One of the most common questions I get from people is how to stop craving sugar.
The typical story: they’ve tried to kick their sugar habit, yet sugar cravings kick in and are too strong to ignore.
Before they know it, they’re at the store buying their favourite sweet snack, then feel frustration, failure and regret shortly after eating it.
If this is your experience too, this article for you!
Kicking refined sugar can seem tough, yet when you resolve the root cause of cravings, you’ll be able to accomplish it with greater ease, while reaping many benefits to your health – including a boost in your energy.
In this article I’ll share ways to do this. Here’s what I’ll cover:
- The link between sugar and fatigue (as well as other common symptoms)
- How to tell if you have a blood sugar issue (and what tests you really need)
- The benefits of quitting sugar (of course, there are many!)
- How to stop craving sugar (hint: by getting to the root cause)
Sweet, sweet sugar.
We love it so much here in Australia. The typical Australian eats, on average, 98kg per year!
For comparison, people in Blue Zones, where the healthiest populations live, eat 3kg a year… That’s what we eat in less than 2 weeks!
The reason for this is that sugar is hidden in many of the modern processed foods we eat.
While that may be no surprise, you may be surprised at how easily you can consume more than the World Health Organisation’s recommended 5% of total daily calories from added ‘free sugar’, which equates to about 24g / 6 teaspoons per day for women, and 40g per day for men.
The WHO classifies free sugars as:
“Monosaccharides and disaccharides added to foods and beverages by the manufacturer, cook or consumer, and sugars naturally present in honey, syrups, fruit juices and fruit juice concentrates.”
Take a look at the ingredients and nutrition info on packaged foods in your fridge or pantry.
Packaging information can be confusing, as ingredients lists can include sugar under many different names (I’ve seen up to 4 types in one product. Discover the 68 names of sugar here).
What’s worse is that it isn’t clear how much sugar is natural versus how much is added, making it hard to tell how much added sugar you’re getting in a product.
Hence, you can easily eat more than the daily recommendation without knowing it!
Being a sugar super sleuth can be tricky business…
It can seriously take some super sleuth work to work out added sugar content.
For example, let’s say you regularly have a snack of yoghurt and dark chocolate.
A well-known brand of vanilla yoghurt contains 12.8g of sugar per 100g.
Because there’s no way of telling how much added sugar there is from just reading the pack, I had to compare it to natural yoghurt without added sugar.
Natural yoghurt without sugar added contains 4.4g of sugar per 100g. So this means 8.4g of sugar has been added per 100g to the vanilla yoghurt.
One serving size is 175g, so that’s 13.6g of added sugar in just a snack.
When it comes to 70% cocoa dark chocolate, for every 20g ‘serving’ you get 5.8g of added sugar.
Based on insights I learned working in the chocolate business; most people eat a 100g bar by themselves, in one sitting (I’ve certainly done that!). That’s 29g of sugar right there. And that’s the dark chocolate variety!
So, in just these two snacks alone, you can consume 19.4g to 42.6g of added sugar!
Add in a cup of orange juice, whether freshly squeezed or store bought, and you get 21g of free sugar.
That number goes up to 40.4g – 62.6g.
It’s no wonder many of us find it hard to break the sugar habit – and the reason goes way deeper than it being so ubiquitous and accessible.
More on that later.
First, let’s dive into why sugar makes you so tired – and some unknown effects it has on health.
What’s the link between sugar and fatigue?
Sugar is one of the reasons we’re facing an epidemic of fatigue, as well as weight gain, brain fog and of course – chronic disease.
Let me explain.
Refined sugar is made of sucrose, which consists of equal parts fructose and glucose.
Free sugars in fruit juice contain sucrose, fructose and glucose.
Glucose is readily absorbed, however fructose isn’t, and gets converted to fat in the liver.
Hence too much refined sugar can cause fat storage, and can clog the liver with fat.
Liver fat percentage above 5% is known as non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, which affects at least 30% of Australian adults and 15% of Australian children.
Non-alcoholic fatty liver disease is a growing problem and is linked to fatigue, inflammation, metabolic syndrome, diabetes, cardiovascular disease and cancer.
When your liver is clogged, it’s unable to use fat and sugar for fuel, which leads to more weight gain and blood sugar issues.
It also compromises the liver’s ability to detoxify from toxic chemicals.
This also leads to fatigue and weight gain, especially around the midsection.
Excess sugar can also cause inflammation, raise cholesterol and accelerate ageing.
And of course, it plays havoc with blood sugar levels, leading to fluctuating energy levels throughout the day.
When it comes to fatigue and brain fog, what happens is that glucose molecules bind to your red blood cells, which limits the blood cells’ ability to carry oxygen.
When your blood carries less oxygen, you feel tired and foggy.
How to tell if you have a blood sugar problem
Typical signs are getting a spike of energy after a meal, followed by an energy dip 2 or so hours later (like the 11am and 3pm energy dip).
An energy dip can cause sugar cravings – which is why so many people end up in a viscious cycle, relying on a quick hit of sugar for energy when their energy is low.
Some people feel light-headedness and a drop in mood, along with brain fog (difficulty thinking, concentrating and learning).
I often see clients with these signs of blood sugar irregularities who only get the fasting blood plasma glucose test, which comes back normal.
This is because this test only shows how your glucose response is now versus how it’s been over a period of time.
To get a clear understanding of how well your blood sugar management is, you need to test:
- fasting glucose
- HbA1c (Glycosylated Haemoglobin)
- fasting insulin
Both fasting glucose and fasting insulin show how your insulin and glucose levels are now.
HbA1c and C-peptide give longer term views.
HbA1c shows how your blood sugar levels have been over the past few months – and how much sugar your blood cells have been carrying (versus oxygen).
C-peptide is a protein that’s attached to insulin while it’s in storage, waiting to be released into the blood stream.
Imagine insulin is like a basketball player waiting on the sidelines to play, who takes off their jacket (c-peptide) before they go onto the court.
So when insulin gets released into the blood, it sheds C-peptide.
Hence C-peptide shows how much insulin your pancreas has been secreting over the past few months.
These tests combined give a greater understanding of how well your body is managing the sugar you’re consuming -and also how much sugar you’ve been consuming.
Hence, it will give you an understanding of whether reducing sugar intake will benefit you.
You might be wondering – what about the glucose tolerance test?
When it comes to the glucose tolerance test, taking a reading just 1 hour after taking the glucose drink is inadequate.
It needs to be tested 2, 3, and 4 hours after to see how your blood sugar levels and insulin respond.
Some people can get a normal 1 hour reading, then spike at the 2, 3 or 4 hour mark, which is an indication that their blood sugar management needs support.
Thankfully, you needn’t sit at a pathology lab to take these readings. You can do this test at home using a glucometer and strips you can purchase from the chemist pretty cheaply.
One of the best strategies is to test your blood sugar after a typical meal that you feel may be contributing to your fatigue.
Test 1, 2, 3, and 4 hours after your meal and write down the readings. Do this for a few days.
You might be surprised at what meals can spike your blood sugar levels!
Of course, your blood sugar levels can also spike due to stress, so monitoring and noting down your stress during each day will also help.
Sweet benefits of quitting sugar
There are some pretty sweet benefits (I’m not sorry for that pun!) for removing, or at least minimising, your intake of refined sugar from your life.
Key benefits are:
- More energy
- Weight loss
- Better metabolism
- Improved cholesterol and markers of inflammation
- Better brain function
- Reducing risk of chronic disease
- Plus better skin, hormones, libido… the list goes on!
So if sugar cravings are getting in the way of you achieving your health goals, read on to find out how to stop your sugar cravings for good.
How to stop craving sugar
The most effective way to stop craving sugar is to get to the root cause of your sugar cravings.
The good news is that most sugar cravings can be resolved pretty quickly, depending on the cause. Some sugar cravings can reduce within 3-6 days, others may take longer.
That may sound unbelievable to someone who has been addicted to the sweet stuff for a while (I surely didn’t believe it when I was), but it’s true.
Ditching sugary foods and drinks can feel as difficult as breaking up with a long term partner.
This is because sugar stimulates the release of the same chemicals (dopamine and opioids) in the brain as being in love.
And let’s be honest, many of us use sugary foods as a way to comfort ourselves, much like turning to a loved one for comfort.
Also, if you eat a lot of sweet foods, it changes your palate, making naturally sweet foods taste bland. Hence a common scenario is not finding fruits or vegetables sweet enough.
Stick with cutting out sugar and your palate will adjust to appreciate the sweetness of fruits and veg. Palate adjustment can take just 6-10 days, although sometimes it takes a little longer.
Ok, so when addressing the root of cravings we need to look at all factors: environmental, physical, mental and emotional.
Here’s how to stop craving sugar:
1. Clear out your environment
Take an inventory of the food in your pantry and kitchen.
I don’t know about you, but if there are sweets in the house, I find it hard to resist them.
Some of us are wired like that (we typically have larger dopamine receptors and therefore a greater intensity in cravings).
Give sweets, biscuits, chocolate, soft drinks away to those who aren’t interested in ditching sugar; give them to charity or dispose of them as you wish.
Check all your premade sauces, snacks, yoghurts etc, and clear out anything with added sugar. Keep only packaged foods that have less than 5g per 100g of sugar in them.
This way you’re less likely to go over the 24g per day (I still personally find this excessive and I eat very few foods with added sugar in them).
If you have a top drawer in your desk full of snacks – do the same.
2. Manage stress
Most people are running on stress these days. Way more than we’re wired to handle.
The stress hormone cortisol increases cravings for sugar (as well as fat).
Sugar can also increase stress in the body, creating this feed-forward cycle of increased stress and increased sugar cravings.
Cortisol also regulates your hunger hormones like leptin, neuropeptide Y (NPY) and corticotropin releasing hormone (CRH).
Cortisol will raise hunger hormones CRH and NPY and reduce satiety (fullness) hormone leptin, causing an increase in appetite.
So getting stress under control can be very helpful in reducing cravings.
Here are some ways you can do that:
Making sure you get enough sleep to feel rested and refreshed will help both stress and cravings. Studies have shown that cravings can increase when you’re sleep deprived.
Create a list of 3 self-care strategies you can do in less than 10 minutes, and do a de-cluttering exercise to rid yourself of unnecessary stress.
When a stress-induced craving hits, step back, get curious and be the observer. Play the ‘I wonder’ game. You can ask questions like:
I wonder why I’m craving sugar?
Am I using it to deal with stress or avoid an emotion?
Then – I wonder what healthy, nourishing ways I could deal with this stress/emotion?
Stepping back and being mindful helps create a gap between you and your desire, giving you more control over your behaviour.
By creating that space, you can then make a choice to choose a different action than you normally would.
That awareness is where change starts to happen.
Recognise that you don’t have to act on your desire. You can take back control.
Sit in your body and experience how it feels to have that craving, without reacting to it.
Then if you choose, you can do something about it – something that needn’t involve food.
3. Resolve any nutrient deficiencies
Nutrient deficiencies are one of the most common causes of sugar cravings.
The three main deficiencies to look out for are chromium, magnesium and tryptophan.
Typical signs of low chromium are poor blood glucose control, feeling dizzy and irritable after several hours without food, needing to eat frequently, excessive thirst and sugar cravings.
You’ll find chromium in broccoli, oats, barley, green beans, tomatoes and black pepper.
Supplementing chromium is also helpful.
It’s estimated that at least 90% of Australians don’t get enough magnesium, partly because it’s deficient in the soils, as well as a typical Australian diet.
Symptoms of low magnesium include fatigue, irritability, weakness, heart irregularities, muscle cramps or twitches, insomnia, mental confusion, decreased appetite and sugar cravings.
Leafy green vegetables, nuts, legumes, seeds, brown rice, apples, avocados, cacao, eggs and kelp all contain magnesium, so including more of those in your diet can help, as well as supplementing.
If you have sugar cravings or binge on refined carbohydrates, have trouble sleeping, experience anxiety, mood or sleep issues, or seasonal affective disorder, low tryptophan may be the cause.
You’ll find tryptophan in chicken, turkey, cottage cheese, bananas, soy and cow’s milk, lentils, peanuts, pumpkin seeds and fish.
Supplementing can also be helpful, in the form of 5HTP.
4. Balance your blood sugar levels
Eat meals with a low glycaemic load to avoid fluctuation in your energy and blood sugar levels.
We’re talking whole grains like buckwheat, quinoa, brown rice and millet, with vegetables like dark leafy greens, cruciferous vegetables, as well as beans.
Combine whole grains or beans and vegetables (high fibre foods) with a moderate amount of healthy fats and lean protein for meals.
Protein helps to slow down the release of glucose into the bloodstream, as does fibre.
Fibre is key for having stable energy, and it makes you feel full, therefore reducing cravings and helping manage weight.
Unfortunately, most Australians get less than 20g of fibre per day, whereas the recommended amount is between 30 – 50g.
I recommend 50g to maximise the aforementioned benefits, as well as fibre’s role in helping the liver eliminate toxins properly.
5. Stay hydrated
Thirst is often mistaken as hunger, which can lead to sugar cravings.
Aim for 2L of water each day, pimped up with some lemon juice, mint, cucumber or even a vanilla pod to add some sweetness and flavour.
Drink a glass of water every hour between meals.
And if a craving strikes, commit to drinking a large glass of water first. Then wait 20 minutes and see how you feel.
6. Add some sweetness to your life
Some people crave sweets out of boredom or loneliness. Are you missing some sweetness in your life?
If so, what sweet acts can you do that don’t involve eating?
It could be listening to a favourite song, watching a cat video on YouTube, connecting with a loved one, going for a walk, journaling, or doing something kind for yourself…
Wishing you sweet success…
Life is so much sweeter when you’re enjoying foods that are naturally sweet as well as nourishing and supporting your energy levels rather than causing energy crashes, weight gain, brain fog and inflammation.
Follow the above strategies on how to stop craving sugar and you’ll soon be eating strawberries feeling they taste like pure bliss, and walking down the confectionery aisle without feeling a deep impulsive need to buy.
You and your health deserve it!
So, now we’ve explored how to stop craving sugar.
In the next article, I’ll share some strategies you can use in case of emergency sugar cravings – or you can use them as a stepping stone to help you curb your sugar cravings.
To your health!
Melissa is a naturopathic nutritionist and coach who helps exhausted women get their energy back. She consults with people worldwide via the web from her home in Melbourne, Australia.