Perhaps the question I get asked the most! How to beat sugar cravings?!? We have all experienced them at some stage but why do sugar cravings occur and how can you learn to beat sugar cravings for good? I’m sure many of you experience that 3pm slump when your brain is screaming out for sugar to get you through. There’s nothing more annoying when you’re trying to be healthy and all you can think about is the chocolate in the vending machine! The worst part is, the more sugar we eat, the more sugar we want! There are a number of reasons why sugar cravings occur so keep reading to learn why they keep happening and how to finally beat sugar cravings!
Sugar is everywhere!
Including all over TV, magazines and even the checkouts at the supermarket! It’s very hard to escape in today’s society and is a normal part of most people’s daily eating habits. Sugar is a cheap ingredient that tastes good. It also acts as a food preservative, meaning that it can be found in most of the packaged food items on the shelves of your local supermarket. Think breads, marinades, breakfast cereals and muesli bars to name a few. Because sugar is in many of the food products we eat on a regular basis, we have become a custom to things tasting sweet! Hence, we frequently crave this sweet taste despite our hardest attempts to cut it out and beat our sugar cravings!
You have learned to love sugar.
When we eat sugar, our brain releases a chemical called dopamine which makes us feel good. Dopamine mediates the reward and pleasure centres of the brain. When it is stimulated, it acts as a messenger telling us to continue seeking out whatever is making us feel good. Because eating sugar makes us feel good, we tend to reach for foods containing sugar more often- particularly during times when we feel sad, tired, anxious or stressed. Overtime, it is easy to then become trapped in a sugar craving cycle. You feel stressed – you reach for a sugar containing food – you feel good temporarily – then the cycle repeats.
Your blood glucose levels drop too low.
Blood glucose levels can drop when you skip a meal or eat meals and snacks that are low in carbohydrates. The brains main source of energy is a simple sugar called glucose. When we eat carbohydrates, they are broken down into glucose, which then travels around the body in our blood for use as energy. When there isn’t enough glucose in our blood, our brain sends a signal out to eat sugar so that it has energy to continue functioning.
This is a normal response; however, it can become problematic when the foods you are reaching for are high in refined or processed sugar. This type of sugar causes a large spike in blood glucose levels. This results in fast energy that is used quickly, leading to a crash in blood glucose levels. This dramatic spike and drop in blood glucose results in our body craving sugar even more in attempt to bring these levels back to a normal range.
So, how can we stop them and learn to beat sugar cravings all together?
- Keep your blood glucose level stable
An easy way to do this is to eat regularly throughout the day and include low glycaemic index (GI) foods in your diet. Low GI foods are digested and absorbed slowly, resulting in a slow rise in blood glucose levels (unlike high GI foods which should be avoided where possible). This will help to stabilise your blood glucose levels and reduce sugar cravings. Low GI foods include whole wheat, rolled oats, non-starchy vegetables, legumes, lentils and fruits such as apples and oranges. Click here for a great resource which shows more lower GI foods to choose from.
- Find out why you are craving sugar
Identifying why you crave sugar is important if you want to beat the cravings for good. Are you craving sugar because you feel stressed? Because you skipped a meal? Or perhaps you are just bored? Identifying the difference between psychological hunger (when you are physically full yet still crave food), and physical hunger (when you are truly hungry and need to eat food) can help to prevent the non-hungry eating that occurs when you give in to your sugar cravings (click here for my great article about hungry vs non hungry eating!). Once you identify your trigger, simply find an activity that you can do instead of eating. Feeling stressed? Do a guided meditation. Skipping meals? Food prep or pack healthy snacks in your bag. Bored? Go for a walk or clean your bathroom.
- Eat foods that are high in fibre
Soluble fibre, which is found in fruits, vegetables, oats, barley, psyllium husk, bean and pulses, acts to slow down the emptying process in our stomach, keeping us feeling full! By doing so, soluble fibre helps to stabilise blood glucose levels and reduce sugar cravings. The best way to increase our fibre intake is to increase our intake of wholegrains, beans, lentils and non starchy vegetables (aim for 3 cups of veggies with each meal!)
- Eat protein and healthy fats regularly
When a carbohydrate is eaten with fibre, protein and a healthy fat, it creates a balanced meal that will help promote satiety and keep you feeling fuller for longer, therefore helping to reduce sugar cravings. Protein is found in foods such as meat, dairy, tofu, soy, beans and legumes. Healthy fats (called polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats) can be found in foods such as extra virgin olive oil, avocado, chia seeds, flaxseeds and oily fish including salmon and sardines. Aim to always eat your carbohydrates (sugars) paired with a small serve of healthy fat, lean protein and lots of fibre. An example meal to stabilise blood sugar levels would be basmati rice, grilled white fish,vegetables and a few chopped nuts on top or a breakfast of natural greek yoghurt with berries, chia seeds and pepitas.
- Eat natural sugars
Fruit is a healthy snack that contains natural sugars. Due to the fact that fruit contains other nutrients such as fibre, vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and phytochemicals, your body processes this type of sugar differently to the refined sugars found in processed foods such as chocolate and lollies. Providing your body with healthy amounts of natural sugar can indirectly help to manage your sugar cravings. Fruit isn’t free game however, you still need to be mindful of the amount you eat – aim for 2 pieces per day (spread out if possible ie. one piece in the morning and one in the afternoon) and aim to pair the fruit with a fat or protein to help with sugar cravings even more (eg. banana and 10 almonds or an apple + 20g cheese). Another great way to get a natural sugar hit is to use fruit infused water. Purchase a water bottle (make sure it’s BPA free) which has a fruit infuser inside it so your water tastes fresh and sweet all day long – this means you’ll get a nice sweet taste without the actual sugar or large disruption to your blood sugar levels. If you’re looking for an awesome fruit infuser bottle, click here to purchase my amazing bottle!!!
- Move your body regularly
When you exercise, hormones called endorphins are released by the brain having a positive effect on our mood, making us feel good. Let’s call them our feel-good hormones! Switching on the release of these feel good hormones through exercise can assist in switching off sugar cravings, because the reward and pleasure centres in our brain are already being positively stimulated. The next time you’re craving sugar, get outside and move your body!
So… what’s the take home message?
If you eat a traditional western diet which is loaded with refined, high GI carbohydrates and processed foods then your body will continue to crave sugar! The best thing that you can do to reduce your sugar cravings is to eat a balanced diet inclusive of complex or low GI carbohydrates, fibre, protein and healthy fats ie. get back to basics and ditch the crap in a packet and eat real food your great-grandparents used to eat! Remember to move your body each day and when you eat – remember to eat because you are physically hungry, not psychologically hungry. Making small, gradual changes to your diet and lifestyle based on the six tips above will ensure you are well on your way to beating your sugar cravings for good!
This article has been written by student dietitian Rachel Hawkins specifically for Leanne’s blog and edited by Leanne Ward.
Rachel Hawkins is a Nutritionist who holds a Bachelor of Exercise & Nutrition Science, and is currently finishing her Masters of Dietetics at The University of Queensland, Australia. She is passionate about empowering others with the knowledge and confidence to make healthy food and lifestyle choices, be physically active and practice self-care. She does not believe in dieting or restricting food, instead her food philosophy is centered around the ideology that all food should be enjoyed in a balanced manner with focus placed on eating wholefoods. She shares her love of nutrition in a fun, colourful and relatable way on her instagram page @thenakedtruth.au