Food cravings are a normal part of life. Once in a while we’re all ‘in the mood’ for something, whether it’s crunchy, salty, savory, or sweet. Too often, however, food cravings can be heightened just when we need them the least: during our efforts toward weight loss. If food intake is restricted too much, or with high levels of exercise, the body perceives a ‘threat’ to survival, as if there’s a famine. This can set one up not only for food cravings in general, but for sugar cravings in particular. The very act of restricting favorite foods and swearing off all treats – which dieters often do – can increase a sense of deprivation, and create a threat to self-control.
There are several reasons for this; if blood sugar drops too quickly, or is chronically low and a person is thus experiencing constant hunger, sugar and refined carbohydrates are often craved because they provide a quick source of energy. Over time, lower intakes of carbohydrates and protein can also affect the neurotransmitters in the brain affecting mood, which research suggests also plays a role in cravings, especially for sugar and sweeter-tasting foods.
Temptation to eat sweets, foods high in added sugars such as candy, sweetened beverages, and/or refined grain products (think ‘white flour’) such as cake, doughnuts, pastries, breads, bagels, sugary cereals etc., are common in those actively trying to lose weight because of these cravings. While it’s true that these foods can temporarily increase blood glucose (sugar) levels, they lack staying power: blood sugar will decrease more quickly compared to after eating foods that also have protein and fiber. Quick changes in blood sugar can increase cravings and the urge to eat, leading to a roller coaster of energy, mood, and hunger.
14 Tips to Manage Sugar Cravings and Balance Blood Sugar Levels
1. Eat regularly. Try to eat something every 3 to 4 hours.
- This will help to keep blood sugar levels more even.
- Size (portion) of meals and snacks should be individualized, based on energy requirements and personal goals.
2. Don’t skip breakfast (blood sugar is already low at this point).
Avoid eating a ‘carb heavy’ or ‘carb only’ meal such as a bagel or toast with jam. Instead, include foods that also contain protein and fiber. For example:
- Oatmeal with chopped almonds, milk, an egg, and a piece of fruit
- Organic soy or Greek yogurt, bran cereal, ground flax seeds, and fruit;
- 100% whole grain toast/bagel, natural peanut butter, double fruit/low-sugar jam, cheese, and whole fruit
- Even leftovers from dinner can work, e.g. chicken/beef or legumes, vegetables, and whole brown rice
3. Include protein with meals and snacks throughout the day.
- Eggs, milk, organic vegan or Greek yogurt, or dairy, nut, or fermented soy cheese
- Chickpeas, lentils, dried beans and peas, fermented or sprouted soy
- Beef, chicken, lamb, pork, turkey, fish, or game
4. Keep sugary snacks out of your house, car, office, etc.
It’s difficult to snack on things that aren’t there. If going ‘cold turkey’ backfires, consider cutting back gradually: each time you give in to a craving, eat a little less or less often than the time before – small changes can add up and eventually become new, healthier habits.
5. Allow yourself some so-called sweets/treats a couple of times each week.
Planned treats help to prevent a sense of deprivation, and reduce cravings and the risk for over-eating. What is considered an appropriate serving size/portion will vary from person to person.
6. When craving sugar, try eating a high-protein sweetened snack, such as yogurt, or high-fiber sweet such as a piece of fruit or small serving of dried fruit instead of a nutrient-poor options like chocolate bars,
candies, gummies, doughnuts etc. Sometimes even drinking a comforting beverage associated with sweets, such as tea, can calm a craving.
7. Add spices to your foods like cinnamon, nutmeg, and cloves to naturally sweeten them.
8. Get enough sleep. When we’re tired, we often use sugar and/or sugary foods for energy to counteract exhaustion.
9. Read labels, and use sources of added sugar in moderation to prevent the glucose spikes and drops that can lead to cravings. Sugar goes by many names:
- agave syrup
- brown sugar
- brown rice syrup
- coconut sugar
- corn sugar
- corn syrup
- date sugar
- glucose solids
- fruit juice
- fruit juice concentrate
- icing sugar
- invert sugar
- malt syrup
- palm sugar
- raw sugar
- turbinado sugar
- yellow sugar
10. Be mindful of emotional issues around your sugar cravings. Consider keeping a food diary to track your emotions and what you eat to learn to identify triggers for eating.
11. Drink water. Often, what we think is a sugar/food craving is really thirst.
12. Avoid artificial sweeteners, which may reduce satiety and increase sugar cravings.
13. Try to distract yourself from your cravings: go for a walk, answer email, put some laundry in the washer, read a magazine, engage in a hobby. Most cravings last between 10 and 20 minutes, so if you can distract yourself, you can often wait out the craving.
14. Remind yourself that not overindulging in unhealthy foods is more than a temporary tactic for weight loss, and is an investment in lifelong well-being.