It is the start of February, and Instagram is bursting with self-effacing pictures of people who swore off sugar in the new year, only to fail. My boys both decided to cut back on the sweet stuff that became commonplace over the holidays, but they too are struggling. The soda they drank every time we went to a party, the leftover pie that seemed bottomless and the Pop Tarts I bought as part of my resolution to rethink restriction continue to call their names. Why is sugar so powerful, and how can we beat it?
Sugar has been shown to have an effect on the brain similar to that of an addictive drug. In fact, quickly removing it from your diet can cause withdrawal symptoms, including fatigue, depression, headaches and muscle aches. No wonder it isn’t easy to quit.
Not easy, but not impossible, although there are a few questions to answer before weaning yourself off sugar. First, is your blood sugar unbalanced? Next, are you getting enough of the right nutrients? Last, do you sleep enough, and are you able to manage stress? The answers to those questions will help you figure out what, specifically, you need to address to beat sugar successfully. And there are some additional hacks that can help anyone trying to tame their sweet tooth.
Blood sugar issues
Many sugar cravings stem from a blood sugar imbalance. When your body ingests sugar, your blood sugar spikes and your body releases insulin to lower it to a safer level. If the insulin brings your blood sugar level a bit too low, as often happens, your body craves foods that will raise it and increase your energy. You’re on a blood sugar roller coaster, and it’s hard to get off it. The key to balancing blood sugar is to eat foods that prevent too much insulin from being released, such as protein and healthy fats, and consuming only small amounts of sugar (if any). It’s also important to eat regular meals and snacks, because blood sugar drops when you skip a meal.
Protein and fat for fuel
Protein and fat are crucial to kicking a sugar habit. Unlike sugar, healthy fats and protein provide slow and steady forms of energy, more like a flat, newly paved road rather than that glucose-flavored roller coaster. When your body doesn’t find sugar for fuel, it turns to fats, so eating plenty of healthy fats such as nuts, seeds, avocados and olive oil can help your body adjust to getting its energy elsewhere. Protein helps you feel satiated, which can reduce hunger and cravings, and many of the amino acids in protein help build the brain chemicals — such as dopamine — that make us feel good. When we feel balanced and energized, we are less likely to seek a sugar high.
Other important nutrients while trying to wean yourself from sugar include fiber, which slows digestion and stabilizes blood sugar; iron, which when depleted can cause low energy and cravings; and the energizing B vitamins, which are often depleted by sugar consumption and stress.
Lifestyle red flags
Some cravings emanate not from your belly, but from your brain, as a result of lifestyle. Stress causes the hormone cortisol to flood your body, releasing glucose from your liver, which in turn raises your blood sugar. We know fluctuations in blood sugar can cause cravings, so being constantly stressed is like begging for trouble. Poor sleep also can trigger excess eating, including increased sugar consumption, as you seek energy to combat your fatigue. It’s critical to get enough sleep when trying to cut back on sugar.
Sometimes we experience cravings that are nothing but a habit. Perhaps throughout your childhood, you watched your parents overeat on Thanksgiving, so now you do the same, bingeing on pie, for example, even when you are not hungry. Or perhaps you’ve spent decades reaching for chocolate to combat stress, or relying on ice cream to soothe sadness. Listen to cravings and try to determine their root: True hunger, emotional eating or habit.
Hacks to outsmart cravings
Here are some tricks to help you successfully kick the sugar habit:
Start with a solid breakfast. The less sugar you eat in the morning, the more balanced you will be all day. High-protein breakfasts have been proven to reduce cravings.
Plan your meals in advance. If you know when and what you’re eating, it can prevent dips in blood sugar.
Dehydration can make you feel hungry, so drink plenty of water. Add lemon, berries or other fruit to your water to make it more flavorful.
When you crave sweets, wait 10 minutes and change your environment. Take a walk, or get into a project. Perhaps you can distract yourself out of at least one sugar fix.
Satisfy your sugar cravings in a more healthful way by turning to vegetables such as sweet potatoes, squash, beets and carrots. Other naturally sweet foods include coconut, bananas, frozen grapes, dates, vanilla, raw cacao and cinnamon (which has been shown to reduce sugar cravings by helping to manage insulin sensitivity). Berries are another option, and their sugars are released more slowly than those of other fruits. And high-fiber foods such as broccoli, cauliflower and kale make you feel full longer than many quickly digested foods such as cereal, bagels and other simple carbohydrates.
Smoothies are a healthy sweet treat. If made without added sugars or too many sweet foods and with plenty of fiber, a smoothie will satisfy without causing a blood sugar surge.
Avoid artificial sweeteners. Aspartame, saccharin and sucralose have been shown to increase sugar cravings.
Trick your body by eating something sour. When you want something sweet, eat something sour instead. The sour flavor can stimulate the taste buds and distract you from the sugar craving.
Ginger and turmeric help prevent insulin resistance. Don’t be afraid to consume them freely, in turmeric lattes or ginger-infused smoothies, as you work to balance your blood sugar.
If sugar has already hijacked your body and you want off the bumpy ride, hold on tight because you will likely have those druglike withdrawal symptoms for two or three days, and the cravings will likely remain for at least the first week. After that, some of the negative habits and hankerings will dissipate, and hopefully, you can take off your seat belt and enjoy a smoother ride.
Casey Seidenberg is co-founder of Nourish Schools, a Washington, D.C.-based nutrition education company, and co-author of “The Super Food Cards,” a collection of healthful recipes.