A mouth full of fudgy frosting on your birthday, a fork full of toasty pecan pie at Thanksgiving, a cold bowl full of cookies ‘n cream on a hot August afternoon: These time-honored treats are among life’s sweetest pleasures, meant to be savored and enjoyed.
Problem is, for many of us, sugar has become an overwhelming daily temptation that we feel powerless to resist. Instead of occasionally indulging in special-occasion desserts, many of us are straight up hooked on sweets, needing a daily (sometimes hourly!) fix to satisfy our sugar addiction. If you’ve ever found yourself in a sugar-trance, locked onto a doughnut like a heat-seeking missile, you know how potent sugar cravings can be.
But no matter how severely you’re strung out on the sweet stuff, there’s hope! In her new book The Sugar Smart Diet, Prevention Editor-in-Chief Anne Alexander argues that the key to reclaiming sugar’s simple, sweet pleasure is to take back control by first breaking the powerful hold it has on your body and mind. Breaking your addiction leads to what Alexander calls “sugar freedom,” a state in which you call the shots—not your cravings. Not Krispy Kreme. You.
Ready to adopt a take-it-or-leave-it attitude toward the cookie tray? Try these Sugar Smart tips to crush your sugar cravings faster than you can scarf down a Snickers:
1. Eat a protein-packed breakfast. Research shows that protein in the a.m. makes it difficult for sugar cravings to take hold later on. Lean protein options like Greek yogurt, peanut butter, eggs, and low-fat cheese produce less of the hunger-stimulating hormone ghrelin and more PPY, a hormone that signals fullness. MRI scans of high-protein breakfast eaters in a University of Missouri study showed reduced activity in areas of the brain associated with cravings. Can’t stomach food too early in the morning? No problem. Eat it by 10 a.m. and you’ll still help quell that late-day sugar yen.
2. Never go hungry. Meal skipping is a guaranteed way to fire up sugar cravings. Skipping meals lowers blood sugar levels and causes you to overeat the rest of the day to make up for missed calories. Keep things steady by eating five times a day – three meals and two snacks of nourishing and delicious whole foods such as whole grains, beans, lean meats/poultry/fish, nuts, unsweetened low-fat dairy, eggs, and veggies. They’ll fill you up and give you the ideal balance of lean protein, energizing carbohydrates, and healthy fats to steady your blood sugar and insulin levels and extinguish cravings for sugar.
3. Suss out secret sugars. True to their name, secret sugars lurk in foods you don’t even think of as sweet: Everything from ketchup to crackers, salad dressings to pasta sauce. The problem with these secret sugars isn’t just that they put you on sugar overload (which they do; the average American takes in a whopping 22 teaspoons of added sugar each day—the ideal is 6). It’s that added sugars stoke appetite and beget more cravings, trapping you in a vicious cycle of wanting more, more, more. Search your fridge and pantry and read every label. Find the foods with sugar listed in the first few ingredients and seek out low-sugar alternatives to dial down your sugar intake.
4. Pump up the flavor. Sugar may be sweet, but there are plenty of other fabulous tastes out there that you may be missing out on. If you’ve ever seeded a fragrant vanilla bean for a special dish or topped a sliced tomato with fresh basil leaves, you know how much flavor herbs and spices can add. Experiment liberally with spices of all kinds (added bonus: warm spices like cinnamon and ginger can quell a sweet tooth). And don’t forget other flavor boosters like balsamic vinegar, extra-virgin olive oil, lemon and orange zest, and hot sauce to perk up your taste buds. Stir your coffee with a stick of cinnamon…toss plain, air-popped popcorn with smoked paprika…the more adventuresome you are, the more you’ll grow to appreciate flavor, and put sugar in its rightful place in the process.
5. Sleep more, crave less. The key to stopping sugar cravings in their tracks is balancing the hormones ghrelin (an appetite trigger) and leptin (which signals satiety), along with insulin. Get these hormones working in harmony and you’ll experience fewer cravings—and less fat storage. But if you get less than the recommended 7 to 9 hours of sack time, you may be undercutting this goal. In a University of Chicago study, a few sleepless nights were enough to drop levels of leptin by 18 percent and boost levels of ghrelin by about 30 percent. Those two changes alone caused cravings for sugary foods to jump 45 percent. Sleep deprivation not only makes sugary foods more appealing, it may also lower your ability to resist them. The parts of your brain that usually put the brakes on cravings aren’t as active when you’re tired, research conducted at the University of California, Berkley found. The upshot? Get your zzz’s to strike the all-important hormonal balance and boost your craving-crushing stamina.