This week, I’m tackling a common problem for my clients (and me!) that came up in my Burning Questions form (you can leave your questions here!). An anonymous poster asked, “How do you get rid of a sweet tooth?”
I have four pieces of bad news when it comes to your sweet tooth:
- A preference for sweetness seems to start at birth. We’re wired to enjoy sugar and seek it out, and to favor it over bitter tastes (like vegetables).
- It’s recommended that women consume less than 100 calories of sugar per day (that’s 25 grams of sugar), because excess sugar consumption tends to lead to heart disease and type 2 diabetes. But Americans tend to consume more than double this recommended amount.
- Sugar is called many different things on labels – “brown sugar, corn sweetener, corn syrup, dextrose, fructose, glucose, high-fructose corn syrup, honey, lactose, malt syrup, maltose, molasses, raw sugar, and sucrose.”
- Even “natural” sugars like honey or fruit syrups are still sugar. Organizations like the CDC and the American Heart Association distinguish between “added sugars” and “naturally occurring sugars.” The only sugars that do not count as added sugars are actual whole fruits/berries and the lactose in dairy products.
But wait – there is good news!
Both our taste buds and our habits have a high degree of plasticity – we can change our behaviors through practice. Plus, it doesn’t mean we necessarily have to give up sugar forever. For most people, small changes can master even a powerful sweet tooth.
I can vouch for this from experience.
I have a pretty fierce sweet tooth myself, and my threshold for sweetness tolerance is pretty high. I remember when I was pregnant, I dreaded the glucose test because I had heard how disgusting the drink was. But when I actually did it at the LabCorp, I was totally fine with it – to me, it just tasted like melted popsicles! Also, like many people, I tend to seek out sweet tastes (like chocolate!) when I feel stressed out or overwhelmed – it is a fast and easy way to feel a little better.
But overall, I would consider my sweet tooth to be fairly well-regulated, and I’m going to share with you the main lifestyle changes that can help you get your sugar cravings under control so that you can improve your health, break up with unwanted overeating, and feel great about your food.
Because there are so many angles to sugar cravings, I’m organizing this blog post into five main strategies that you can try. These strategies aren’t sequential – some of them are actually contradictory! That’s because the first three are quite simple “switches,” and the last two are bigger projects for those who consider themselves sugar-addicted.
Simple Switches to Fool Your Sweet Tooth
These do not require absolute adherence (i.e. eating absolutely no sugar), because they’re all about making some lifestyle changes to reduce sugar intake.
#1 Use Stevia or Monk Fruit
This is a simple one. Switch out all of your at-home and on-the-go sweeteners for stevia and monk fruit products. I use the powdered and liquid forms to sweeten things like coffee, yogurt, hot cocoa, tea, baked products, and more.
Does it taste exactly the same as sugar? Does it behave exactly the same way as sugar in baked goods? No, and no.
But is it pretty darn close? Close enough for me to be completely happy with it? Absolutely.
The benefit of sweeteners like stevia and monk fruit is that they do not impact blood glucose levels. You don’t get a quick spike of energy from it, nor a blood sugar crash. Neither of these sweeteners have the health concerns associated with sugar consumption.
The general advice for artificial sweeteners, however, is to treat them like sugar. Even though they’re calorie-free, I still like to see my clients cultivate a broad palate and eat a wide variety of foods – not an unbroken chain of highly-sweetened drinks and snacks. From a conditioning point of view, I firmly believe that this helps us re-train our palates to see sweets as a special treat and not necessary for every single eating experience.
#2 Clean Out Your Kitchen
I remember once when I was in college, I sub-let an apartment from someone and had a new roommate for a summer. This roommate kept containers of Oregon Chai in the refrigerator, and I literally could not stop drinking it. Just now, I Googled its nutrition facts for kicks, and I read that it has 31 grams of sugar per serving. Because liquids raise blood sugar more quickly and efficiently than solid food, it makes sense that I was hooked on it! (It’s worth noting that I also put on some weight that summer!)
You know yourself. What sweet foods live in your kitchen and pantry that you have trouble leaving alone?
This is highly individual, but I know that for myself, I would never be able to keep peanut butter cups around, or other small, easy-to-grab sweets or drinks. For me, as long as something is inconvenient or difficult to dig into, I’ll probably leave it alone.
Make a list of the sweet foods you tend to overeat at home, that are easy to overeat. This week, either use them up, give them away, or toss them out. Next week, you can check and see how your sugar cravings feel without the availability of acting on them at home.
#3 Double Check Your Nutrition and Hydration
Sometimes, food cravings strike because we’re not well-fed. We are wanting sugar because we are having a blood sugar crash and our bodies are looking for that shortcut to restore balance.
Here’s a checklist for you:
- Are you eating regular meals 3-5 hours apart?
- Are you eating protein and fiber at every single meal?
- Are you drinking at least one glass or bottle of water between meals?
- If you feel like you need caffeine or sugar, what happens when you replace that with a Greek yogurt, handful of nuts, and a glass of water?
If you do all of these things, how do your sugar cravings feel?
Bigger Projects to Beat Your Sweet Tooth
The last two ideas are going to require more absolute adherence – when you undertake it, you really need to stick with it to be most effective. Therefore, I only recommend this if you feel you have a really, really difficult relationship with sugar and are open to a stricter reduction or elimination.
#4 Temporary Sweetness Fast
Taste buds change. In fact, they change every couple of weeks. If someone really wants to re-wire their relationship with sugar, I recommend doing a 2-week sweetness fast that ends up being a 5-week project altogether (including the re-introduction stages).
Notice: I didn’t say “sugar” fast. I said “sweetness” fast.
For two weeks, try to only consume savory flavors. Have eggs for breakfast, and things like nuts, hardboiled eggs, or rice cakes for snacks.
Although smell is a huge part of taste (as well as the conditioned preferences for certain foods), taking three weeks to let your taste buds redevelop their sensitivity to sweetness is very helpful. This allows sweet tastes to literally taste sweeter when you introduce them.
- In the first week after the fast, reintroduce whole fruits as snacks.
- Then, in the second week after the fast, reintroduce stevia and monk fruit.
- Then, in the third week after the fast, reintroduce actual added sugars in controlled ways – having an easy-to-control single serving of something sweet.
This isn’t a permanent fix for sugar cravings, but it’s a great experiment that you can do periodically to re-condition your taste to appreciate sweetness more, and to grasp the difference between preferences and needs. We need to eat, but we don’t need sugar. Diversifying your eating portfolio can help you make the habit of keeping your sugar intake well under 100 calories per day.
If you want structure/accountability in doing this, get in touch.
#5 Re-Train Your Triggers
Finally, this tip is entirely behavioral.
Right now, make a list of triggers that often lead to overeating on sugar. Things on your list might include:
- A stressful day at work
- A tiring evening with your kids before they go to bed
- A fight with your spouse
- Feeling tired
- Feeling depressed
- Feeling guilty
- Watching TV at night
- Having a tempting sugary snack around (i.e. a candy bowl or platter of pastries at work)
The secret of dealing with triggers is that you often can’t avoid them. They tend to be woven into your life. What I recommend is having a “Plan A” for your worst triggers – an alternate behavior that replaces a sugary snack or beverage.
For example, if one of your triggers is having a tiring evening before your kids go to bed, then you could make a plan for a behavior that you will do once your kids go to bed. It can even be a different snack, as long as it’s not your sugary snack. Your plan would look like this:
“When my kids go to bed, I will have a Siggi’s yogurt with fresh raspberries mixed in.”
“When my kids go to bed, I will call my friend Lucy to catch up on our week.”
“When my kids to go bed, I will get on the treadmill for a 30-minute walk and read on my Kindle.”
The key is that your “Plan A” response to your trigger is an action, not a non-action. For example, it shouldn’t be:
“When my kids go to bed, I will not open the bag of chocolate-covered pretzels.”
Non-action plans are incredibly unhelpful, and often lead us to focus on what we are not doing – i.e. what we are “missing”! So make sure that your action plan really is an action – something physical that will get your body doing something other defaulting to your habit of reaching for a comfort snack.
Out of these five suggestions, what strategy (or combination of strategies) do you think you will try? What will be most helpful to you?