Cravings are one of the biggest problems people face when trying to lose weight and keep it off or simply eat better to support their health. Cravings have many facets, but there are some foundational steps you can take to stop sugar cravings in their tracks.
The first step is to avoid getting overly hungry. To do this, it’s important to eat enough protein and eat balanced meals spread throughout the day. Protein is the most satiating nutrient. It provides a hormonal effect that tells your brain you are full. Consuming meals balanced with protein, plants and healthy fats spread out every 3-5 hours means you aren’t going too long without eating, which very frequently leads to excessive hunger.
To do this, you may want to practice planning your meals in advance; start by jotting down the night before what you plan to eat the next day. This takes spontaneity out of the equation and allows you to eat a better balance of meals each day.
The second step is to know your triggers. We all have different reasons for why we experience cravings. If you aren’t truly hungry at the time of a craving, it’s likely that there is something underlying.
Some common triggers include lack of sleep, inadequate hydration, excessive stress, emotional states (sad, lonely, etc.) or simply having a particular food within eyesight. Start to become aware of when your cravings happen, where you are, who’s with you and what may have preceded the cravings. The more specific you can be, the better. Then, once you understand where your cravings come from, you can develop a plan to avoid or modify those triggers.
A great first step is to modify your environment. If you’re constantly craving sweets after dinner at home, start by removing those foods from your house. This will force you to investigate your cravings further now that the food is gone. Are you tired and simply need to go to sleep? Are you overly stressed and looking for a way to wind down? It’s important to get to the root of the craving to find a solution.
The third step is to slow down. Slowing down and becoming more aware of your experience is called mindfulness. Practicing mindfulness is another solution to avoid known craving triggers. If you commonly eat standing over the kitchen sink, it’s unlikely that you’re being very mindful of your meal.
You may want to set some boundaries for yourself around meals and snacks. Practice mindful eating by eating only while seated at a table free from distractions. Turn off the TV, phone or tablet and simply focus on the meal or snack in front of you. Even if it’s something sweet, you might find that once you become more mindful of the eating experience you can enjoy it more and not desire the sweet food so often. You might even find that once you slow down, you don’t enjoy it as much as you’d thought.
Now, you don’t need to be totally sugar-free your entire life to have a healthy diet, but minimizing it as much as possible is important. Sugar is non-nutritive (meaning it doesn’t provide any real nutritional value) and is known to provoke inflammation in the body. When you do have a craving for something sweet, consider indulging yourself with a healthier option such as 70% or greater cacao dark chocolate, a date filled with almond butter rolled in coconut flakes or a bowl of berries with a dollop of whipped cream (coconut if dairy-free).
Jean Larson is a registered dietitian at Essentia Health.