Sweet tooth raging out of control? Here's how to tame those sugar cravings.
By Wendy C. Fries
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD
Does that morning Danish leave you craving another treat two hours later? Do you grab a candy bar to cope with your afternoon slump -- and then reach for a cola to get out of your post-slump slump?
If you've found that munching sugary snacks just makes you crave more sugary snacks, you're not alone. Eating lots of simple carbohydrates -- without the backup of proteins or fats -- can quickly satisfy hunger and give your body a short-term energy boost, but they almost as quickly leave you famished again and craving more.
How can you stop sugar cravings once and for all? Here's expert advice.
Why Do We Crave Sugar?
There are many reasons why we go for sweet things.
That appetite may be hardwired. "Sweet is the first taste humans prefer from birth," says Christine Gerbstadt, MD, RD, a dietitian and American Dietetic Association (ADA) spokeswoman. Carbohydrates stimulate the release of the feel-good brain chemical serotonin. Sugar is a carbohydrate, but carbohydrates come in other forms, too, such as whole grains, fruits, and vegetables.
The taste of sugar also releases endorphins that calm and relax us, and offer a natural "high," says Susan Moores, MS, RD, a registered dietitian and nutrition consultant in St. Paul, Minn.
Sweets just taste good, too. And that preference gets reinforced by rewarding ourselves with sweet treats, which can make you crave it even more. With all that going for it, why wouldn't we crave sugar?
The problem comes not when we indulge in a sweet treat now and then, but when we over-consume, something that's easy to do when sugar is added to many processed foods, including breads, yogurt, juices, and sauces. And Americans do overconsume, averaging about 22 teaspoons of added sugars per day, according to the American Heart Association, which recommends limiting added sugars to about 6 teaspoons per day for women and 9 for men.
How to Stop Sugar Cravings: 8 Tips to Use Right Now
If you're craving sugar, here are some ways to tame those cravings.
- Give in a little. Eat a bit of what you're craving, maybe a small cookie or a fun-size candy bar, suggests Kerry Neville, MS, RD, a registered dietitian and ADA spokeswoman. Enjoying a little of what you love can help you steer clear of feeling denied. Try to stick to a 150-calorie threshold, Neville says.
- Combine foods. If the idea of stopping at a cookie or a baby candy bar seems impossible, you can still fill yourself up and satisfy a sugar craving, too. "I like combining the craving food with a healthful one," Neville says. "I love chocolate, for example, so sometimes I'll dip a banana in chocolate sauce and that gives me what I'm craving, or I mix some almonds with chocolate chips." As a beneficial bonus, you'll satisfy a craving and get healthy nutrients from those good-for-you foods.
- Go cold turkey. Cutting out all simple sugars works for some people, although "the initial 48 to 72 hours are tough," Gerbstadt says. Some people find that going cold turkey helps their cravings diminish after a few days; others find they may still crave sugar but over time are able to train their taste buds to be satisfied with less.
- Grab some gum. If you want to avoid giving in to a sugar craving completely, try chewing a stick of gum, says nutrition advisor Dave Grotto, RD, LDN. "Research has shown that chewing gum can reduce food cravings," Grotto says.
- Reach for fruit. Keep fruit handy for when sugar cravings hit. You'll get fiber and nutrients along with some sweetness. And stock up on foods like nuts, seeds, and dried fruits, says certified addiction specialist Judy Chambers, LCSW, CAS. "Have them handy so you reach for them instead of reaching for the old [sugary] something."
- Get up and go. When a sugar craving hits, walk away. "Take a walk around the block or [do] something to change the scenery," to take your mind off the food you're craving, Neville suggests.
- Choose quality over quantity. "If you need a sugar splurge, pick a wonderful, decadent sugary food," Moores says. But keep it small. For example, choose a perfect dark chocolate truffle instead of a king-sized candy bar, then "savor every bite -- slowly," Moores says. Grotto agrees. "Don't swear off favorites -- you'll only come back for greater portions. Learn to incorporate small amounts in the diet but concentrate on filling your stomach with less sugary and [healthier] options."
- Eat regularly. Waiting too long between meals may set you up to choose sugary, fatty foods that cut your hunger, Moores says. Instead, eating every three to five hours can help keep blood sugar stable and help you "avoid irrational eating behavior," Grotto says. Your best bets? "Choose protein, fiber-rich foods like whole grains and produce," Moores says.
But won't eating more often mean overeating? Not if you follow Neville's advice to break up your meals. For instance, have part of your breakfast -- a slice of toast with peanut butter, perhaps -- and save some yogurt for a mid-morning snack. "Break up lunch the same way to help avoid a mid-afternoon slump," Neville says.
How to Stop Sugar Cravings: 5 Tips for the Long Term
One of the best ways to manage sugar cravings is to stop them before they start. To help you do that:
- Skip artificial sweeteners. Artificial sweeteners may sound like a great idea, but "they don't lessen cravings for sugar and haven't demonstrated a positive effect on our obesity epidemic," says Grotto, author of 101 Foods That Could Save Your Life.
- Reward yourself for successfully managing sugar cravings. Your reward could be large or small. Remember why you're working on it and then reward yourself for each successful step.
- Slow down. For one week, focus on your sugar cravings and think about what you're eating, suggests Chambers. Diet mayhem often results from lack of planning. So slow down, plan, "and eat what you intend to eat, instead of eating when you're desperate," Chambers says.
- Get support. Many people turn to sweet foods when they're stressed, depressed, or angry. But food doesn't solve emotional issues. Consider whether emotions are involved in your sugar cravings and whether you need help to find other solutions to those emotional problems.
- Mix it up. You may need more than one strategy to thwart sugar cravings. One week you may find success with one tactic, and another week calls for an alternative approach. What's important is to "have a 'bag of tricks' to try," Gerbstadt tells WebMD. To tame sugar cravings, you really need to "figure out what works for you," Neville says.
Lastly, go easy on yourself. It may take time to get a handle on your sugar cravings. "It's difficult to shift any system -- whether it's the world economy or your eating," Chambers says.
Health Solutions From Our Sponsors
Christine Gerbstadt, MD, RD, spokeswoman, American Dietetic Association.
Susan Moores, MS, RD, nutrition consultant, St. Paul, Minn.
American Heart Association: "Carbohydrates and Sugars."
American Heart Association: "Carbohydrate Addiction."
David W. Grotto, RD, LDN, author, 101 Foods That Could Save Your Life.
Kerry Neville, MS, RD, national spokesperson, American Dietetic Association.
Judy Chambers, LCSW, CAS.
Medicinenet: "Diet Sabotage: How Much Sugar Are You Eating."
WebMD Slideshow: "Weight Loss Slideshow: 9 Best Diet Tips Ever."
WebMD Feature: "Break the Sugar Habit."
Reviewed on June 22, 2011
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