If you’re trying to cut back on sugar, you’re not alone. More and more Canadians are concerned about its potential hazards. Studies consistently show that too much sugar may contribute to excess weight and obesity, Type 2 diabetes and poor dental health.
But curbing your sweet tooth isn’t easy. There are real, biological factors that fuel sugar cravings. When you eat sugar, it raises the level of chemicals in the brain that improve mood. And the more sugar you consume, the more you crave, which can lead to sugar addiction
The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends a maximum sugar intake of 10% of daily calories (about 12 teaspoons). Here are 10 tips to help get your sugar intake down to a healthy level and manage the food cravings that can cause you to overindulge.
1. Read the label
If you’re fond of convenient, processed foods, you may be getting more sugar than you think. Sugar is added to many processed foods that don’t taste sweet at all, including bread, peanut butter, pasta sauce and salad dressing.
To know what’s really in the food you eat, check the label. It’s not just added sugar you’re looking for. Watch for sugar equivalents, like agave, molasses, corn syrup, beet sugar, concentrated fruit juice, sorghum, honey and any word ending in “-ose” (glucose, fructose, lactose, etc.). If any of these words are near the top of the ingredient list, you may want to choose a different product.
Where possible, purchase unflavoured, unsweetened products and add your own sweeteners later, so you can control the amount. For example, if you love honey mustard, add a drop of honey to regular mustard rather than using the ready-prepared kind.
2. Drink plenty of water
When you’re dehydrated, your body doesn’t process its energy reserves as efficiently, so you crave sugar for a quick energy boost. Instead of reaching for that candy bar, reach for a tall glass of water.
That’s not the only benefit, either. By drinking water, you may be less likely to pour yourself a sugary soft drink, and these are one of the primary sources of sugar intake for Canadian adults.
3. Get enough sleep
Lack of sleep has been shown to affect the hormones in the body that influence food intake. These hormones are also linked to your body’s “internal clock,” which is why many people crave sweets (along with salty and starch foods) in the evening.
Lack of sleep is one reason that women who are breastfeeding may crave sugar. Other reasons include not enough protein, fat or nutrient-dense foods. Stress can have an impact as well.
4. Avoid artificial sweeteners
Synthetic sugar substitutes like aspartame and saccharin are typically many times sweeter than real sugar. Studies have shown that people who use them regularly may find healthier, less-sweet foods less appealing.
5. Eat more protein
Proteins and fats slow the release of sugar into the bloodstream, so your energy levels stay steady. If you don’t get enough protein, you’ll experience a sugar spike followed by a crash that will leave you hungry and craving sweets.
Proteins like lean meats, dairy, eggs, nuts and legumes also provide calcium, magnesium, iron zinc and other important minerals. Deficiency in these nutrients can cause crave sugar cravings.
High protein alone, however, won’t keep your blood sugar on an even keel. That’s why people who are following a low-carbohydrate, or “ketogenic” diet, crave sugar. On a keto diet, carbs are typically limited to 50 grams or less per day, prompting your body to break down protein and fat for energy and resulting in weight loss. Until your body adjusts, you may feel tired and irritable, a condition known as the “keto flu.”
6. Reach for healthy sweets
There’s nothing wrong with indulging in a sweet treat once in a while but choose it wisely. Candy bars, fruit drinks, ice cream and so on may satisfy your craving, but they have little nutritional value. Dark chocolate can be a good choice but keep the portion size small. If you want something cold and refreshing, keep a stash of seedless grapes in the freezer for a quick snack.
Fresh fruit is naturally sweet and also provides fibre and nutrients. To help you stay satisfied longer, consider pairing it with protein. For example, spread natural peanut butter on a banana and top with toasted almonds, or toss frozen fruit in a blender with a splash of milk or and ice for an awesome smoothie.
And don’t forget that vegetables can be sweet, too, such as carrots, corn, beets and sweet potatoes.
7. Switch spice for sugar
“Sweet” spices, like ginger, nutmeg and cinnamon, can trick your sweet tooth and satisfy your craving.
If you like to bake, you can reduce the sugar in many recipes without compromising taste by adding cinnamon, vanilla or cocoa.
Spices are also a great substitute for sugar in hot drinks. Try adding mint, ginger or cinnamon to your tea.
Exercise can help stop sugar cravings in two ways. First, it’s a great way to reduce stress-eating. Second, it releases the same feel-good brain chemicals as a dose of sugar. So before you give in to your craving, lace up your sneakers and take a brisk walk around the block.
If you can’t go outside, try stair-stepping in the house, push-ups, power squats or yoga — anything to get you moving and take your mind off the craving.
9. Brush your teeth
The next time cravings hit, try brushing your teeth. Not only is it an effective distraction, but the mint flavour helps quash the craving. For best results, choose a brand with the most intense flavour you can find.
If you’re in a situation where you don’t have access to a toothbrush and toothpaste, chew sugar-free gum instead.
10. Make changes slowly
Many people find it more effective to make changes gradually. For example, if you’re used to having 3 teaspoons of sugar in your coffee, dial it back to 2 for a while, then 1, then a half.
If you prefer the cold-turkey method, that can work too, provided you stick it out. The first five days will be the most challenging, and you may experience cravings, irritability and trouble sleeping. The good news is that withdrawal symptoms typically decrease over time and go away entirely after 10 to 14 days.
You may want to consider talking to a registered dietitian. These professionals can help you find a healthy diet that fits your lifestyle whether your goal is to lose weight, eat more healthy fats or simply cut down on the sugary foods.