10 steps to fewer sugar cravings
Are you someone who can’t stop eating sugar, once you start? Are you plagued with constant food cravings, especially for sweets or refined carbohydrates, such as pasta, bread or potato chips?
I understand! I was a compulsive sugar addict for over 20 years, as well as having 20 years of eating disorders (including bulimia, sugar addiction, body dysmorphia, and binge eating disorder.) My journey with sugar was a profound wrestling match. Today, it is a wrestling match that I value for how it helped me grow, face the holes in my being, and discover myself.
If you’re looking for help with sugar, here are some tips to begin your journey. You may also want to explore this free video course on finding healing with sugar. For more help, please read on for a beginner’s ten steps:
Here are ten steps to heal your sugar addiction:
1. Add self care
Before you attempt to eliminate anything from your life – even something painful, such as sugar bingeing – it’s important to add to your life, so that you are operating from an overflow, not a deficit. Eliminating sugar will create a vacuum; better to fill it with something nourishing – self love and self care – than something that is hurtful. Adding self care helps you feel nourished, resilient, capable, and strong.
Try this shift: instead of eliminating your sugar habit, try shifting your focus and energy to something that isn’t related to sugar, to something that feeds you. This could be a hobby, an activity that connects you with others, or doing something that out with your community. These things nourish connection, beauty, pleasure and relaxation – what sugar gives in a shorthand, but ultimately, unsatisfying way.
2. Keep your blood sugar stable
Eat breakfast, eat protein with every meal or snack, eat low GI foods, and eat at regular intervals. Why? All of these things will stabilize your blood sugar, so that your moods and energy are at an even keel. Much of the time, I craved sugar because I was hungry (I was always dieting because I was chronically unhappy with my weight). Eat enough so that you feel satisfied, and regularly enough so that you feel stable, and you won’t crave as much junk. As this is not my area of expertise, you can learn more about what and how to eat from the sugar addiction reading list. Try the work of Mark Hyman, I Quit Sugar’s Sarah Wilson, and Diane Sanfilippo (who offers a Paleo approach) for different approaches to low sugar eating. For help with traditional foods cooking, try the Traditional Cooking School.
3. Treat yourself like you’re in detox
The first week of sugar abstinence can be uncomfortable, when the cravings are at their most powerful. Be kind to yourself: this is not the time to tackle a large project, to implement lots of changes, or to work overtime. Why do people go to a spa when they’re detoxing? Because they need extra support. Likewise, give yourself extra support.
Go to bed earlier. Take naps. Cook simple meals (and don’t make the same mistake I did: don’t cook meals for your family that have ingredients in them that you are trying not to eat.) Use exercise to support you – walking, yoga, and more. Call on others for support and encouragement.
4. Don’t focus on weight loss
While weight loss can be a natural consequence of giving up sugar, please don’t make it your focus. It’s better to channel your energy towards one goal at a time. So put aside your weight loss goals for now and focus your energy on healing your sugar addiction. Then, after you’ve found healing with sugar, you can decide how you want to approach any extra weight you’d like to lose.
Weight loss is often a pleasant, natural side effect of taking loving care of your body and freeing yourself from food addiction. In my experience, making it the focus puts too much pressure on your tender heart to lose weight quickly and easily – which can lead to a binge/restrict/binge/restrict cycle with sugar.
5. Know your true value
While yes, you may struggle with a compulsive or obsessive relationship with sugar and while, yes, you may turn to sugar to self soothe, manage stress, or numb out, it’s not who you are. It’s just a coping mechanism: how you learned to care for yourself when life felt painful, overwhelming or scary. This is probably something you learned when you were very small. Overeating or bingeing on sugar is not a character flaw. It’s simply a form of self protection, how you’ve cared for your human vulnerability.
If you use sugar to care for your hurts, there’s hope – the story doesn’t end there. Your brain is remarkably malleable – you can retrain your brain and learn new ways of caring for your needs, feelings, emotions, and hurts without sugar.
6. Create a supportive environment
For the first month after I gave up sugar, I asked my husband to hide the few sweet foods we had in the house so that I wouldn’t seek them out and eat them. (He hid them well because I went looking a few times!) I avoided certain aisles in the grocery store, movie theaters, and abstained from any baking. Later on, when I was in the habit of not eating sugar, and no longer physically craving it, I felt stronger – I didn’t have to do these things. I was able to be around sugar without dying for it.
Think of your supportive environment as training wheels. In the beginning, your training wheels give you the safety to try something that feels new and scary. This structure is supportive and helpful. As you get stronger, you take the training wheels off. The same structure may not be necessary anymore. I’ve found this to be true with sugar.
7. Be a detective
Give yourself time to experiment and learn about your unique body. Only you will know what foods make you feel your best.
Use your body as a guinea pig: what foods make you feel good? What foods make you feel badly? How did I learn that dried fruit affects me in the same way that refined sugar does? By observing my body after I ate it. How did I learn that foods like kale, soup, and almonds satisfy my hunger and give me stable moods? By observing my body. My mentor calls this “walking the maze” – we learn by trial and error, by trying one thing, recognizing it doesn’t work, adapting, and trying something new. This approach towards growth is a mercy to yourself and gives lots of room to try, fail, experiment, and make mistakes. It’s a contrast to the approach of finding the best way to eat and then trying to implement it “perfectly” – an approach that fosters stress, rigidity and tension.
8. Reconsider fake sugars
Many people rely on Diet sodas as a “free” sugar substitute, especially when they’re craving something sweet. But in my experience, aspartame, Nutrasweet, Splenda, and even low carb sugar products (protein bars that are “low sugar”) don’t quell sugar cravings, but increase them. For many people, they also bring unpleasant side effects like headaches and stomach aches.
A study at the University of Texas Health Science Center in San Antonio found that a person’s risk for obesity went up a whopping 41% for each daily can of Diet soda. If you’re sugar sensitive, you may consider including “fake sugars” in the sugar category. You can see this list of hidden sources of sugar for more information.
9. Just start over
You don’t have to wait until the next morning, or succumb to the thinking that says, “I’ve blown it; I might as well have some brownies to go with it,” when you slip up and eat sugar. Changing your relationship with sugar can be challenging, as sugar’s ingrained in our holidays, in our meals, in our society.
Be kind to yourself when you mess up. Use loving self talk to care for yourself when you make a mistake – you can tell yourself, “I can handle this.” Or, “Mistakes are how I learn. It’s okay.” Talk to yourself as the most loving friend would talk to you.
If you’re feeling shaky from too much sugar, you might want to eat a bit of protein. If your stomach is bloated and upset, try drinking a cup of mint tea. On an emotional level, it may help to give yourself space – take a walk, call a friend, go outside, go to the library. Do something to change your environment so you can switch gears.
10. Forgive yourself
I felt very ashamed about my sugar addiction. Releasing that shame was like lifting an enormous weight off my psyche. We’re all imperfect. We all cope with life in messy ways. If you have food issues, offer yourself compassion.
Sugar addiction is not a character defect. It’s often due to biology, imprinting, long ingrained habits, our environment and a whole host of other factors – many of which are not in our control. Can you find forgiveness for yourself? Can you see the bigger picture?
When we release the blame – and most of us blame ourselves, and terribly so – we find we can also release the sugar. It creates a spaciousness where we can act differently, where we can respond to sugar in a different way and let go of its hold on us. Forgiveness and compassion are the only way I found peace with sugar and found the courage to change my relationship with it.