Originally written for The Washington Post, August 5th, 2016
Cravings are a real thing. They take over your mind and body. I have been at home, in my pajamas, exhausted from a long day, and I catch myself opening every cupboard and drawer in my kitchen searching for any morsel of sugar I can find, debating whether I should jump in the car and go get some ice cream.
Do I actually need a dessert? Would a treat make me feel any better? How long would that satisfaction last? What does my body truly need? Sweet? Savory? Or something else?
Sweet cravings can be a major barrier for someone trying to improve their health, because the cravings can feel insurmountable. Have you ever tried not to eat sugar? Life gets very difficult, because it’s everywhere. At every work meeting, social event and restaurant, there seems to be a delicious dessert staring you down. Even if that is not the temptation for you, there are still hidden sugars everywhere, making all your foods a smidgen sweeter (and less healthful) than they need to be. Salad dressings, marinades, cereals, packaged meats, you name it. Sugar is a common ingredient in so many of our foods.
There are three main reasons we crave sugar: nutritional need, habit and emotions. And all of these contribute to making diet changes difficult. But there are ways to get past each and every one.
The most common tactic toward decreasing sweet cravings is to cut out all sugar from the diet. People go “cold turkey” off all sweets and sugar for as long as possible.
Often when you cut all sugar out of your diet, you’re also decreasing your total caloric intake quite significantly as well. Think about it. If you typically to have a sweet every day, or even two, the calories from it could easily be over 500 or even 1,000. When you decrease your total calories, you get hungry! And because you cut out sugar as well, you tend to feel hungry for sugar. When you start to have sugar cravings, consider letting yourself eat. But rather than a sweet, go for some real food that is satiating and healthy and not as sweet as a dessert.
To take it a step further, consider which calories you actually need. When you are having sweet cravings, assess your macronutrients. What are they? The proteins, carbohydrates, and fats you are eating. Take a moment and write down everything you ate yesterday, assuming it was a somewhat typical day. Mark which foods are providing carbohydrates, proteins and fats. Are your meals balanced? If the body needs some protein or fat and you meet your nutrient needs, the sugar cravings will often diminish. Sometimes your body does need carbohydrates, but instead of sweets, consider some whole grains, legumes, fruit or vegetables. Some of us forget the sweetness of fresh fruit. And while it may seem crazy to suggest eating vegetables instead of a sweet, if the body is nutritionally satisfied, the cravings will decrease.
Another surprising trigger for sweets may be water. Many of us are chronically dehydrated and unaware of it. Often the body feels unsatisfied and starts to crave foods, when it actually just needs water. If you hydrated properly, the cravings might subside. Next time you are having a sweet craving, try a balanced plate of food with a glass of water.
Some examples could be:
• Turkey sandwich with whole-grain bread, avocado, veggies;
• Lentil salad (or quinoa, couscous or farro) with veggies and protein/cheese;
• Yogurt/cottage cheese, nuts, fruit;
• Whole grain cracker, cheese, fruit;
• Overnight oats, nuts, fruit, yogurt, spices;
• Leftovers from dinner — protein, starch, vegetables;
• Salad filled with vegetables, protein, nuts;
• Sweet potato, protein/cheese, veggies.
A major culprit with sweet cravings has nothing to do with food or sweet; it has to do with habit. We are so conditioned to want something sweet after meal, a cake for a celebration, or a pastry with our afternoon coffee. We associate sweet with so many things, so out of habit, we crave it.
In these moments, think about the exact opposite of sweet. Consider savory or salty to get your brain and taste buds out of that sweet habit.
Some examples could be:
• Beef jerky, vegetables, nuts, fruit;
• Hard-boiled egg, fruit, nuts;
• Popcorn (air-popped) topped with spices, vegetables, hummus, cheese;
• Olives, nuts, sliced protein, vegetables, whole-grain cracker;
• Pickles, olives, nuts, sliced protein, cheese.
The most frustrating component of managing sweet cravings is the realization that sugar makes us feel so good. It causes a release of serotonin in our brain, which is associated with pleasure and joy. No wonder so many of us love sugar!
Many eat a sweet to distract from whatever else they are feeling or thinking. It has been a stressful day; chocolate will make things better. Fatigue, sadness, frustration, happiness, angst, loneliness, joy are often accompanied with a treat to numb, distract, or celebrate.
What if food could be taken out of the occasion?
Consider the following:
• Hot cup of tea;
• Talk to a friend, family member or someone who supports you;
• Go for a walk;
• Get some fresh air;
• Go for a workout;
• Visit somewhere beautiful (whether that’s the beach or a park bench);
• Listen to some music;
• Watch TV or a movie;
• Sit for five minutes and breathe (set a timer on your phone, find a breathing or meditation app to time or guide you);
• Play (dance around the house, go do something silly and fun);
• Learn something (go to a lecture, museum, class).