Wouldn’t it be great if we all had an endless supply of willpower? No amount of temptation or distraction could throw us off course. Making a change in our habits would be as simple as deciding to do it. Unfortunately, this is not how human behavior works, which is evident by how hard it is for many of us to break bad habits, even when we understand the harm they are causing us.
One of the most prevalent bad habits affecting our health is sugar addiction. When people hear the word addiction, they think of chemical addictions like prescription pain killers, or behavioral addictions like gambling. But sugar addiction is just as serious an issue. Because of the ubiquity of sugar in our food supply, it is by far the most common addiction, even more than nicotine, caffeine, alcohol, or other drugs.
Bingeing on candy or slamming high-sugar energy drinks all day seems harmless compared to something like an opioid overdose. But even if your life is not in immediate danger, a chronic high-sugar diet will take its toll on your health, and can lead to serious conditions down the road. Besides just being a major impediment to achieving your physique and fitness goals, there is strong evidence linking excessive sugar intake with type 2 diabetes, obesity, Alzheimer’s disease, and dementia, to name a few.
It’s not as immediately dangerous as illicit drugs, but over time, it’ll kill you just the same. [Photo credit: Pixabay]
Willpower Is a Finite Resource
Once you get a taste for sugar, the cravings can become overwhelming. Resisting them becomes especially difficult when we see candy and junk food sold and advertised everywhere we go, and when so many of our foods have added sugar.
Relying on willpower alone requires huge amounts of mental energy, which is inevitably in low supply at the end of a long day or during stressful times. Instead, set yourself up for success by assuming that you won’t be able to avoid sugar through sheer determination. Have a plan in place that will help you to stop, or at least diminish sugar cravings before they even start, so you don’t end up bingeing on Hershey bars and Sour Patch Kids when you get home from work (not that I would know anything about that!).
I divide these prevention strategies into three different categories:
- Lifestyle factors
- Meal choices
- Nutritional supplements
When deciding which of these strategies to implement, remember we are not trying to just eliminate a bad habit. We must replace a bad habit with a good one. For most of us, making small, sustainable changes will be more successful in the long run than trying to implement all of these strategies at once and becoming overwhelmed.
Get Consistent, Quality Sleep
One of the most important things you can do to prevent sugar cravings is get enough sleep every night. Sleep is when your body restores the brain and your neurotransmitter levels. When you don’t get enough sleep, you will be low on serotonin, the primary neurotransmitter responsible for a positive mood and overall feeling of well-being. Since carbohydrate consumption promotes the release of serotonin in the brain, you will naturally want to eat more carbs in order to balance your mood. Additionally, sleep deprivation also results in decreased levels of the hormone leptin, which signals satiety, and increased levels of ghrelin, which is a hormone that increases appetite.
Good sleep hygiene will be key in your battle against sugar cravings. Here are the behaviors that are the most help for me:
- Turn off anything with a glowing screen an hour before I should be asleep.
- Use that hour to unwind by doing something not work related. I find reading fiction and listening to instrumental music (like jazz or classical) helps to prepare me for sleep.
- Have my schedule for the next day already planned out so that I’m not lying in bed thinking about what I need to do.
Allow Yourself a Cheat Meal
Cutting out sugar and excessive carbs is much easier if you know that you’ll be able to enjoy them from time to time. The use of a cheat meal (one meal, not an entire cheat day) is a great way to satisfy a sweet tooth but still stay on track with your diet. You will also increase your leptin levels which will decrease your feelings of hunger. The only two rules that I have for the cheat meal are to keep it to a one hour window of time, and make it the last meal of the day. As long as you stick to those, you can eat whatever you want.
If you want to get creative and keep things a bit healthier, I recommend making your cheat meal from scratch. That way you will know exactly what is in your food, and you can choose higher quality ingredients compared to what you will find in most stores or restaurants. This is especially useful if you want to enjoy your cheat meal but avoid allergens such as gluten or dairy. Pancakes, pizza, cornbread, brownies, and sweet potato fries are some of my favorite gluten free cheat meals.
Get Breakfast Right
Some people handle carbs and insulin differently than others. But in my experience, the best breakfast to give you energy and keep the carb cravings at bay throughout the day is one that is low in carbs, high in protein and fat, and includes a variety of nutrients.
The reason I don’t like a high carb/high protein/low fat breakfast (like egg whites and oatmeal) is because it can lead to a big spike in insulin and blood sugar. This can lead to reactive hypoglycemia, which results in low energy and hunger an hour or two later. Instead, I prefer a breakfast that is high in protein and fat, but low in carbs. This provides steady blood sugar levels and energy throughout the day because of the low glycemic load of those foods, which in turn keeps me from craving sugary junk foods.
High fat and high protein doesn’t mean that you are limited to bacon and eggs every morning. In fact, my ideal breakfast includes much more variety. I prefer to have a big salad with a variety of greens and veggies with olive oil and lemon juice dressing, along with a good source of protein, either mixed into the salad or eaten separately. The protein source could be eggs, but since eggs are such a common breakfast food, I like to mix it up. Foods like canned mackerel, herring, and ground beef patties require little to no prep time and are easily digestible in the morning.
Stick to Solid Meals Over Liquid Calories
Liquid meals like protein shakes and smoothies are convenient, but it is best to stick to solid meals if you are looking to stay more satisfied and keep your cravings at bay. Solid food takes longer to digest, is more satiating, and keeps your blood sugar stable for a longer period of time. Including a good balance of fats, protein, and fiber will keep you feeling satisfied and will keep your cravings down.
Hydration Is Key
Hydrate first thing in the morning. Drink a big glass of lemon or lime water as a habit to get the day started right. The lemon or lime juice will actually lower the glycemic index of your meal if you have it with food. It will also help prevent the temptation to drink a big glass of fruit juice. Add some good quality salt (e.g. Himalayan or Celtic salt) to improve hydration, especially if you are sweating a lot throughout the day.
Hydration is always a good idea. It’s even better when it replaces that tall glass of orange juice. [Photo Credit: Pixabay]
Use Supplements Strategically
Changing your lifestyle and overall eating habits will have a bigger impact in the long run on subduing your sugar cravings. That said, nutritional supplements are much easier to implement into your routine, so it can be a good first step when you are trying to limit your sugar intake. I have found the following supplements to be very effective and fast-acting to calm sugar cravings both in the short term and long term, depending on how they are used.
- Glycine: This amino acid has a sweet taste, which can help to satisfy you craving for sugar. More importantly, it has a strong effect on reducing your levels of cortisol, which will help you to fall asleep. And if you’re sleeping, you are not eating candy bars! You might notice that your dreams are more vivid as well, which I think of as a bonus. A 5-10g dose in your evening tea is good for most people, but take a smaller dose if you experience any nausea.
- Glutamine: This amino acid is an especially useful tool post workout. Even though glutamine is not a carbohydrate, it helps your body to efficiently replenish glycogen stores. The amount of glutamine you use post workout should be adjusted to the volume of training, meaning that the higher the volume of training on a given day, the more glutamine you should use. A good starting point would be to include 0.1g of glutamine per pound of body weight in your post workout protein shake, and increase from there if you feel like your recovery is lacking.
- Inositol: This supplement that can help you to manage carb cravings by balancing your neurotransmitter levels. It can reduce symptoms of depression, calm mood swings, reduce cravings associated with PMS, and improve sleep quality. Be conservative with your dosing when taking inositol. If you take too much in the evening, you might feel mentally foggy and sluggish the next day or have a bit of nausea. Start with 1/4tsp of powder before bed, and work your way up as necessary. If you wake up feeling unwell or your sleep is disrupted, you know that your dosage is likely too high.
It Gets Easier
The encouraging thing is that the longer you stay off sugar, the less cravings you will have. Feeling good on a day-to-day basis will eventually displace the temporary pleasure you get from sugar. You’ll even get to the point where you can enjoy a sweet treat once in a while without going overboard. Until you get there, make use of these tips and strategies to help you stay on the right track.
If you cut all that sugar, where are your carbs coming from?