Here are 10 simple tips to conquer sugar and food addiction and cravings.
Start by cutting added sugar.
Cutting added sweeteners is an obvious place to start – cutting granulated sugar and processed foods and beverages that contain high-fructose corn syrup. Some of you who are especially sensitive to sweets may also benefit from cutting back on honey, maple syrup, agave nectar, and molasses – but this, as always, varies person to person. And good news -- you don’t need to worry for now about the sugars that are a natural part of fruit and vegetables. Most people don’t overeat these naturally occurring sugars because the fiber fills them up.
And know that this doesn’t have to be forever! Try eliminating all added sugars for just one month, then add back the ones you miss the most.
Add in more nutritious options.
“Adding in” is a useful strategy because it’s not focused on what you can’t have. This technique can naturally help you cut down on less nutritious foods. Some simple ways to add in more nutritious options – and reduce sugar in the process – are to:
Drink water instead of soda.
Eat fresh fruits and vegetables instead of more sugary foods.
Swap foods with questionable health claims on the package for homemade versions.
Snack on simple whole foods, such as nuts, fresh fruit or popcorn.
Eat dark leafy greens in place of refined carbohydrates.
Include naturally sweeter foods, like roasted vegetables, to help you feel less deprived.
And, swap mindless eating for healthier pastimes, such as self-care and relationships.
Avoid as much packaged food as possible.
“Crowding out” is another useful strategy. Pre-packaged food is where most added sugars hide. So, try eating food that doesn’t come in a package! Sugar is added to many pantry staples, such as chicken stock, soup, tomato sauce, salami, smoked salmon, tortillas, and crackers. Educate and empower yourself to read nutrition labels when you go shopping, compare various brands, and choose foods with the least added sugar. Some nutrition labels even have “added sugar” listed so you can distinguish between naturally-occurring sugars and those that were added.
The goal is to make slow and steady changes. If you’re accustomed to a convenient grab-and-go lifestyle you may not find it practical to ditch all processed foods at once – so start where you are. If you do eat pre-packaged food, here are two numbers to use as a guide in reading labels: 5 & 10:
5, meaning less than 5 ingredients on the food label
and 10, meaning less than 10 grams of sugar per serving. And a bonus for more than 10 grams of protein per serving.
Also, beware that even some so-called “healthy” foods aren’t really healthy at all. It’s always important to read nutrition labels so that you won’t be fooled by marketing claims. Many granola bars are packed with added sugars. The same goes for fruit-flavored yogurts. And, don’t kid yourself about those fancy coffee drinks: They’re more like a milkshake than a cup of coffee.
Slow down on sweetened beverages.
While we’re talking about packaged foods, let’s also talk about beverages in bottles and cans. It’s usually best to just steer clear of most of them. Sweetened beverages by far are the biggest source of added sugar in the American diet – 47% according to the Federal Government. Soda, sweetened sports drinks, energy drinks, and sweetened iced teas are essentially flavored, liquefied sugar. One 16-ounce bottle of cola has 52 grams of sugar. That’s more added sugar than most adults should consume in an entire day!
But, don’t be fooled by fruit juice either! Even real fruit juice is high in easily-absorbed sugar. Eating an entire orange is not the same as drinking a glass of orange juice. Many fruit juices have as much sugar as a soda, so read labels on fruit juices, too.
To crowd out a soda habit, try shifting to seltzer, club soda, or sparkling water. It turns hydration into a small treat that’s still calorie-free. Some brands now have as many as 20 different flavors, all without added sugar. If they’re not sweet enough at first, add a dash of fruit juice to them, and eventually cut back on the amount you add.
Don’t confuse your body with artificial sweeteners.
Avoid “fake” highly-processed foods whenever possible. Eating a whole-foods diet that has a low-glycemic load and is rich in phytonutrients is a healthier strategy. Some people may struggle going cold turkey from all sweeteners. For those who struggle, a little stevia or monk fruit might help with the transition away from sweetness. One strategy is to cut in half the amount of sugar and/or sweetener used until your taste buds adjust to none at all. Some people find that adding in whole fruit, nut butters, and healthy fats helps to ease them through the transition.
Track what you eat and how it makes you feel.
Here’s an opportunity to start learning from your own body’s experience with various foods. Write down how you feel at two different times – 20 minutes and 2 hours after each meal. Twenty minutes gives you information about the impact of the food on your blood sugar, and two hours helps you see which foods keep you satisfied. Your body will tell you what’s right for you, if only you listen to it.
Start your day with a healthy breakfast.
When I conquered my sugar addiction, I found it was easiest to tackle one meal at a time. Starting with breakfast can help set up your day for success. When you wake up, your blood sugar is low, and a healthy breakfast helps stabilize you for the rest of the day.
Some people are resistant to eating breakfast. For them, I like to point to research from the National Weight Control Registry, which tracks the habits of successful weight loss maintainers. Their research shows that 78% of the people who lost more than 30 pounds and kept it off for more than a year ate breakfast every day. A helpful rule of thumb is to eat within an hour of getting up and to include a good protein source in your meal.
Many breakfast foods that sound as if they’re healthy are, in fact, filled with sugar. Some yogurts have more sugar than any other ingredient. And, some kinds of granola have more sugar per serving than sweetened cereals typically marketed to children. As Gary Taubes, author of The Case Against Sugar says, “Breakfasts have become ‘lower-fat versions of dessert.’”
In much of the world, breakfast is a savory meal, not a sweet one. Here are some ideas to try:
Plain oatmeal. Add fresh fruit, nuts, or cinnamon for flavor.
Home-made granola. Try making your own so you can keep the sugar content low.
Scrambled or fried eggs
A handful of nuts
Vegetables, like spinach, carrots, and sweet potatoes
And even soups!
Practice daily self-care.
Practicing self-care every day is beneficial in many ways. It can be as simple as lighting a candle or having a cup of tea. These small ways of honoring yourself can reduce stress, distract you from cravings, and boost your happy brain chemicals. Keep a list of your favorite self-care activities so that you can easily choose a simple swap from eating sweets and carbs to doing something good for yourself.
Exercise to increase happy brain chemicals.
Exercise has a positive impact on all three of the happy brain chemicals: Dopamine, serotonin, and endorphins. It’s the one common element that improves all three. Again, meet yourself where you are. The key to exercise is finding what works for YOU. As the saying goes, “The best exercise is the one that you will do!” Walking is a great way to start. In my case, walking an hour a day was all it took to conquer my sugar addiction and maintain a 52-pound weight loss for more than 13 years.
Being in community and connected with others is important to our physical and emotional health. Social connections are critical to our health. Ask family and friends for their support. Chances are, they will benefit, too. One great community for connecting with other health-minded people is the Institute for Integrative Nutrition, where I received my training.
As you can see, these simple steps can help you crowd out sugar and junk food – one step at a time.