Have you been looking for practical solutions to address your sugar cravings? If so, you are not alone! Sheer willpower often doesn’t cut it. What we really need is real-life, actionable strategies to help us stick to our wellness goals. This week, I asked Registered Dietitian Maria Zamarripa, MS, RD to share her whole-body, functional medicine approach to overcoming sugar cravings!
Food cravings are extremely common.
In fact, 90 percent of people admit to experiencing food/sugar cravings at some point. Usually, it goes something like this:
It’s Monday. You want to start your week off right. You think to yourself: THIS is the week I will finally feel in control of my food. You grab your smoothie and you’re off to work feeling confident and determined.
Work is going well until your boss surprises you with an urgent deadline. Crap. You scramble to get it done, meanwhile your lunch salad sits untouched in the breakroom. That smoothie didn’t fill you up for long, and you start thinking about the donuts your coworker brought to work. Out of desperation, you munch on a rice cake at your desk instead. Coffee number two comes into play. The mix of sleepiness and stress begins to fog your mind.
Now, your coworker is walking through the office with the donut offering. Game over. You accept the donut and quickly finish it while reading emails. Another donut and two hours later you pack up to head home. As you’re driving home, the stress of the day and impending to-do list fills your thoughts. Then, the hunger hits you like a punch in the stomach. The LAST thing you want to do is cook dinner at this point. A billboard for Wendy’s comes into view. Yup. That’s happening. As you finish your burger and frosty in the car, you experience a short-lived feeling of bliss. Soon after, you feel bloated, frustrated, and defeated.
As a population, we have a sugar obsession.
Whether it’s donuts in the breakroom, a so called “healthy” (sugar-filled) granola bar, or an afternoon dose of Coca-Cola, our sugar habits are sabotaging our health efforts. Americans consume nearly 66 pounds of added sugar per person, per year. The rates of diabetes, heart disease, obesity, and fatty liver are on the rise. Nearly 60 percent of Americans have at least one chronic disease!
But, how can we stop feeling out of control with our food cravings? How can we pass by the donuts at work, uninterested, and yet still content? Conquering sugar cravings goes far beyond any type of “sugar detox” found on the internet. Simply avoiding sugar for X amount of days will not make your cravings magically go away forever.
As a Registered Dietitian, I see people suffering from sugar cravings all too often.
Loss of control. Frustration. Constantly starting over. Hopelessness. These are some of the words my patients have used to describe their struggles with sugar cravings. Although almost all of them have good intentions, I continually see people implementing unsupported sugar detoxes, juice cleanses, or challenges to overcome cravings. While these may work in the short-term, these changes are usually not sustainable.
“Simply avoiding sugar for X amount of days will not make your cravings magically go away forever.”
As a dietitian with an integrative and functional perspective, I’m always looking for the root cause. What are the root causes of your cravings? I can guarantee you that it is not a lack of willpower.
Through my work (and overcoming my own struggle with sugar), I’ve uncovered the four overarching pillars to treat and conquer the root cause(s) of sugar cravings.
Sleep is one of the most underrated health movements in the country. Which is too bad, because poor sleep habits can lead to some gnarly sugar cravings the next day. But, why?
Sleep controls our hunger and fullness hormones. With sleep deprivation, our hunger hormone (ghrelin) increases, while our fullness hormone (leptin) decreases . Basically, we feel constantly hungry and never satisfied. Sound familiar? Additionally, lack of sleep can increase another hormone called cortisol. This is known as our stress hormone, and can lead to further sugar cravings, anxiety, and fat storage.
Sleep experts agree that people should aim for 7-8 hours of sleep per night. Signs of sleep deprivation (like cravings) may occur even at around 5-6 hours of sleep. Make sure you are implementing these good sleep hygiene habits to ensure a good night’s rest:
- Avoid caffeine after 2pm.
- Establish a regular relaxing bedtime routine (adults need these too!). Consider reading, stretching, or meditating before bed.
- Avoid electronics at least an hour before bed.
- Incorporate natural movement in your day – even as little as 15 minutes of intentional exercise (like walking) per day may improve sleep quality.
- Amp up the magnesium foods. Magnesium helps us create the calming neurotransmitter called GABA, which helps us quiet our mind and fall asleep. Try adding magnesium rich foods throughout the day such as: spinach, almonds, pumpkin seeds, dark chocolate, black beans, or quinoa.
2. Balancing Your Macronutrients
If there is one nutrition recommendation to help lower sugar cravings it is this: fat is not the villain. In the 1970’s, the low-fat movement began to take off, and Americans started swapping their bacon and eggs for cold cereal and skim milk. I don’t think it’s any coincidence that the obesity rate and sugar intake has skyrocketed since this time. Even in my nutrition undergraduate schooling, we were still taught the low-fat dogma.
I’ll admit, I was once victim to this. I would counsel on eating low-fat, and I personally used to choose low-fat food items (crackers, yogurt, milk, you name it). I struggled with sugar cravings all through college, internship, and even in the early parts of my career. Until, I stopped fearing the fat. The low-fat teachings are not based on good science and does not help with sugar cravings AT ALL. When I started adding in wholesome sources of fat, I felt my cravings start to diminish.
This is where macronutrient balancing comes into play. There are three main macronutrients: protein, fat, and carbohydrates. To reduce sugar cravings, we want to switch the focus of the meal from refined, white carbohydrates (most American diets), to a good balance of wholesome fats, protein, and fiber.
Let’s take breakfast as an example. Instead of cereal and skim milk (higher in carbohydrates, low in fat, protein, and fiber), try pairing a protein/fat food with a fiber containing food:
- Protein/fats: eggs, breakfast sausage (ideally pasture-raised), avocado, nuts, nut butter, chia seeds, full-fat yogurt, pumpkin seeds, coconut oil, grass-fed butter
- Fiber: Non-starchy vegetables (bell peppers, tomatoes, leafy greens etc.), legumes, steel-cut oats, or fruit
Try to choose fiber sources from non-starchy vegetables first, as these pack the most nutritious punch! A perfect example of a balanced breakfast would be: two-egg veggie-rich omelet with a medium avocado. Boom! Lots of healthy proteins, fats, and fiber to sustain us and keep sugar cravings at bay. Keep in mind, that we want to include healthy fats in any snacks, as well.
“To reduce sugar cravings, we want to switch the focus of the meal from refined, white carbohydrates (most American diets), to a good balance of wholesome fats, protein, and fiber.”
Mindfulness is the practice of paying attention to the present moment, on purpose, and non-judgmentally. Eating mindfully is not about what you eat, but HOW and WHY you eat. Mindful eating slows the pace of our meals, allowing us to hear the “I’m full” signal from our brain. It also helps us enjoy our food more, and even improves digestion! Unfortunately, eating has become the thing we do when we drive, watch TV, work on the computer, or text on our phone. When our minds are disengaged with eating, we’re not satisfied and seek out more food, even when we’re full. Hello overeating and sugar cravings!
Here are a few tips to incorporate mindful eating at each meal:
- Check in with your hunger scale. Throughout the day, think of your physical hunger from a scale of 1 to 10. 1 = Starving! I don’t care what or how much I eat! 10 = So stuffed! I feel uncomfortable and maybe even sick. Stay in the sweet spot of 4 to 7. If you’re dipping dangerously low, it may be time for a meal or a balanced snack with fat/protein, and fiber.
- Avoid electronics when eating. When we are distracted by our phone, email, or TV during eating, we aren’t as in-tune with our body’s signals.
- Avoid eating in the car, if possible.
- Designate one common place for eating – the dinner table, the breakroom or picnic table at work, etc.
- Chew slowly. Try to make your meal last at least 20 minutes.
- Distinguish between emotional hunger and physical hunger. True hunger develops slowly over time, and can be satisfied with any food you like.
4. Stress Reduction
There’s a reason they call it “stress eating”. Chronically elevated stress levels can worsen sugar cravings. As a natural response to stress, our body releases many stress hormones, like cortisol. If we are running from a bear, this is super helpful! But, if we are dealing with a crabby boss or a strict deadline, the constantly elevated cortisol can rev up our appetite hormones and make us crave sugary, processed foods.
The most effective way to manage stress varies for each person. While certain supplements, like ashwagandha root, can help to lower cortisol levels, it’s also important to address the root cause of stress, and incorporate stress-reducing activities in your everyday life. As a naturally stressed, type-A person, this is something I find I really must prioritize to make an impact!
Here are some ideas to help reduce stress:
- 10-15-minute meditation or mindfulness exercise. I like the Headspace app if you’re just getting started with meditation.
- Gentle exercise, like yoga.
- Spending time in nature, whether walking, hiking, or just being.
- Talking with a friend.
Stress is an unavoidable part of life. Nonetheless, managing our stress to prevent unwanted sugar cravings and other negative effects on our body is key!
Conquering sugar cravings isn’t about avoiding sweet treats forever.
Do I occasionally indulge in a cookie or a few of (my favorite) dark chocolate peanut butter cups from Trader Joe’s? Of course!! Life is too short to restrict ourselves from everything we enjoy. But, by working on these four main pillars (sleep, balancing macros, mindful eating, and stress reduction), we can have more control over our food choices. We can easily pass by sugary temptations. When we do decide to indulge in a sweet treat, we are more likely to enjoy a small amount, and savor the flavor much, much more.
Maria Zamarripa, MS, RD is a mountain-loving, real food focused, functional medicine dietitian. She helps people conquer sugar cravings using a whole-body approach. Read more about Maria here.