How to beat sugar cravings

Tips to reduce your intake of the sweet stuff
Published December 14, 2020

BodIf you crave sugary stuff, you know how strong those cravings can be, and how tough it can be to ignore them. So how do you even go about cutting down the amount of sugar you consume?

Tiffany Cruikshank, founder of Yoga Medicine® and teacher on Yoga Medicine Online, sees two ways you can do it.

“The first is to go cold turkey and know you’ll feel much better after a week,” she says. “The second is to ween yourself over time with healthier sugars and allow your palate to slowly adjust along the way.”

The second option, she says, takes longer, but both methods work well.

“The other main thing to consider – that I can’t stress enough – is supporting your blood sugar,” Cruikshank says. “During the process it is crucial that you eat enough fats and proteins to support your blood sugar, which is such a critical component of our mood and energy level. I often give patients a healthy protein powder to take through the day, especially for those with busy schedules.”

The biggest challenge she sees when people are trying to cut out sugar is that they end up not eating all day, then crashing and giving into cravings because they’re exhausted and starving.

A word on substitutes

You may have heard of or even tried sugar substitutes, and if you’re trying to cut down on sugar, they may help, but generally a balanced diet is the cure.

“Stevia and xylitol can be a helpful support when needed,” Cruikshank says, “but the real issue is the cravings and energy level, which often boils down to eating enough good fats to support blood sugar. Our bodies are smart and when we don’t have a steady energy source, they crave an instant energy fix – and sweets are just that. Often the best way to overcome sugar cravings is to cut it out for a few weeks. I recommend going into it knowing the first week is going to be the worst. After that, most people get a renewed energy that will carry them through. And many find a whole new perspective on food.”

It gets easier

You may have heard people say that they stop craving sugary things after they’ve been eating in a more balanced way for a while – and while it might sound hard to believe, it’s true.

“Most of the foods we eat are so overstimulating to our taste buds that we start to need that intense flavour and become addicted to it,” Cruikshank says. “I believe a big part of the process is adapting your taste buds to more nuanced flavours. Once you’ve cut out sugars for a couple weeks, you start to appreciate flavours you might not have tasted before. This effect definitely builds over time as well. As you support a more level blood sugar, you find more even energy levels and mood, which ultimately creates the staying power of what you’re doing.”

Find the root

For registered dietitian Cassie Christopher, reducing sugar intake is all about getting to the root of the craving.

She says the root of sugar cravings is often either hormonal or emotional.

“Oftentimes, hormonal sugar cravings are due to an imbalance of the stress hormone cortisol and/or [a] blood sugar imbalance,” Christopher says. “Skipping meals and eating meals without protein or fat can cause these hormone-fuelled cravings.”

Making sure your meals combine protein and fibre can help put things more in balance, she says.

And if the root of your craving is emotional, it could also be related to a stress hormone imbalance, so this strategy may work for that, too.

But “for true freedom from emotional sugar cravings,” Christopher adds, “you also need to let yourself feel your emotions. Emotional eating is often done to numb or avoid having to feel an emotion, and when emotions are avoided, they stick around making you feel worse. In this case, the only way out is through. I recommend my clients use mindfulness-based self-compassion techniques to learn to feel their emotions without needing food to comfort.”

And, Christopher adds, “If you don't believe you can safely feel your emotions, or you would [like] more intensive support around this, reach out to a licensed mental health counselor for strategies.”

With all of this information in mind, here are three more proactive tips to combat sugar cravings from Abby Vichill, a registered dietitian with FWDfuel Sports Nutrition:

  • Eat regularly: Vichill suggests eating meals every three to four hours, and never skipping them. “Doing so will drive hunger later in the day, causing the body to crave the most bioavailable nutrient, sugar,” she explains.
  • Start your day with protein: “Many common breakfast foods are carbohydrates-dominant, causing a blood sugar response from the start of the day. This will result in a subsequent crash, causing sugar cravings to creep in. Start with some scrambled eggs in addition to your granola bar, add crushed nuts or nut butter to your oatmeal, or protein powder to your fruit smoothie.”
  • Stay hydrated: If your water intake is low, Vichill explains, your body can crave sweet things like fruit in an effort to get more water.