drinks and when they’re called for. If your exercise ession lasts under an hour, takes place in an air conditioned gym, or you’re not drenched in sweat, you probably don’t need one of these sweetened drinks.
Try snacking on lower sugar treats instead of desserts. For example, Have some frozen, sliced bananas instead of ice cream or a date stuffed with peanut butter and a couple of chocolate chips instead of a candy bar. Get a list of healthy sweet snacks to make it easier to lower the added sugars from your everyday foods..
Mix a sweetened breakfast cereal with an unsweetened or lightly sweetened one. Start with a 50/50 mix of each and continue to cut the sugary version down as your taste buds adapt.
Read labels of snack bars and shop for lower sugar brands. Get tips for buying the healthiest granola bars as well as some lower sugar recommendations.
Address your emotional triggers
Start to pinpoint what you’re feeling when a sugar craving hits. Are you in need of some comfort? Are you feeling lonely? Sentimental? Once you understand your triggers, you can put healthier habits in place, and by doing so, you’ll be reducing your sugar cravings.
After you identify the emotion that’s behind your sugar cravings, think through a few ways that might help you manage it appropriately. For example, if you’re lonely, maybe you could call a friend. If the friend doesn’t pick up, maybe you have a backup friend, or maybe you send a text instead. Or you could pop into a Facebook group of people who share similar interests and connect with someone there. Or maybe you’d like to schedule a chat with your therapist. It’s important for you to pick tools that you’ll find helpful, and to pick different ones, depending on the emotional need. The idea is untangle your emotional connection to food, and to instead find more helpful ways to cope with difficult feelings. This is a holistic way to reduce sugar cravings and will help you enjoy better physical and emotional help.