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How to Get Rid of Sugar Cravings

One of the questions I’m asked most often by my AnneTheRD nutrition counseling clients is how to get rid of sugar cravings. Often, their sugar cravings come on strong in the afternoon and again after dinner. “I’ve always had a big sweet tooth,” they say.

Looking around on the internet most of the advice around how to get rid of sugar cravings is talk like “just eat healthier and exercise!” or “cut out all processed foods!” or “eat a naturally sweet alternative, like fruit!” Well you know what? Those things don’t really work. Here’s what does.

Feel like sugar is your "weakness"? Here's how to get rid of sugar cravings - without going on a diet. Tips from intuitive eating registered dietitian Anne Mauney of @fannetasticfood

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How to Get Rid of Sugar Cravings

Here’s the deal, guys: it’s not that you have a sweet tooth. It’s just that you are sabotaging yourself. Here are 3 of the biggest culprits for why your “sweet tooth” is raging – and how to stop it.

1) Not getting enough sleep.

I’ve talked about this time and time again on the blog but it’s so important. Several studies have linked lack of sleep and increased calorie intake/weight gain in particular, and the reasoning behind this is based in the mechanisms involved in regulating metabolism and appetite. Sleep is the time when our bodies produce hormones that help control appetite and are necessary for energy production and glucose processing (aka blood sugar regulation). When you’re sleep deprived, the body will increase its production of a stress hormone called cortisol and of insulin, the hormone that regulates glucose processing and promotes fat storage. And have you ever noticed that you’re especially hungry on days you don’t get enough sleep? This is because lack of sleep is associated with lower levels of leptin, a hormone that tells the brain it has had enough food, and higher levels of ghrelin, which stimulates appetite. And guess what you’re usually craving? The sugary stuff, because your brain wants quick energy. Simply making sure you are consistently getting enough sleep makes a HUGE difference in sugar cravings.

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2) Not eating enough earlier in the day.

This is probably the biggest one by far for my clients – if you are underfueling or restricting at breakfast or lunch, then those sugar cravings will come on strong in the afternoon and evening. Make sure that both breakfast and lunch include a mix of carbohydrates (don’t leave it out or you’ll crave it even more later), protein (really important for making meals satisfying), and healthy fat (nuts, seeds, avocado, etc. – important for keeping you full longer than 3 seconds).

For example, a typical first half of the day of meals from a client dealing with sugar cravings in the afternoon/evening might be cereal and almond milk for breakfast and a salad for lunch. Then, sugar cravings start in the afternoon and continue after dinner. Here’s why: cereal + almond milk is essentially only carbs – no protein or healthy fat. That means that you’re getting a blood sugar rush and subsequent crash (because protein and fat slow down the digestion and absorption of glucose aka carbs) and are likely hungry again in an hour. To make that more satisfying, try adding nuts and seeds on top – this will add healthy fat and a little protein, too. Don’t skimp on the serving – the extra nutrients will go a long way with keeping you full.

Then for lunch, add a carb to the salad (brown rice, wheat berries, barley, sweet potato, and quinoa are great on salads, or have a piece of bread or crackers on the side) and make sure there is some protein (beans, tofu, meat/fish, etc.) on there, too. And don’t forget the healthy fat! Add some avocado if you’re into it and use a full fat salad dressing – not fat free or low fat – on top.

Here are some more tips:

perfect microwave banana oatmeal

3) Waiting until you get too hungry to eat.

If you wait until you are ravenous before eating, it’s MUCH harder to enjoy your food mindfully and to make rational decisions. Your body interprets hunger as a form of stress, and our reaction is usually to grab a quick source of energy – like something sweet. “Willpower” has nothing to do with it – you are literally up against biology – but eating BEFORE you are ravenous does.

Start to listen and pay attention more to your hunger cues, and aim to eat when you are about a 3 on a hunger scale of 1 to 5 (with 1 being not hungry at all and 5 being super “hangry”). That way, you can slow down, ask yourself what you want, and calmly eat it – no sweet tooth/hungry panic involved. See also: How to Eat Intuitively | A Guide to Mindful Eating.

Any other tips to share on this topic of how to get rid of sugar cravings? We’d all love to hear them!

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Comments

  1. 1

    Anne, thank you so much for being a voice of reason in the fitness blog world. So many times I hear people talk about sugar cravings as if it’s a simple matter of will-power. This explanation leaves many feeling hopeless that they can ever eat healthier or lose weight, because they just can’t seem to help themselves. Taking care of your base needs first often makes eating healthier a no-brainer. Getting enough sleep, calories, and activity are so important, but so many bloggers gloss right over those and head straight for the protein powder recipes and “no days off” mantras. Your advice is always so reasonable, doable, and scientific! I love your attitude on how to eat and how to make exercise part of a lifestyle.

    • 2

      The whole “will power” thing makes me so sad – it really does make people feel like THEY are the reason they are failing, which makes the situation worse because that can lead to a lot of yo-yo dieting, guilt around food, binging, etc. It’s not us failing – it’s the diets/our approach! Thank you for this kind comment — happy to spread the message of moderation. :)

      • 3

        YES! Gosh is this true! To think I lived this way for SO LONG before realizing that I didn’t have to feel like I “failed” or “caved to willpower”. The guilt over eating the smallest treat during the day is no longer there. Freedom from food is an amazing feeling! Love seeing more and more people in the healthy blog world giving such a sound message!

  2. 4

    This is great! I haven’t been sleeping well lately and can definitely feel the effects when it comes to cravings! Having a satisafying breakfast and lunch are what help me the most!

  3. 5

    What worked for me is cutting out all refined sugar and other simple refined grain carbs completely cold turkey. Zero sugar other than fruit here and there. I also increased my healthy fats. I went through a “detox” phase (headaches, etc) but once I emerged on the other side a few days later, my sugar cravings were gone. It’s hard to get through the headaches and it’s easy to cave into the cravings but it was really helpful in the end. For me, the cravings come back as soon as I start eating refined sugar and simple, refined carbs again.

  4. 6
    Charlsie N says:

    This came at the perfect time. I have been struggling a lot lately with wanting sugar every single day and I haven’t always been that way. I noticed that Sunday night I slept a great deal and never had a craving for sugar yesterday. I’m really trying to get back on a good sleep schedule and eating healthy. Thanks for the reminder!

  5. 7

    these are all so very true. i struggle a lot with after dinner, i always want a sweet treat after dinner, but i’ve found that if i just wait long enough after dinner, then it’s basically bed time and i dont want to eat that close to sleeping! I just have to trick myself hahaha.

  6. 8

    Thanks for this great post, Anne! I’m always telling my patients that if they don’t eat enough good quality, nutritious foods during the day that they are setting themselves up for failure. I always forget to mention sleep though- it’s so important and it seems that most of my patients aren’t getting enough!

  7. 9

    For me it makes a big difference if I get enough protein throughout the day.

  8. 11

    Yep. Sleep is the key player here for me! Not preparing protein rich snacks is also an issue. If I am hungry but didn’t pack a snack, a sugary item is the most likely to be close by!

  9. 12

    For me, I notice if I’m not eating enough whole foods (fruits, veggies & protein) I notice I’m just constantly craving sweets all day long. If I keep my food groups in balance I keep the sugar beast at bay.

  10. 13

    I love this! I’m not a big sweets person, but I’ve noticed that the smaller my breakfast is, the more I’ll want sugary things later.

  11. 14

    definitely eat whole foods, and a good amount of healthy fats. adding the healthy fats helped me!

    the only thing i’d have to add, is to eat the healthy, homemade, worthwhile stuff. if you want a treat, put the labor in yourself, you’ll appreciate it more :) you’ll also know & be able to control what ingredients are in it :)

    • 15

      I was actually JUST thinking I should have added that into the post – great minds think alike! Totally agree. If you’re having a treat, have the real thing, not a processed/diet imitation. :)

  12. 16

    Love this! So helpful. I struggle with a “sweet tooth”… but more often than not, it’s just boredom at work and knowing there’s free candy in the kitchen… :)

  13. 17

    Oh gosh, I get terrible sugar cravings! And yes, mostly right after lunch, and in the evenings before bed. The lack of sleep is a likely culprit for me (interesting that those two times of day are often when I am also feeling most tired). I’ve had to be good about just NOT buying the cookies/candy/etc. If they aren’t in the house, I’m not going to eat them…it’s that simple! (Now getting my husband to stop buying them…there’s the problem. haha.)

  14. 18

    I have a powerful sweet tooth. I crave something sweet in the afternoon. I wish I could have some warm apple crisp with vanilla ice cream right now, but I’m going to settle for an apple.

  15. 19

    Great post!! I also always ask my clients about hydration and explain how dehydration can impact accuracy of hunger signals or “cravings”.

  16. 20

    Excellent tips, Anne. I know that I crave sweets, because I just love the taste. I don’t need them, so I try not to eat too many during the week. But I totally agree with your points, because I’ve found on days that I’m extra tired, I’m much more feeling the want of sugar!

  17. 21

    Great post! Thanks! :D

  18. 22
    Roadrunner says:

    Great tips, thanks!

  19. 23

    These are great reminders and they have really helped me a lot in the past! Right now, my biggest problem is stress eating sweets. When I get really stressed, I can’t get the idea of sweets out of my head. But keeping these tips in mind will really help me battle the physical while I work through the mental!

  20. 24

    Great advice! My dad has been struggling with sugar cravings for a while now, and I really need to show him this article because he isn’t getting enough sleep!

  21. 25

    Agreed! The sleep and hormones are so important! I remember sitting in biochem class (at UNC!) and thinking, “Oh wow, that’s why that happens. That makes so much sense!” Sometimes a craving won’t go away until I give in – I don’t think there’s anything wrong with having what you’re craving so you’re not depriving yourself and your craving won’t continue. (You aren’t a “failure” by giving in!) Otherwise, you may try to satisfy it with all these other foods, which aren’t satisfying it and are just piling on the calories. For me though, protein is super important to controlling blood sugar spikes and cravings!

    • 26

      Totally agree! If a craving is a true craving and not just a symptom of lack of sleep/stress/not eating enough real food (protein, fat, veggies), it definitely makes sense to just have it, enjoy it, and move on. :)

  22. 27

    Great tips, Anne! I’m a Registered Dietitian as well, and just have one additional piece to add. I definitely have to say that people in general are taking in more sugar than necessary. Foods being marketed and sold on grocery store shelves contain more sugar, including non-sweet or dessert type items like salad dressings, sauces, crackers, etc, so often people are unknowingly consuming sugar without even knowing. However, if we are eating nutritious, balanced, mostly homemade foods, I think it is also really important to include some foods once in a while that we would really like. Deprivation and restriction can backfire if we truly don’t treat ourselves once in a while. With that being said, a treat should be something we really want (a homemade baked item of reasonable size or glass or two of wine) and not just eating something sugary because it is there (leftover halloween candy! box of cookies in the office!). I always think of my grandparents who have maintained their health and body weight. My grandma always makes everything from scratch, including bread and baked goods. For them having a cookie (1 Tablespoon in size) or small dessert after dinner is an almost daily occurrence.
    One last point to make is that I work in pediatrics, and I think it is extremely important that children don’t grow up with the mindset of healthy vs unhealthy foods, or learn to restrict/diet from parents. All foods should be somewhat normalized and parents need to act as role models- role modelling healthy eating with treats occasionally too.

    • 28

      Totally agree with all this! Especially the part about kids not growing up with good/bad food mentality. So important!

    • 29

      I’m a little bit confused here. You mention getting out of the mindset of restricting/dieting and thinking in terms of healthy vs unhealthy food, but you also say ppl eat too much sugar and talk about “small” desserts and eating treats “occasionally”. Isn’t that just another way of saying “sweets are unhealthy and you should restrict them”? I can’t quite get my head around how being concerned with your health and an approach to food where you basically eat however you want without any rules or restrictions can be compatible, and it almost sounds here like you’re having trouble getting the two to mesh, too.

  23. 30
    Amelia @i_heart_kale says:

    I completely agree with the first comment on this thread. Thank you for pinpointing the direct reasons as to WHY and not ‘oh, just eat this’ or ‘you don’t have any willpower’ explanations. Sleep is so underrated! I find that making sure each meal is balanced (as you explained) plus being hydrated, cutting out caffeine after 2pm, and truly being mindful and present, help with tackling sugar cravings. I recently attended a seminar presented by Dr. Goehler on the Gut Brain and understanding the role between it and stress, appetite, digestion, and mood. There is so much more to the equations (hormones, neurotransmitters, etc) than ‘willpower’. Dr. Goehler is based out of Virginia, so if you ever get the chance to attend, I highly recommend it! (CPE was just a bonus!)

    • 31

      Awesome — I’ll have to look up Dr. Goehler — haven’t heard of him/her before! Would love to attend more in-person seminars, so helpful and interesting. Let me know if you hear of any other ones that are relevant and in the area! :)

      • 32
        [email protected]_heart_kale says:

        Here is a link to her blog if you have a spare moment and want to find out more. http://evidence-based-wellness.com/blog-2/
        :)

  24. 34

    Got lucky enough to find your blog via Kath eats :) I wholeheartedly embrace my sweet tooth! I am not an RD but a fitness nutritionist, whole foodie, exercise junkie, certified PT. I have had insomnia for years. I agree poor sleep patterns will unhinge my nutrition. I do make everything from scratch including my sweet treats and I am too old to feel guilty! At 54, I am healthy, strong and fit and, I earn my treats :)

  25. 36

    I’ve always had a sweet tooth. As I began to realize what refined sugar does to my health, and began to cut back, my sweet tooth would tempt me and often win. Frequently, giving in to sugar started a craving for more sugar. However, I now find that licorice root tea is naturally sweet and always satisfies my sweet tooth with leaving me craving more.

  26. 38

    I recently quit sugar after deciding I wanted to get fit and healthy. I’ve been around a month now having gone cold turkey. It wasn’t easy at first, but when I started adding loads of protein to all my meals, I found that it’s way easier to say no to sugar now. I fully expected the cravings to come back at me full force, which they did at the start, but now I can’t even stand a piece of cake, and I’ve known to have a sweet tooth my entire life. Protein is just the bomb! :)

  27. 39

    This was so helpful- thank you! This is something I constantly struggle with.

  28. 40

    This is interesting. I’ve had a lot of upper GI issues (persistent reflux, heartburn) over the past 3 years, and recently started working with a nutritionist. No gluten, wheat, corn, soy, dairy, sugar . . . your basic clean eating. Slowly but surely I think I’m getting some relief but hard to pinpoint why . . . until today when I unknowingly consumed almond milk that contained cane sugar, and a few other hidden sugars that I wasn’t watching for (Teavana white peppermint tea – who knew!) The nutrition route has been helpful but he hasn’t done a great job explaining stuff to me. The connection between sleep, stress, hormones, and cravings really makes a lot of sense. My breakfasts and lunches could stand some improvement and I’m gonna be more diligent about the sleep thing (although it’s the stomach that often wakes me up at night). Thanks for this helpful post.

    • 41

      I’d encourage you to embrace a more balanced approach, if you’re open to it — often cutting out sugar (and gluten/wheat, or other things) just leads to stronger cravings of those things down the line. Just something to think about!

      • 42

        Thanks for your reply. Yes, I imagine being able to handle it (and most of these things) again, in moderation, once I get things back in balance. The detox has been helpful in recognizing some sensitivities and give things a chance to heal.

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  2. […] breakfast can actually set you up for overeating and sugar cravings later in the day. (See also: How to Get Rid of Sugar Cravings.) Plus, making a healthy breakfast doesn’t have to take all morning – or even more than […]

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