How I Finally Curbed My Sugar Cravings
One writer shares her monthlong quest to break her dessert addiction.
I've had a sweet tooth my entire life. Give me a box of cookies and—until last month—I would have polished them off solo. I'd even look at the dessert menu at restaurants before deciding how healthy to be for the entrée. The addiction was real.
But after hitting my mid-30s, the health benefits of cutting back and finding a sugar addiction cure once and for all suddenly seemed urgent. I was eating just as much sugar as I did when I was younger, but my body was processing it differently. For instance, I've slowly gained weight around my midsection, a risk factor for insulin resistance, which ultimately leads to type 2 diabetes. Yikes. (Related: Ever Wonder What All That Sugar *Really* Does to Your Body?)
I began reading up on how blood sugar affects my body through start-ups such as Day Two, a service that tests your gut microbiome in an effort to predict how your blood sugar will react to certain foods. Finding out about the history of the powerful sugar lobby in the U.S. only confirmed my decision. (Full disclosure: I was also eager to find out if the glowing skin benefits of a sugar addiction cure were real.)
An interesting nugget from my dessert-related digging: Research suggests that drugs used to treat nicotine addiction could also help treat sugar cravings. But we addicts can’t head for the doctor just yet—it will likely be some time before the FDA approves it (the study was with animals). The good news is, this study sheds some light on why we struggle with trying to eat less sugar.
It’s not about willpower. Sugar raises levels of dopamine in the brain, activating its pleasure and reward centers in a similar way to addictive drugs like nicotine, cocaine and morphine. And just like drugs, every sugar high will never be as good as the first. Continuing to give in to sugar cravings actually lowers dopamine levels, so you have to eat more sugar to get the same blissful feeling. (Discover the best way to successfully quit a bad habit for good.)
The researchers also found that the rats in the study reacted to artificial sweeteners the same way as sugar...so even "diet" artificially-sweetened foods can make it tough to kick the habit and find a sugar addiction cure. Empty calories in added sugars can lead to weight gain, which ups the risk of chronic diseases such as type 2 diabetes, heart disease and some cancers. Artificial sweeteners may also increase your weight by feeding your need for sweet foods and messing with the good bacteria in your digestive system. Bummer.
Still, as a true dessert lover, I knew I wasn't ready to go cold turkey. (And, in my defense, there's science showing that completely cutting sugar out of your diet can sabotage your fitness goals.) Instead, I decided to make a committed effort to cut back on my intake. With summer coming, I was eager to feel (and look) my best-giving me a concrete goal to keep in mind. (Related: The #1 Myth About Emotional Eating Everyone Needs to Know About)
Since I had tried and failed to find a sugar addiction cure in the past, giving up at the first sign of stress during a busy workweek, I realized I'd have to do things differently this time. I decided on a few parameters, including eating breakfast without added sugar to set the tone for the day, and writing down any items I did have with added sugar to make me more mindful of what I was eating. I didn't want the monthlong exercise to feel restrictive, but something I could stick to for months, or years.
So how'd I fare on my quest for a sugar addiction cure? My aim was to curb my cravings and not be tempted by every chocolate croissant, and I've been relatively successful. But that's not to say the past month has been easy-retraining my sweet tooth not to crave simple carbs or desserts is still a work in progress. While it's getting easier to eat less sugar at home, I still struggle when at a party or hanging out with friends. Not eating dessert or birthday cake still just feels like I'm missing out. (To deal with it, I try to find a willing partner to share with me or just steal a few bites from my husband.)
On the upside, I've shed a few pounds and feel less bloated overall. To be honest, I'm motivated beyond the numbers I see on the scale. It's easier to focus on my work throughout the day, my cravings have subsided, and my skin breaks out less often. And because I'm more choosy with my sweets, I find I enjoy them more when I do indulge. Bonus: Even natural fruit tastes sweeter to me these days. (Related: How to Get Over Cravings, According to a Weight-Loss Expert)
If you're looking to cut back on sugar, there are a few tricks that can make the process less painful. Here are six things that have helped me make the transition away from processed sugar that I think could work for you, too.
6 Tips That May Help You Find a Sugar Addiction Cure
Sugar Addiction Cure 1: Try a morning drink.
I was initially skeptical about a wacky pre-breakfast morning drink, but I decided to try out a riff on the trendy Master Cleanse—a mix of apple cider vinegar, lemon water, cayenne, and Stevia. Within a week I became a convert of what's reportedly Beyoncé's favorite concoction. Drinking this as a morning pick-me-up meant I wasn't reaching for sugary snacks as a substitute for a real meal (or finishing my kids' breakfast). I'm also experimenting by throwing in other spices such as cinnamon, a natural appetite suppressant, or opting for a bottle of Suja's Probiotic Vinegar Juices, which also helps me curb my cravings and better ease into the day.
Sugar Addiction Cure 2: Fill up on healthy foods.
Before I start to feel extra hungry—which is when I'm more prone to reach for sugar—I'm making an effort to eat fiber-filled salads or simple raw vegetables with hummus. Noticing that I'm hungry well before I'm ready to eat whatever I can grab allows me to have a healthier, more thought-out meal. If I still have cravings for sweets at the end of a healthy meal, I've found that low-calorie hard candy, including MealEnders lozenges, help keep them at bay.
Sugar Addiction Cure 3: Save sugar for the evening.
During my experiment, I found it way easier to fight sugar cravings during the day than at night. (And it's not just me-the body's circadian rhythm is to blame.) So while I don't totally cave to my cravings the way I did in the past, I now reserve the occasional sweet treat for the evening after dinner when I know my body will be craving it the most. By working with my body rather than against it, I've been able to cut back on my overall intake. (Related: How Bad Is It, Really, to Eat at Night?)
Sugar Addiction Cure 4: Become a savvy label-reader.
Added sugars lurk in unexpected places: salad dressings, bread, spaghetti sauce and more! Check out ingredient lists on your condiments, sauces—basically everything you put in your grocery cart. If the ingredients include anything ending in "ose" such as glucose or fructose, anything called "syrup", anything with the word "malt" in it, it's a red flag. Also, look out for foods trying to use honey or molasses as "natural" sugars. It's all the same when it comes to sugar addiction.
Sugar Addiction Cure 5: Avoid personal trigger foods.
For me, the struggle with sugar is always about portion control. I've realized that eating stuff I love in small quantities takes more willpower than simply resisting altogether, and that extends to sugar. (Check out how to curb your appetite when it feels out of control.) That means I've stopped storing my favorites—including chocolate wafers, stroopwafels, hazelnut spread, and ANY cookies whatsoever-to keep from feeling tempted. Instead, I keep around some ultra-dark 80 percent chocolate. Since I don't love super-dark chocolate, if I'm really craving sweets I can reach for a piece without being tempted to go overboard and eat the entire bar in one sitting.
Sugar Addiction Cure 6: Don't deprive yourself.
While I don't regularly stock my pantry with my "triggers," I also don't deprive myself of a homemade dessert or the comfort of indulging in special sweets I loved as a child. And I don't force myself to drink my coffee black either (though I'm trying more natural sweeteners such as coconut sugar and date juice to keep from using processed sugar). But I *will* reinstate my daily ice cream habit that starts once the weather warms up just because not depriving myself of things I love keeps me from feeling like I'm really sacrificing it all—which is so much more sustainable. (And there's research to back up the need for cheat days, too!)