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.
6. Rev up your movement to dial down your cravings. If you’re plagued by strong sugar cravings, getting your body moving may help deactivate them. According to a study published in Applied Psychology, Nutrition, and Metabolism, the more you sit, the greater your appetite – even if your body doesn’t need the calories. Moderate exercise also helps keep muscle cells sensitive to insulin. Strength training builds stronger muscles, which in turn use up more glucose. Any physical activity that you enjoy will help get sugar off your brain—and belly.
7. Soothe what’s really bothering you. The link between emotional comfort and sweets is primal – and persistent. Rewarded with candy when growing up? You may still treat yourself to dessert for a job well done. Did you push back the confusion and loneliness of adolescence with candy bars? You may still be doing that as an adult. To break the cycle of reaching for sugar when you are emotionally cued to, you have to have something that will short-circuit your reflex response. The first step toward breaking the emotional connection between emotions and food is to become aware of the feelings that drive you to crave sweets. Not after the fact – the very moment you reach for sugar. To get a split second of clarity as your fingers close in on your co-worker’s candy dish: Why am I reaching for this? In those moments, remember this simple but powerful catchphrase: “Stop. Slow down. Think.” That will enable you to determine whether you really want the sweet or whether you are just feeding your emotions.
8. Pinpoint your sugar pitfalls. Do the doughnuts in the coffee room at work every morning call out to you? Think through your day and identify where and when you are most susceptible to sugar’s lure, and ask yourself why you “need” sugar in those moments. Is it because you’re starving when you get to work and the doughnuts are just too tempting to resist? Empower yourself with new, positive alternatives you can use to meet that need. Perhaps it’s making sure you eat a healthy breakfast and bypassing the doughnuts on your way to your desk. Fill your need in healthier ways and sugar loses its power over you.
9. Find healthier rewards. Instead of treating yourself to sweets, treat yourself to pleasure! Often we reach for sugar when we’re stressed, lonely, or bored. But there are far better ways to turn around a bad mood or energy lull. Make your own personal “rewards card”—a list of nourishing activities that you can whip out any time you find yourself reaching for sweets. Your rewards should be things that elicit the same pleasure you feel when you indulge in a favorite dessert. Think of things you can do instantly and that last for the 15 to 20 minutes you otherwise might spend lost in a sugar episode. For instance: listen to music, dance like crazy, call a friend, paint your toenails, go for a bike ride, pet the cat, watch junky TV, plan a dream vacation, or just lay down and look at the sky. This strategy of pleasure-focused redirection will work like a charm to keep you focused on nonfood sources of happiness.
10. Supplement with calcium and vitamin D. Are you taking a daily multivitamin and mineral supplement? Good! Several studies suggest that multivitamins that contain vitamin D and calcium can potentially lower cravings and promote weight loss. Extra body fat holds on to vitamin D so that the body can’t use it, and this perceived deficiency interferes with the action of leptin (the hormone that signals your brain that you’re full). If you’re deficient in calcium, your body can experience up to a fivefold increase in the fatty acid synthase, an enzyme that converts calories into fat. While a multivitamin can’t replace a healthy diet, this bit of extra nutrition “insurance” can’t hurt—and you might just find your cravings lessen while your weight loss speeds up.
11. Snap out of temptation with a photo. Research shows that people who keep a food diary lose more weight. But that doesn’t have to be limited to just writing down what you eat. In a study published in the International Journal of Consumer Studies, volunteers recorded what they ate on paper and in photos. They all reported that the act of taking the photos—and the photos themselves—raised their awareness of what they were eating. By taking pictures of your food before you eat it, you give yourself that crucial split-second pause that enables you to reconsider your selection. Seeing that softball-ball size cinnamon bun in a photo before you down it may jolt you into making a healthier choice.
12. Relax with a cup of tea and a novel. We all know that stress powers sugar cravings. And there’s nothing new about advice to carve out “me time” to combat stress. What is new is a study from England’s University of Sussex that found reading can slash stress by a stunning 68 percent! Other methods the study tested that also work are listening to music (61 percent) or sipping a cup of tea (54 percent). It’s a great way to divert yourself when you get that urge to munch. Pick a quiet spot where you won’t be interrupted and brew a cup of calming tea, such as chamomile, to sip while you turn the pages.
13. Stay hydrated. If your sweet tooth is on overdrive, turn on the tap and drink up. Dehydration can spike cravings for sugar and junk food dramatically – and may take a toll on your mood. Recent studies have linked mild dehydration to fatigue, anxiety, poor concentration, and even your cranky midday slump that can send you lunging for the vending machine. The latest guidelines from the Institute of Medicine recommend that women get 91 ounces of water a day, but you’ll be happy to know that not all of it has to come from the tap. At least 20 percent can come from food. So eat lots of fruits and veggies to make a hefty dent in your water needs.
14. Soothe with scent. Self-soothing techniques help you tolerate strong or overwhelming emotions, so you can manage them in a positive way, rather than reflexively reaching for a sugary treat. Inhaling a pleasant scent is a helpful reminder to enter the present and literally bring you to your senses when you’re in a cravings spiral. Try this exercise: Add 2 drops of eucalyptus oil to 1 cup of water in a bowl and stir. Soak a washcloth in the scented water. Squeeze out the excess water, then roll it up neatly and place it in a plastic bag in your fridge. The next time a craving hits, retrieve your scented washcloth and drape it gently over your face. Focus your full attention on the sensations—the texture of the cloth, its coolness, its scent—as you inhale the calm, and exhale the powerful emotions.
15. Savor life as much as sugar. Take a moment to think about your schedule. Does include an activity that really does it for you? That puts a curl in your toes, a little flutter of anticipation in your gut? We’re not talking downtime in front of the tube. We’re talking pleasure. The more you indulge in it in healthy ways, the less you’ll look for it in sugar. And the more pleasure, joy, and laughter you add to your life, the less you feel the need to derive pleasure from food. Savoring an experience—whether it’s a walk in the woods or a movie marathon with your best friend—means to enjoy it thoroughly, wringing every drop of pleasure from it. And while cookies may taste momentarily sweet, they can't provide true and lasting satisfaction.