Breaking Sugar Addiction
This is inspired by my patients who identify as sugar addicts, are overweight, pre-diabetic, diabetic, or insulin resistant, have high fasting blood sugar, hemoglobin A1-C, or triglycerides, or are on the polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS) spectrum. These are 11 steps to help you break sugar addiction and potentially be free of all of these conditions! This is also for anyone who feels chained to sugar cravings or addiction, as in this picture:
#1. Dump the sugar at home and work
Get the sugar out of your house and personal work space. Science shows that the more you have to work for it, the less inclined you are to eat it.
Tip: If coworkers bring sugar in, fess up and tell them you are off sugar. You do not have to eat their sugary stuff in order to be polite. In fact, you may inspire them!
#2. Nix fake sweeteners and sugar substitutes
Cut out aspartame, sucralose, saccharine, xylitol, malitol, sorbitol, and even stevia, since these can make you desire sweet food. This study found a link between increased consumption of the fake stuff and weight gain.
#3. Get your sweet taste from real food
When sugar and fake sugar are out of your system, you will really appreciate the sweet taste in real food, especially fruit. Avoid dried fruit and fruit juices, as these are essentially concentrated sugar. Cooked root vegetables are sweet as well, such as carrots, parsnips, beets, sweet potatoes and yams. Winter squashes are also sweet.
#4. Develop many trigger strategies
Triggers are situations that make you want sugar. They could be a place, like the concession stand at your gym, the coffee shop near your office, or the bakery you walk by. Triggers can also be a time of day, a social event, or a mood. This is potentially the hardest category, because it involves changing behaviors. It means changing your response to a trigger. This takes consciousness.
If the trigger is emotional, it’s more complex. These behaviors often develop in childhood. Ask yourself what you are really looking for? It’s often changing a feeling by checking out or getting comfort. Think of other ways to do this.
Tips: take a different path, leave your money at home, eat before social events. Don’t be afraid to tell people you are avoiding sugar. If it’s a time of day, or a mood, develop a substitute activity. It could be a substitute “treat” such as bubbly water with lemon, herbal tea, a bowl of berries. Or it could be an activity, like going for a walk, cuddling with a pet, taking a bath or shower, exercising, being in nature, physical contact, watching or reading something that makes you laugh or feel good, talking to a friend, meditating. Physical activity is a great substitute. It tends to get endorphins going which make you feel good in a healthy way.
#5. Be real: can you handle moderation?
For the first few weeks of avoiding sugar, don’t make any exceptions. Then be honest with yourself if you can handle it in moderation. Some people can! Others cannot, because it may set off addictive behavior, similar to alcoholism. With moderation, be aware that you may have to work extra hard after you’ve made an exception, because cravings will be back. It will take up to a few days for them to die down. Commit to food journaling for a day or two after an exception, so you can be extra aware of what you are putting in your mouth!
Tip: if you choose moderation, decide your exceptions in advance. Ideally exceptions are infrequent, such as very special holidays that occur every few months.The more often you make exceptions, the more often you will have to deal with getting back on track.
#6. Eat a protein driven breakfast
Have plenty of protein for breakfast. At least 4 – 6 ounces of protein. Protein driven breakfasts set your blood sugar stability for the day, reduce sugar cravings, and sustain you better and longer. Breakfasts that are carbohydrate/sugar driven are less sustaining, may cause energy crashes, and cravings midmorning. For example, if you have pancakes with syrup in the morning, you may initially feel full and satiated, then shortly later feel like taking a nap.
#7. Find ways to dial down your stress
Stress hormones can cause blood sugar instability and sugar cravings. Stress can also cause emotional eating, many people are familiar with the concept of stress eating. Reduce your stress in the ways that you can, and then find ways to manage your stress so that you actually change your perception of stress and your reaction to it.
Tips: Create more boundaries so that you have more self-care time. Find a stress reduction practice that you can easily do for 10 minutes per day. Meditation and biofeedback are easy things to pick up and do for 10 minutes a day. You will be surprised at how much a short daily practice will change your perception of stress! You will be able to let things roll off you, and not sweat the small stuff. Read more about ways to reduce stress here and here.
Most people need eight hours of sleep per night, if not more. Not getting enough sleep can increase your sugar cravings! It affects hormones that control your appetite (leptin and ghrelin), and it can also raise the stress hormone cortisol. This combination makes you more susceptible to urges and cravings. If you are physically tired during the day, you may crave sugar as a pick-me-up.
When do have your strongest sugar cravings? Many people have them towards the end of the day. Research shows that sugar cravings are tied to your circadian rhythm and sleep patterns. If you don’t sleep on a regular schedule, or if you’re not getting enough quality sleep, your sugar cravings can intensify.
#9. Drink enough water, and eat enough food
Often sugar cravings occur because you are hungry or thirsty! Make sure you have access to emergency food or snacks if you go for long stretches between meals. Ideally snacks should contain protein and fat, and not carbohydrates alone.
#10. Magnesium and vitamin D
It’s common for women to be deficient in one or both of these nutrients, which can have an effect on sugar cravings.
If you crave chocolate, which is high in magnesium, it could be a sign that you need magnesium. Magnesium is a very common nutrient deficiency, because it’s low in our soil today. Research shows chocolate cravings may be common among people deficient in magnesium. Healthy magnesium-rich foods include:
- Spinach — 1 cup: 157 milligrams (40% DV)
- Chard — 1 cup: 154 milligrams (38% DV)
- Pumpkin seeds — 1/8 cup: 92 milligrams (23% DV)
- Yogurt or Kefir — 1 cup: 50 milligrams (13% DV)
- Almonds — 1 ounce: 80 milligrams (20% DV)
- Black Beans — ½ cup: 60 milligrams (15% DV)
- Avocado — 1 medium: 58 milligrams (15% DV)
- Figs — ½ cup: 50 milligrams (13% DV)
- Banana — 1 medium: 32 milligrams (8% DV)
Supplemental magnesium can be great for women, especially to help with PMS. Here is the magnesium supplement I recommend.
According to research, If your vitamin D is low, the hormone that turns of your appetite (leptin) may also be low. This means you could feel hungry all the time. It’s easy to test your vitamin D levels with simple blood work.
It’s essential to balance vitamin D intake with real vitamin A (not beta-carotene) and vitamin K. This is the synergistic supplement I recommend.
#11 Craving reducers
Some supplements can help reduce cravings. My favorite ones include:
Gymnema (must taste it)